Mitt Romney and Barack Obama talk Iran and Israel during the third Presidential Debate
Medieval maps often positioned Jerusalem as the center of the world. In addition to the obvious theological sway that such a perspective held, this orientation also had the advantage of being sort of true. Given that the known world of European mapmakers included only Europe, Asia and Africa, Jerusalem made as a good a fulcrum as any. In theory, we’ve learned some things since then. You just wouldn’t know that from watching Monday’s foreign policy presidential debate.
It’s impossible to overstate just how overstated the role of Israel is in the public face of American foreign policy. Patting Israel’s back is so obligatory and apparently popular that President Obama was at a distinct advantage simply because he got to answer Bob Schieffer’s question about Iran and Israel first. After the President spent two minutes proclaiming Israel as our greatest ally in the region, all Governor Romney could do was agree. To do otherwise would be to suggest foolishly that the world of foreign affairs is not centered on the ever-expanding space now labeled “Jerusalem.”
Of course, often the real meaning of rhetoric is to be found in what it leaves out. In this case two absences were particularly telling. Most obviously, the debate was deafening in its silence with regards to Palestinian rights and nationhood. The word Palestinian came up exactly once, in passing, as Romney gave lip service to a peace process he has otherwise . The President didn’t even feel compelled to do as much as that. Though the two-state solution was perhaps never as mainstream as liberal Americans like to think, Monday’s debate made clear that it is now an afterthought, at best, in this country. Perhaps deep down President Obama really does see the pressing need to foster peace, stability and human rights in Israel and Palestine. But, given the inordinately divided nature of American politics at home and abroad, it’s hard to see anyone spending the political capital necessary to reinvigorate a debate that Americans seem to have lost interest in.
A discussion of shared Israeli and American values was equally noteworthy in its absence. Whether or not you believe it to be true, politicians on both sides of the divide have long identified ideological and ethical affinity as the lynchpin that holds together the “special relationship” between the two nations. Yet, in this debate, Israel’s connection to America was framed as almost exclusively strategic. Both candidates positioned Israel as an ally in opposing the Islamization of the Middle East and a fellow combatant against Iran. But the reasoning seemed to stop there. In part this derives from the difficulty in parroting Israel’s decade’s old claim of being the only democracy in the Middle East. As much as Mitt Romney seems to , the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi is Egypt’s democratically elected leader. But, even more importantly, the silence on values speaks to the extent to which the ethical murkiness of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza has seeped into even America’s decidedly Zionistic public conscience. No, most Americans would not balk at a whitewashed recounting of Israel’s moral virtues. But some would and, given all of the complications, why bother with it? Better simply to lay out the strategic case and hope ethnic, religious and nostalgic reasoning takes care of the rest.
Yes, Israel still takes center position in America’s public discussions on foreign policy. If this centrality pushes the world’s most powerful nation to help create peace and stability for everyone living in the Holy Land, it is well justified. However, if America instead approaches the region with one eye closed, it will look no more enlightened than the medieval maps that seem to be driving its agenda.