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Carter's Mideast Message Plays in Iowa

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This week I traveled to Iowa. After visiting three cities where I delivered three speeches, met with two newspaper editorial boards, and held meetings with activists and community leaders - I left convinced that a sizable body of voters in Iowa want to work to change U.S. Middle East policy. From what I heard: they want U.S. leadership to be more balanced in seeking a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict; they want a responsible end to the Iraq war; and they are eager to know more about the Arab World and Islam.

I have been to Iowa before and have, for almost three decades, attempted to bring Middle East issues to the center of the national electoral debate. Along the way, we've had some limited success. This year I am more hopeful.

Voters know that we are at war in the Middle East and they have deep suspicions about our policies in Iraq and across the region. After successive failures, embarrassments, and exposed "cover-ups" on a number of domestic and international matters, confidence in the Bush Administration is at an all-time low. People are concerned and want a change in direction. Over and again I heard the questions "What should we do?" and "How can we change course in the Middle East?"

What I told them is that the answers are there in the form of the Iraq Study Group, the Geneva Accords, and half dozen rather substantive think tank reports on issues ranging from getting it right in Afghanistan to making sense out of our efforts at public diplomacy. The new policy blueprints are available. What is needed is for leadership, and those who seek leadership, to embrace these proposals. And for that to happen, voters need to demand a more substantial debate. What I heard in Iowa was that voters are ready to do that.

I was excited by the enthusiasm I found. There is an effort underway to form a statewide grouping of concerned Iowans for responsible Middle East policy. They have begun to organize thousands of voters to join their effort and they seem confident that this will occur. The breadth of support for this fledgling movement is impressive. It includes Arabs and Jews, religious leaders from many denominations, peace activists and academics.

During one of my editorial board meetings in Iowa, I was asked a question by an astute journalist. Noting that Iowans are traditionally pacifistic and isolationist in foreign policy, concerned more about bread and butter issues than foreign policy, why, he wondered, since it so far away, would Iowans care about the Middle East.

My response was that the Middle East is no longer far away. It has become a domestic political issue, and Iowans know it. After decades of spending billions in foreign and military assistance to the Middle East, and repeatedly failing to help resolve (and in fact at times exacerbating) the region's festering conflicts, we are now engaged in a war in that region. We are losing lives and prestige, with the growing risk that we will lose more.

I have met with Iowa's Arab and Jewish communities, Iowans who have worked in the Middle East, and those whose businesses export Iowa's products to the Middle East or import products from the region. I also met mothers and fathers of Americans who serve in a variety of capacities in the Middle East. For them, the region is not so far away. They care because they know we are involved, and they know what is at stake. They know we are getting it wrong, and they want us to get it right.

After my maybe too-long answer, a colleague who had accompanied me to the meeting interrupted with a reply that "cut to the chase." She noted from the meetings we had had in the past few days, it was clear that Iowans do care. Hundreds of Iowans have already come forward to indicate that these issues were important to them, and more are sure to follow.

As if to make the point, two days later, former President Jimmy Carter came to Iowa to speak at one of the state's most prestigious universities. Despite the ongoing effort to discredit his recent book Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid, over 6,000 Iowans came to hear the former President and cheer his remarks. He received a standing ovation when he began and, more importantly, a standing ovation when he finished. I was pleased to hear that Carter's final message to the assembled throng was the same as mine.

He encouraged them to challenge the candidates, saying "The main reason that I wanted to come to Iowa is to make sure you realize that you can also shape the outcome of the 2008 presidential election. At least you can have screened out the candidates in both parties who are not willing to address my intriguing and complex subject for this evening, Peace in the Middle East. If they won't make this pledge to you, which I am going to read to you, do not support them.

"And this is it: 'If elected President, I will do every thing possible to promote negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians to achieve peace and security for Israel and a secure and contiguous state for the Palestinians.' If they won't tell you that, do not support them."

From the reaction he got, it was clear that Carter's view was shared not only by the Iowans I met but also the thousands who attended his lecture. They know America needs a new Middle East policy. They care, and they appear determined to challenge those who are running to share their concern.

God willing, it will happen.