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POLITICS-US: An Ocean Apart, Bush, McCain Play to Neo-Con Dreams

Analysis by Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, May 15 2008 (IPS) - In separate speeches delivered an ocean apart, the two standard bearers of the Republican Party Thursday offered rosy visions of a future designed to gladden the hearts of Israel-centred neo-conservatives without offering any details about how their dreams will be achieved.

In an address marking the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding before the Knesset in Jerusalem, President George W. Bush predicted that, 60 years from now, the Jewish state will co-exist with a Palestinian homeland in a democratic Middle East where "Al Qaeda and Hezbollah and Hamas will be defeated" and "Iran and Syria will be peaceful nations, with today's oppression a distant memory…"

"From Cairo to Riyadh to Baghdad and Beirut, people will live in free and independent societies, where a desire for peace is reinforced by ties of diplomacy and tourism and trade," he said.

Such a "bold vision" will not "arrive easily overnight", he said. But it will be possible "so long as a new generation of leaders has the courage to defeat the enemies of freedom, to make the hard choices necessary for peace, and stand firm on the solid rock of universal values."

Just a few hours later and some 11,000 kms away, Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, told a partisan audience in Columbus, Ohio that, if elected, he will have "won" the Iraq war by 2013 and brought home "most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom."

By the end of his first term, he went on, the threat from the Taliban in Afghanistan will have been greatly reduced, al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and his key lieutenants captured or killed, and Iran "persuaded (by) a reluctant Russia and China to cooperate in pressuring Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, and North Korea to discontinue its own."

In contrast to Bush, however, McCain failed to mention any progress on settling the Israel-Palestinian conflict, suggesting that such an effort will not rate particularly high on his foreign policy agenda.

That should be just fine with pro-Likud neo-conservatives who, despite their appreciation for Bush's staunch support for former hard-line Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (whom the president Thursday praised as "warrior for the ages, a man of peace" in his speech), have been uneasy about his thus far feeble efforts to prod the two sides towards a framework peace agreement by the time he leaves office next January.

Indeed, Thursday's speeches served to underline how powerful and durable the neo-conservative vision of the world, particularly for the Middle East, remains, at least for the Republican Party, and how likely it will be that a President McCain will "stay the course" set by Bush.

Bush's speech was pure neo-conservatism, beginning with his assurance that Washington was "Israel's closest ally and best friend in the world" and featuring a familiar depiction of the world as a struggle between the forces of "good and evil", the latter embodied by the most immediate threats to Israel's security – Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria.

"Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along," he declared in a thinly veiled slap at the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, who, along with most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, has called for engagement with Tehran and Damascus.

"We have heard this foolish delusion before," he said, referring to the failure of western powers to challenge the Nazis in the 1930s, a core neo-conservative leitmotif. "We have an obligation to call this what it is – the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history," he continued, implicitly comparing the threats faced by Israel with Nazi Germany and explicitly assuring his audience that "…(T)he world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon."

But, apart from confronting "evil", presumably through military force, if necessary, and steadfastly promoting basic freedoms and democracy in the region – a policy which even some of his neo-conservative backers believe Bush has largely abandoned as he has sought to rally Sunni Arab leaders against Iran and its allies – Bush offered no ideas as to how his hopeful vision of the Middle East, particularly that of a "homeland (Palestinians) have long dreamed of and deserved", in 2068 will be achieved.

McCain similarly failed to explain how he would achieve his own vision of victory in Iraq, substantial progress in Afghanistan, a defeated al Qaeda, and Iran's abandonment of its alleged nuclear ambitions by 2013. His comments led Rand Beers, a top counter-terrorism official under both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton who resigned from the National Security Council to protest the younger Bush's decision to invade Iraq, to compare the speech to Richard Nixon's "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War as a gimmick to win the 1968 presidential election.

McCain's vision for 2013 was more modest than Bush's for 2068 – in addition to omitting any mention of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he made no predictions about "transforming" the Middle East as a whole – but the basic trajectory was consistent.

He described an Iraq at the end of his first term in office as "a functioning democracy" in which violence would be "spasmodic (but) much reduced", militias would be disbanded, al Qaeda in Iraq defeated, the central government able to impose its authority "in every province of Iraq", and the U.S. military presence "much smaller" and no longer engaged in combat.

And not only would the threat from the Taliban be "greatly reduced" and the al Qaeda leadership captured or killed, he said, but a newly formed "League of Democracies" – another neo-conservative chestnut – would "apply stiff diplomatic and economic pressure" on Sudan to stop genocide in Darfur and use similar tools to end gross human rights abuses, such as human trafficking, in other parts of the world.

The absence of detail regarding how these goals will be accomplished drew mainly scorn from both Democrats and independent observers, with the former president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb, describing McCain's vision as "kind of a wild-eyed, unsupported prediction."

"I think John McCain has been one of the most important voices on national security policy for many years now, so it really surprises me to see him giving speeches like the one today that are almost in la la land," Gelb told reporters in a teleconference sponsored by the National Security Network.

At the same time, Sen. Hillary Clinton, who is lagging behind Obama in the race for the Democratic nomination, noted that "this is not the first time Sen. McCain has predicted victory in Iraq" and that his speech "promises more of the same Bush policies…"

McCain himself suggested that his worldview was not so different from Bush's. Asked later Thursday about the president's assertion that negotiating with "terrorists and radicals" today was similar to appeasing Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, McCain said he agreed with the analogy.

*Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy, and particularly the neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.

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