Bill Kristol and former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer appeared on a panel at Sunday’s AIPAC session. The tone was academic and the conversation far-ranging. But one could see the fundamental divide in how Obama’s critics and supporters assess his foreign policy and America’s place in the world.
Kristol, although a tough critic of much of the Obama policy, took the glass-is-half-full approach, reminding the crowd that the U.S. remains quite powerful and that “if we stick with our allies and are clear and resolute,” we will remain so. He cautioned against too much nostalgia for the “American Century,” in which we lost (and then regained) half of Europe to Communism and fought multiple wars. Now we have many “strong and vibrant democracies,” including India, and are still the world’s main military guarantor. However, whatever successes we have had in avoiding nuclear war, combating terrorism, and containing regional conflicts, “all goes very fast if America is in retreat or perceived retreating.” For our success, Kristol credited ordinary Americans, who “haven’t turned xenophobic, isolationist, or protectionist.” He says that is a “tribute to them . . . and how good natured they are.”
Kurtzer spoke of the challenges we face, claiming that we have “devalued diplomacy” (more on that), don’t do intelligence analysis well, and risk eroding our economic position by mismanaging our finances. (“We don’t want to be a debtor country to China.”) There was considerable agreement on the need to bolster alliances.
There were differences, however, on the role of non-state actors. (Kurtzer thinks they are terribly important; Kristol argues that “states matter most,” pointing out that “unless sponsored or harbored,” these non-state groups are not a significant threat.) As for China, Kurtzer argued that it is heading for an inevitable conflict, as political repression will collide with economic liberalization. Kristol chose to stress the positive, the remarkable ability to lift a billion people out of poverty. He called the rise of India and China as economic powers an “amazing achievement.” He also cautioned that we have in recent years allowed “authoritarians to regroup.” There is now a “plausible model” — Iran, Venezuela, or China — that is not democratic. This, Kristol cautioned, is “very dangerous. We don’t want to tell regimes that bullying works.”
The biggest divergence came in the discussion of “smart power.” Kurtzer said we haven’t done enough. Here, to the audible gasps of some conservatives in the room, he proclaimed that we can’t aspire to promote American values when we have 30 million people without health insurance. (The woman next to me declared in a stage whisper, “And he teaches this at a university.”) And, citing the controversial CENTCOM report, he said that the U.S. military was implicitly arguing that the U.S. has been insufficiently dedicated to resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. (More crowd murmuring.) He then bemoaned the Iraq war, which had cost so much and in which we had lost so many lives. Kristol joked that he wanted to defend “dumb power” — that is, the indispensible role of American military power. The issue, Kristol said, is what types of policies work — citing the failure of Iran engagement and the Obami’s Middle East approach.
The Q & A was revealing on two counts. Several questioners went after the Obami for beating up on friends and trying to ingratiate themselves with adversaries. Kristol admitted to a certain sympathy with the questioners. On Israel, Kurtzer proclaimed that the relationship was fine and we had only one difference with Israel — West Bank settlements. (Huh? This was about Jerusalem, of course.) In response to a question on Iran, Kurtzer said the real problem was that we had not engaged Iran enough. One meeting three months ago just isn’t enough, he opined. Kristol declared himself “dubious on sanctions and diplomacy,” and argued that if there is to be military action, it must be by the U.S., both for technical and geopolitical reasons. And that brought the loudest round of applause.
In between the lines, you see the debate now raging: Have we fallen in love with diplomacy for diplomacy’s sake? Have we forgotten friends? Well, at least on one subject, the need for the U.S. to utilize military action, if necessary, to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran found consensus in the room. But the Obami clearly don’t agree. What do those activists do about that? That’s going to be the subject of some discussion this week, and thereafter, in the American Jewish community.