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That Was Then

I thought it would be interesting to go back to then-candidate Barack Obama’s speech to an AIPAC in 2008 forum in 2007 to see what he said then and what agenda he was presenting to the voters. He had this to say about Iran:

Iran’s President Ahmadinejad’s regime is a threat to all of us. His words contain a chilling echo of some of the world’s most tragic history.

Unfortunately, history has a terrible way of repeating itself. President Ahmadinejad has denied the Holocaust. He held a conference in his country, claiming it was a myth. But we know the Holocaust was as real as he 6 million who died in mass graves at Buchenwald, or the cattle cars to Dachau or whose ashes clouded the sky at Auschwitz. We have seen the pictures. We have walked the halls of the Holocaust museum in Washington and Yad Vashem. We have touched the tattoos on loved-ones arms. After 60 years, it is time to deny the deniers.

In the 21 st century, it is unacceptable that a member state of the United Nations would openly call for the elimination of another member state. But that is exactly what he has done. Neither Israel nor the United States has the luxury of dismissing these outrages as mere rhetoric. The world must work to stop Iran’s uranium enrichment program and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It is far too dangerous to have nuclear weapons in the hands of a radical theocracy. And while we should take no option, including military action, off the table, sustained and aggressive diplomacy combined with tough sanctions should be our primary means to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.

Iranian nuclear weapons would destabilize the region and could set off a new arms race. Some nations in the region, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, could fall away from restraint and rush into a nuclear contest that could fuel greater instability in the region—that’s not just bad for the Middle East, but bad for the world, making it a vastly more dangerous and unpredictable place. Other nations would feel great pressure to accommodate Iranian demands. Terrorist groups with Iran’s backing would feel emboldened to act even more brazenly under an Iranian nuclear umbrella. And as the A.Q. Kahn network in Pakistan demonstrated, Iran could spread this technology around the world.

In 2008 just after clinching the nomination he had this to say:

There is no greater threat to Israel — or to the peace and stability of the region — than Iran. Now this audience is made up of both Republicans and Democrats, and the enemies of Israel should have no doubt that, regardless of party, Americans stand shoulder to shoulder in our commitment to Israel’s security. So while I don’t want to strike too partisan a note here today, I do want to address some willful mischaracterizations of my positions.

The Iranian regime supports violent extremists and challenges us across the region. It pursues a nuclear capability that could spark a dangerous arms race and raise the prospect of a transfer of nuclear know-how to terrorists. Its president denies the Holocaust and threatens to wipe Israel off the map. The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.

This is what he said in Cairo:

This issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.

It will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America’s interests. It is about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.

I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons. That is why I strongly reaffirmed America’s commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. And any nation – including Iran – should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the Treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I am hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal.

[. . .]

I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel. Sometimes there are no alternatives to confrontation. But that only makes diplomacy more important. If we must use military force, we are more likely to succeed, and will have far greater support at home and abroad, if we have exhausted our diplomatic efforts.

Is there any doubt that had he said that in 2007 or 2008 he would have been greeted with catcalls and boos? In 2008 he sounded serious and committed to stopping the Iranian nuclear threat and was candid about the nature of the regime. In Cairo, all that was gone. Nary a direct word of criticism of the Iranian regime (Holocaust denial was never tied to the Iranians and was covered in a separate section of his address). In 2008 he was telling Iran it would have no nuclear capability; in 2009 he was declaring no country could tell Iran it couldn’t have a nuclear capability. A complete reversal in tone and substance.

In 2008  2007 there was no mention of settlements. None.  But he did have this to say about his approach to Israel:

But in the end, we also know that we should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis and their security interests. No Israeli Prime Minister should ever feel dragged to or blocked from the negotiating table by the United States.

In 2008: “The United States must be a strong and consistent partner in this process — not to force concessions, but to help committed partners avoid stalemate and the kind of vacuums that are filled by violence. That’s what I commit to do as president of the United States.”

That’s a far cry from Cairo and the interviews before and after in which the president harped on the settlement issue. And in Cairo he lectured Israel:

At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

So did he change his mind? Well, according to this report in the Washington Post, the Cairo approach represents his long-held views, nursed and developed in his days in Chicago. ( Left unsaid by the Post is the role played by his close friend Rashid Khalidi.) He apparently thought all along that settlements were the end-all and be-all of the Middle East peace process and a way to leverage Israel.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that he told a very different story in 2008 to get elected and, once in office, sprung the most antagonistic approach to Israel and the most timid toward Iran of any president in recent memory. Those who bought his story in 2008 were had. And those who vouched for him should be embarrassed.

UPDATE: It was brought to my attention that in 2008 Obama did make mention of the settlements: ” Israel can also advance the cause of peace by taking appropriate steps — consistent with its security — to ease the freedom of movement for Palestinians, improve economic conditions in the West Bank, and to refrain from building new settlements — as it agreed to with the Bush administration at Annapolis.” It appears that this agreement with the Bush administration is now very much disputed by the Obama administration.



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