It’s still the war, stupid

Forget about the economy, global warming and gay marriage. This election season, there’s only one thing that matters.

Illustration by Robert Armstrong

“I am running to do more than end a war in Iraq; I am running to change the mind-set that got us into war.” So says Barack Obama, and no doubt the senator from Illinois, should he become the next president of the United States, has his work cut out for him.

That fact was made abundantly clear last week when Adm. William “Fox” Fallon abruptly resigned as head of U.S. Central Command, where for the past year he has directed U.S. combat operations in Central Asia, East Africa and the Middle East, including Iraq.

When Fallon took command last February, he made headlines by declaring an invasion of Iran would not happen on his watch—a bold statement, considering Vice President Dick Cheney and his neocon cohorts were ratcheting up the anti-Iran rhetoric for an invasion that, at the time, seemed imminent.

According to the profile in the current issue of Esquire, Fallon prefers Teddy Roosevelt’s speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick diplomatic approach to the blunt club wielded by the bellicose Bush administration. The notion that we should exhaust all diplomatic possibilities before going to war is hardly radical. When it comes to negotiating with Iran, 73 percent of Americans agree with the admiral, according to a November Gallup Poll. Nevertheless, negotiation is a concept not even Democratic presidential contender Sen. Hillary Clinton can wrap her mind-set around.

Consider that when Obama called for direct diplomacy with Iran’s leaders last December, he was instantly labeled “naive” by Clinton and a host of inside-the-Beltway critics. Obama, the only candidate left running who opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, responded by tempering his message but not altering its substance. People outside the Beltway responded by making Obama the presumptive favorite in November’s general election.

Translation: Even though the economy is collapsing around our ears, it’s still the war, stupid. Yes, we can change the mind-set!

Well, maybe. But the elephant in the living room says it isn’t going to be easy. The elephant, of course, is Israel, which, like it or not, is the key to solving the complex, violent puzzle the Middle East has become. Simply put, America cannot expect Arab nations to behave if it doesn’t insist that Israel do the same. Unfortunately, the powerful Israel lobby, headed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is working diligently to ensure that doesn’t happen, pouring millions into the U.S. political process.

Case in point? Last August, at the urging of AIPAC and a flotilla of pro-Israeli lobbying groups, the California Legislature unanimously passed Assembly Bill 221, the California Public Divest from Iran Act, which required all public-employee pension funds to divest from companies doing business with Iran. Coming as it did on the heels of Cheney’s repeated rants that Iran was on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon (sound familiar?), the Legislature’s declaration of economic war was perhaps understandable. What’s truly perplexing is why the legislation hasn’t been revisited in light of the fact that the National Intelligence Estimate released in December reported that Iran has no discernable nuclear-weapons program.

Of course, any legislator who dares point out the elephant in the living room runs the risk of being labeled an anti-Semite, in much the same way Obama’s longtime pastor Jeremiah Wright, who has rightly condemned Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people, is presently being smeared. Criticizing Israel remains a political third rail in America, even among activists. Local activists Stephen and Virginia Pearcy discovered this the hard way when they began publicly criticizing Israel after its invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 2006.

“Some people who claimed to oppose the war in Iraq actually stopped coming to our peace demonstrations at 16th and Broadway because we criticized Israel for slaughtering Lebanese children and dropping cluster bombs on civilian neighborhoods,” Stephen Pearcy recalls. “They would say things like, ‘I’ll come out if you only protest the war in Iraq, but I won’t ever stand against Israel.’ It was amazing to see that there were many people who had no problem criticizing the United States for its murderous policies but regarded any criticism of Israel for the same thing as off-limits.”

If Obama is serious, Israel’s abysmal treatment of its Middle Eastern neighbors must be put on the table. With his seemingly innate ability to raise large sums of money from individual small donors, he may be in a unique position to do just that. But don’t expect the Israel lobby to take it lying down. According to longtime investigative journalist Robert Parry, it’s already backing another horse. Writes Parry:

“One former Israeli official told me that the Israeli government feels it can work with Obama, Clinton or McCain, but that the Israeli lobby in the United States is adamantly opposed to Obama, preferring Clinton because ‘they own her.’”

Change the mind-set that got us into war?

Good luck with that.