WASHINGTON - In a major address on Middle East policy Monday, Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate for president, pledged to maintain the Bush administration's hard line against Iran and expressed strong scepticism about the ability of the current Palestinian leadership to reach a peace accord with Israel.
McCain, who was speaking at the opening session of the annual policy conference of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), called for much tougher international sanctions against Iran, including a "severe limit on Iranian imports of gasoline" and a "worldwide divestment campaign" directed against companies doing business with the Islamic Republic, as a means of forcing it to freeze its alleged nuclear weapons programme.
And he ridiculed his likely Democratic rival in the November elections, Sen. Barack Obama, for proposing unconditional talks with the Iranian leadership on a range of issues, despite the fact that a new poll just released by the Gallup organisation found that nearly six in 10 U.S. voters, including nearly half of all Republican respondents, believe a U.S.-Iranian summit would be a "good idea".
"...(W)e hear talk of a meeting with the Iranian leadership offered up as if it were some sudden inspiration, a bold new idea that somehow nobody has ever thought of before," he said. "Yet, it's hard to see what such a summit with President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad would actually gain, except an earful of anti-Semitic rants, and a worldwide audience for man who denies one Holocaust and talks before frenzied crowds about starting another."
"Such a spectacle would harm Iranian moderates and dissidents," he went on, "as the radicals and hardliners strengthen their position and suddenly acquire the appearance of respectability."
McCain's remarks were the latest in an ongoing rhetorical tit-for-tat between him and Obama, whose views on engaging Iran without conditions reflects the views of much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, including even two of his key policy advisers, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and neo-conservative thinker, Robert Kagan. They have called for direct talks with Tehran if, for no other reason, than to rally public and international opinion behind the U.S. in any future confrontation.
But, in addressing AIPAC, the most powerful group of the collection of organisations known as the "Israel Lobby", McCain appeared determined to show his agreement with those in Israel and the U.S. Jewish community who believe that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable.
And, while he did not repeat the Bush administration's mantra that "all options", including a military attack, should remain "on the table" in dealing with the alleged threat, he suggested that he would resort to such measures when he focused on the post-Holocaust promise of "never again".
"(W)hen we join in saying 'never again,' that is not a wish, a request, or a plea to the enemies of Israel. It is a promise that the United States and Israel will honour, against any enemy who cares to test us," he declared to enthusiastic applause in the cavernous Washington Convention Centre.
Indeed, just about half of his four-page speech was taken up by Iran, which is also AIPAC's number one priority for the year.
After two and a half days of speeches, including by Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, as well as the top leadership of both parties in Congress, as many as 7,000 members of the group from all over the country will trek up to Capitol Hill to press their lawmakers to quickly approve pending bills in Congress that, if approved, would impose a new set of sweeping unilateral sanctions against Iran and companies that do business with it.
AIPAC includes a wide range of national Jewish groups, such as Americans for Peace Now and Israel Policy forum, that favour engagement by the U.S. -- directly or indirectly -- with a number of Israel's regional foes, including the Palestinian Hamas, Lebanon's Hezbollah, Syria, and even Iran itself.
However, its neo-conservative leadership remains, for the most part, strongly opposed to such a strategy -- in defiance of the current Israeli government, which has itself become increasingly involved in recent weeks in indirect talks with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Damascus.
Indeed, aside from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself, both the plenary and workshop speakers who will address the conference are overwhelmingly dominated by hard-liners both from Israel -- the only high-ranking invitee from the Labour Party, former Deputy Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh, for example, resigned from the party just last week -- and from the U.S.
Speaking immediately after McCain's address, former deputy assistant secretary for the Near East Elizabeth Cheney -- who is also Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter -- deplored Israel's failure "to do what was needed to be done to Hezbollah" in the 2006 war and the Bush administration's failure to enforce "red lines" against Iranian advances in the region. Washington, she declared, must clearly state that if Iranians "don't give up diplomatically (to U.N. demands that it freeze its nuclear programme), they will face military action."
The anti-engagement tone of the conference contrasted strongly with the results of a new poll released by Gallup Monday. Conducted May 19-21, the survey found that two-thirds of the more than 1,000 respondents, including 79 percent of Democrats, 48 percent of Republicans, and 70 percent of Independents, favoured presidential meetings with "leaders of foreign countries considered enemies of the United States".
And, while Iran leads the list of top U.S. enemies in the world, according to the latest poll, 59 percent of respondents said it would be a good idea if the U.S. president met with his counterpart.
"Basically, McCain seems to be stuck in the Bush administration's rut of not finding a way to deal effectively with Iran," said Rand Beers, a former senior counter-terrorism official at the State Department, who has served under four U.S. presidents, including both Bush and his father.
"If you go through his policy proposals, he's basically arguing that Iran ought to surrender before we are prepared to engage them, and, since it is highly unlikely they are about to do that, and since it is unacceptable to John McCain that Iran has nuclear weapons, we are walking down a path toward inevitable conflict...," he said.
While McCain devoted most of his remarks to Iran, he also showed little confidence in the Annapolis process which, he said, awaits a "Palestinian leadership willing and able to deliver peace." He also rejected engagement of Hamas, insisting that "a peace process that places faith in terrorists can never end in peace."
Indeed, the few words he devoted to the prospects for an Arab-Israeli peace settlement -- he omitted all mention of Turkey's ongoing mediation effort between Syria and Israel -- struck at least one expert, Jon Alterman, who heads Middle East studies at the centrist Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) here, as both "shocking" and "strange" given the fact that presidential candidates have historically devoted most of their remarks to the AIPAC conference to that issue.
On Lebanon, McCain said peace would only be possible when there were "no independent militias, no Hezbollah fighters, no weapons and equipment flowing to Hezbollah." He said the U.S. should provide more economic assistance, as well as military aid, to its central government in order to compete with Syria and Iran there.
Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy, and particularly the neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.
© 2008 Inter Press Service