It is no surprise, in theory, that journalistic accounts are often distorted. But it is nevertheless vexing when the distortions involve you. This weekend, I debated Middle Eastern policy at a conference sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in my capacity as a foreign policy adviser to John McCain. I argued opposite Richard Danzig, a foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama. (Later on, Rich Williamson, another McCain adviser, and Richard Clarke, another Obama adviser, also spoke separately.) Here is how Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reported on what transpired:
A McCain administration would discourage Israeli-Syrian peace talks and refrain from actively engaging in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
That was the 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. . . .
Boot called the Bush administration’s renewed efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian talks a mistake.
He also cast Israel’s talks with Syria as betraying the stake that the United States has invested in Lebanon’s fragile democracy.
“John McCain is not going to betray the lawfully elected government of Lebanon,” Boot said.
That distorted account was picked up gleefully by the usual suspects–i.e., leftist bloggers like Josh Marshall and Joe Klein, with Klein gleefully harrumphing “So the neoconservatives know what’s best for Israel better than the Israelis do.”
There’s only one minor problem: I never said what the JTA claims I said. Here is what I actually said regarding the U.S. role in the Israeli-Palestinian process (I’m quoting here from my opening remarks):
John McCain would also try to bring peace for Israel, but he realizes that there can be no lasting settlement until the Palestinians show they are interested in peaceful co-existence.
Later on, I was asked whether John McCain would appoint a special envoy for the peace process. I said I didn’t see a problem with that. But I also said that the McCain administration would not view the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as the most important issue facing the world and would not make it the main focus of its foreign policy–not when other pressing issues such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, China, among others, cry out for attention. Moreover, I noted, even if the Israeli-Palestinian dispute were resolved, it would not solve all the problems of the Middle East. It would, for example, hardly make Al Qaeda give up its terrorism.
As for for the Israeli-Syrian negotiating process, here is what I had to say:
Syria is another one of those countries where Sen. Obama proposes to engage in unconditional presidential summitry. Many in his camp seem to believe that we should end attempts to isolate Syria and instead strike a deal with the Assad regime. . . .
What proponents of a deal with Syria don’t mention is the price we would have to pay-which likely would include the return of the Golan Heights and the betrayal of Lebanon’s democracy movement. And what would we get in return? Some nebulous promise not to support terrorism that Damascus could surreptitiously violate?
It’s up to Israel whether it gives up the Golan, but John McCain is not going to betray the lawfully elected government of Lebanon.
In short, I definitely was not suggesting that the U.S. would nix a possible peace deal between Israel and Syria. In fact, I expressed no opinion at all on the advisability of Israel pursuing talks with Syria; that’s an issue for the Israeli government to decide. All I was saying was that President McCain would not pursue an American deal with Syria if the price were the betrayal of Lebanese democrats. That’s considerably different from what Klein et al. claim, but I don’t suppose they will let the facts stand in the way of their predictably intemperate attacks.