J Street tries reading Obama’s mind (but forgets to look at his record) (UPDATED)


J Street has sent out a mass e-mail opposing a bipartisan push in Congress for tougher sanctions on Iran. Here’s the relevant passage:

On Iran, the President is promoting tough, direct diplomacy to address concerns over their nuclear program, support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and threats against Israel. The President has made clear that the diplomatic road ahead will be tough — but the chances of success won’t be helped by Congress imposing tight timelines or a new round of sanctions at this moment.

Yet, just this week, the Orwellian-named "Iran Diplomacy Enhancement Act" was introduced in the House — a bill that in reality does nothing to "enhance diplomacy" but instead imposes further sanctions on Iran, directly undercutting the President’s diplomatic message.

The only thing Orwellian here is J Street’s implication that lawmakers are undercutting the Obama administration by pushing for sanctions. Senator/presidential candidate Obama could not have been clearer on this subject: He favored stepped up diplomacy and tougher sanctions — they were two halves of a comprehensive policy that he was marketing as a shift from the Bush administration. Dennis Ross — a top campaign surrogate in the Jewish community who Obama then tapped as the administration’s point man on Iran — was fond of stressing the need for bigger carrots and stronger sticks (and not necessarily in that order).

At a briefing just a few weeks before the election, I asked Ross if once Obama were to reach the White House, would he suddenly come around to President Bush’s point of view, which was that Congress should simply take its cues on sanctions from the administration. Ross’ response: As a negotiator on Israeli-Arab issues, he found it useful to be able to warn interlocutors that the only way to head off tough measures in Congress was to procude solid results at the negotiating table.

And Senator/candidate Obama wasn’t just looking for Congress to take tougher action. His proposed legislation was aimed at making it easier for pension plans to divest from Iran. In other words, his goal was to unleash a growing, grassroots, hard-to-control divestment movement that would serve as a backdrop to negotiations.

It’s always possible that Obama will end up filp-flopping on this issue, now that he is the one sitting in the Oval Office, but until then… J Street may or may not be right that the mostly good cop approach is better than the carrots-and-sticks strategy, but this much is clear: By coming out against sanctions, J Street is the one undermining Obama’s Iran policy.

UPDATE: J Street suggests that I’m the one who’s having problems with the facts, citing this article about the White House coming out against timetables and this one quoting Hillary Clinton saying that diplomatic efforts now could lead to tougher international sanctions down the road. I, in turn, point to this report, which quotes Joe Lieberman as saying Dennis Ross voiced no objections to sanctions legislation and a State Department spokesman saying "We want to do whatever we can to put additional pressure on the [Iranian] government." And, I should add, that Clinton was not necessarily saying that she opposed tougher U.S. sanctions at this time, but simply predicting that diplomacy now would help down the road if tougher international measures are required.

The bottom line: I stand by my main point… Whatever the merits of the substantive policy argument on either side, J Street is unfairly painting its opponents as trying to undercut the Obama administration. This goes back to a point I made during the Gaza war: For an organization that accuses centrist and right-wing groups of name calling and demonizing, J Street should probably be doing more to avoid unfairly caricaturing those that it disagrees with. That said, I may essentially be guilty of the same sin by saying that J Street was undermining Obama.

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