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John McCain Throws On His Black Fedora And Peyes

Jeffrey Goldberg's interview with John McCain, like his interview with Barack Obama, was centered on Israel and US-Israeli relations. Both candidates would reverse the Bush administration's neglect of the Israel-Palestine conflict and take "a hands-on approach" to diplomacy in which … Read More

By / June 2, 2008

Jeffrey Goldberg's interview with John McCain, like his interview with Barack Obama, was centered on Israel and US-Israeli relations. Both candidates would reverse the Bush administration's neglect of the Israel-Palestine conflict and take "a hands-on approach" to diplomacy in which they would be "the chief negotiator" (McCain's phrasing). Both made clear to the world that "if you’re waiting for America to distance itself from Israel, you are delusional…our commitment…to Israel’s security is non-negotiable" (Obama's phrasing). Both of them oppose Israeli settlements, albeit sotto voce e pianissimo — McCain conceded in passing that the settlements "keep Israel and the Palestinians from making peace" (Goldberg's phrase), while Obama merely observed that "[s]ettlements at this juncture are not helpful." Yet both reckoned aggressive Israeli defense policy as a justified response to extraordinary circumstances rare if not unique on earth. In other words, it would take a microscope to find any substantive differences between their positions on Israeli security and on Zionism in general.

Their differences of rhetoric, emphasis, and temperament, however, are abundant. Obama mentioned McCain exactly once to Goldberg, in order to state his agreement with McCain about Hamas. McCain, on the other hand, squandered a good chunk of his interview time peevishly reiterating canned, content-free attack lines. He's "amused by Senator Obama’s dramatic change," noted with interest Obama's "naivete and inexperience on national security issues" and also that he "is totally lacking in experience," and even indulged a preposterous misinterpretation of Obama's remarks to Goldberg before Goldberg cut him off. Etc., yawn.

McCain's positive case for himself, moreover, rested on some real logical whoppers. He assured us that "I don’t try to divine people’s motives" in a sentence immediately succeeding an unequivocal declaration that what motivates Iran is "hatred." He'll leave it to someone "who engages in this psycho stuff to talk about" the intent of foreign adversaries, at the same time that his anti-terror policy rests entirely on reckoning the intent of Islamic radicals as something uniquely pernicious in the world. In particular, the capacity of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran to execute their plans — or lack thereof — doesn't register as a factor on McCain's approach to the middle East. One would expect at least internal consistency in foreign and national security policy from someone whose candidacy begins and ends with the duration of his experience.

The final striking difference between McCain and Obama's Goldberg variations was the former's complete inability, and in its way, admirable unwillingness to try to win recognition as an honorary Chosen Person. (The depth and breadth of Obama's affinity for Jewish culture was stunning.) The closest McCain came to identifying with Jewish culture was touting his friendship with Joe "What's a little Hitler-loving between friends?" Lieberman and mentioning the Jewish authors he likes (Wiesel, Frankl, and Uris; emphatically not Philip Roth). McCain does have ample material to connect his own experiences to the historical experiences of the Jews, but they are so emotionally raw that it was both wise and tactful of McCain to decline the opportunity. Instead, the lesson he took from reading Frankl is that even in the Hanoi Hilton, things could still get vastly worse. Which is an awfully Jewish thought.

So what did the chatterers think? Michael Goldfarb is elated to see a "presidential candidate who publicly recognizes Philip Roth’s pretentious drivel for what it is." Meanwhile Foreign Policy and the Economist focus on McCain's aggressive hardline on Iran. Andrew Sullivan thinks the Jewy angle is more salient.

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