CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story suggested that both McCain campaign represenatives quoted in the story had said that their candidate would discourage Israeli-Syrian talks. In fact, while Max Boot did voice skepticism about whether the talks would succeed, he says he was only speaking out against U.S. engagement with Syria.
LEESBURG, Va. (JTA) – A McCain administration would discourage Israeli-Syrian talks and would not prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
That was the collective message delivered over the weekend by two McCain advisers – Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Richard Williamson, the Bush administration’s special envoy to Sudan – during a retreat hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy at the Lansdowne Resort in rural Virginia.
One of Barack Obama’s representatives – Richard Danzig, a Clinton administration Navy secretary – said the Democratic presidential candidate would take the opposite approach on both issues.
In an interview with the Atlantic magazine over the summer, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) insisted that in his presidency he would serve as the chief negotiator in the peace process. But at the retreat, Boot said pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian deal would not be a top priority in a McCain administration, adding that several crises across the globe require more urgent attention.
The McCain adviser called the Bush administration’s renewed efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian talks a mistake. He also cast American engagement with Syria as potentially betraying the stake that the United States has invested in Lebanon’s fragile democracy.
Boot said the decision over whether to relinquish the Golan Heights was Israel’s to make, but added that “John McCain is not going to betray the lawfully elected government of Lebanon.” In an interview with JTA, Boot said he was skeptical that Israel’s current talks with Syria would succeed in peeling the country away from Iran’s sphere of influence.
Williamson said it is not the job of the United States to dictate policy to Israel when it comes to Syria, but added that a McCain administration would look to persuade officials in Jerusalem.
“Israel should not be dictated to in dealing with Syria or dealing with Lebanon,” he said, addressing Israeli and some pro-Israel resentment in recent years at pressure by the Bush administration to stifle such negotiations. “Hopefully as friends they will listen to us.”
That Williamson was endorsing such views at all signified how closely the McCain campaign has allied itself with neo-conservatives. A veteran of the Reagan and first Bush administrations, Williamson in other circumstances would be more closely identified with Republican “realists” who have vociferously eschewed the grand claims of neo-conservatives to a new American empire.
Yet here he was echoing their talking points on several fronts.
McCain until the last year or so has kept feet in both the realist and neo-conservative camps. The session at Lansdowne appeared to suggest that the Republican presidential nominee has chosen sides, opting for policies backed by the outgoing Bush administration and its neo-conservative foreign policy architects.
Both McCain advisers insisted, however, that their candidate was synthesizing the two camps as a “realistic idealist.”
McCain would be a “leader who will press for more liberal democratic change ” and “is realistic about the prospects of diplomacy and just as importantly its limits,” said Boot, echoing what has become the twin walking and talking points of neo-conservatism: a muscular foreign policy and an affinity for promoting democracy.
Surrogates for Obama, an Illinois senator, re-emphasized their commitment to stepping up U.S. diplomatic efforts. Danzig said an Obama administration would revive the idea of a special envoy for pursuing a peace deal.
The “appropriate level of presidential engagement requires that the United States designate someone whose energies are predominantly allocated to this,” Danzig said.
Someone like Tony Blair, the former British prime minister now leading efforts to build a Palestinian civil society, might fit the bill, he added.
Surrogates from both campaigns appeared to agree on the need to further isolate Iran until it stands down from its suspected nuclear weapons program. Each side emphasized that it would keep the military option on the table and enhance sanctions.
It was clear that each campaign had devoted a great deal of attention to the issue. Officials from both campaigns signed on to a Washington Institute for Near East Policy policy paper this summer that called for closer U.S.-Israel coordination on Iran, borne out of concerns that Israel’s leadership was getting closer to contemplating the option of a strike.
Williamson and Richard Clarke, the former top anti-terrorism official in both the Clinton and current Bush administrations who spoke for Obama, described the near impossibility of taking out a weapons program that is believed to be diffuse and hidden in population centers. Clarke added the possibility of covert action against Iran, without details – a first for either campaign.
The sole difference was over Obama’s pledge not to count out a meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president who has denied the Holocaust and rejected the legitimacy of Israel’s existence.
“What could such a meeting possibly accomplish?” Boot challenged.
Danzig replied that it would make it easier for Obama to rally worldwide support for sanctions.
“These things require a community of nations,” he said.
Danzig cast Obama’s emphasis on sanctions and diplomacy in terms of Israel’s security, a pitch tuned to the Washington Institute’s pro-Israel orientation.
“The threats and dangers are more substantial than they were eight years ago,” he said.
McCain’s advisers attempted to deflect comparisons between McCain and Bush. In trying to turn such comparisons against the Obama campaign, Boot noted that eight years ago he favored “another presidential candidate with not much experience in national security policy” – George W. Bush – “and we’ve seen the implications.”
The Washington Institute crowd, hawkish in its predilections and likelier to favor McCain’s foreign policy, would nonetheless only allow the McCain surrogates to take the character and experience issue so far.
Fred Lafer, the institute’s president emeritus, pressed Boot on why McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a foreign policy novice, as his running mate if he was committed to national security.
Boot said “she has as much” foreign policy experience as Obama, prompting cries of “No!” and “what?”