06/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

McCain at AIPAC: 2002 Fantasy, 2008 Disaster

John McCain, who fashions himself a strong supporter of Israel, addressed AIPAC this week. His hawkish denunciations of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, and his dire warnings of threats against the state of Israel were well-received. So, too, was his mockery and mischaracterization of Barack Obama's calls for a realist-based foreign policy that, while tough on adversaries, places an increased emphasis on the use of diplomacy -- something sorely needed in the Middle East.

One would be hard-pressed to disagree with some of what McCain describes as the current state of affairs. There can be no doubt that Iran has been emboldened and is defiant of the international community's effort to halt its nuclear program and rein in its support for regional extremism. But what McCain promoted as a prescription, while long on incitement, was short on analysis.

How, exactly, did the U.S. and Israel get into the current mess in which they find themselves? And given the mess we are all in, how do we get out? To ask such questions would force Senator McCain to engage in a bit of historical reflection -- not his strong suit -- and an equal dose of self-criticism -- also not his forte.

Flash back to McCain's April 2002 appearance before AIPAC, and one finds clues as to why the current situation is so dangerous, and why the Senator may be hesitant or unable to change course.

Back then, this is what McCain told AIPAC:

"If we are serious about the values we in America and Israel live by, and the opportunities we would like all people in the Middle East to enjoy, we can allow terrorists no role in the political process."

"Indeed, we must work to spread our values in the Middle East, first by opposing tyranny in the Arab world. The celebration of freedom in the streets of liberated Baghdad will serve as a counterpoint to the state-directed Arab media's distortion of the Palestinian conflict. It will be a reminder to other Arab tyrants that the United States is a natural ally of Arab people who aspire to freedom. Freeing Arabs from repression by tyrannical regimes is the priority of neither Yasser Arafat nor the dictators he counts as allies. But bringing liberty's blessings to Arab peoples will do much more to improve their lives than will their jihad against Israel.

"Unfortunately, when it comes to advocating freedom and opportunity in the Arab world, our values know few champions. In the monarchies and dictatorships of the Middle east, cynicism is the essence of statecraft. Americans find ourselves handicapped in our Middle East diplomacy by a native regard for moral clarity.

"It is our fidelity to the values Arab leaders reject that makes it unmistakably clear to Americans who destroyed the peace process in Oslo."

What comes through so clearly in this April 2002 speech was that, as an advocate of the failed policies of the Bush administration, McCain:

-- embraced the wild neo-conservative fantasy that led the U.S. into a reckless war in Iraq that he believed would spark a democratic upheaval throughout the Middle East. This, McCain and his ideological allies believed, would make the region more pliant and accepting of U.S. values and goals;
-- insulted Arab leaders and states that have long cooperated with the U.S., needing, as they do, a U.S.-led protective umbrella against extremism and Iran's ambitions for regional hegemony; and
-- placed blame for the failure of the peace process solely on the Palestinians and Arab leaders and, therefore, like Bush, supported the abandonment of peace negotiations and Israel's unilateral goals of separation and the construction of the "wall" in the West Bank.

So remarkably misguided was that 2002 speech that its only interesting line was when McCain acknowledged, "Friends, I make no claim to wisdom on how to resolve the crisis in the Middle East."

What McCain missed getting right then, and still misses now, is that it was precisely the war in Iraq that emboldened Iran, creating the space for its expansion of its regional role. The war has raised the profile and reach of pro-Iranian elements in Iraq - including many of those on whom the U.S. is currently relying for the "surge" to work. It was also the war in Iraq that has so roiled the region, deepening anti-American sentiment and putting at risk the very Arab allies on whom the U.S. (and McCain in his 2008 speech) must call on for assistance in confronting Iran. And it was U.S. neglect of the peace process, and the imposition of a victor-vanquished approach to its dealings with the Palestinians and Lebanese that contributed to destabilizing and polarizing both peoples, creating the circumstances that let Hamas, Hezbollah feed off their people's anger.

It is in this context that one must look at McCain's 2008 address to AIPAC, and his continued justification for and embrace of a failed policy. What he promises is nothing less than making more war, more polarization, and more extremism. His formula for the future is more of what we tried and tested in the past and found wanting.