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James P. Rubin

James P. Rubin

Posted: September 4, 2008 02:52 PM

The Politics of War: Neo Con Attacks on Biden "Reek of Desperation"

Perhaps it was a coincidence, but in the last week, three separate stories emerged suggesting that the Democrat's vice presidential candidate, Senator Joe Biden, was soft on Iran and not a solid supporter of Israel. My guess is this was no accident. I'll bet Republicans and neo-conservatives are following their standard strategy: Attack your opponent's strength.

Just as Republicans attacked John Kerry's service in Vietnam during the 2004 campaign -- his perceived strong suit -- the Republican National Committee is now peddling stories that Senator Biden's acknowledged expertise in international affairs (see "Senator Biden is the Right Man at the Right Time") is actually a weakness. But the substance of these attacks is so thin that the RNC effort reeks of desperation. One report has Senator Biden telling Israeli officials the United States can't do anything about an Iranian nuclear weapon and Israel better learn to live with it. Another, courtesy of neo-conservative pundit John Podhoretz, has Biden threatening Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin twenty odd years ago with a cut-off of U.S. assistance unless Israel stops building settlements.

Neither story is true. As far as Israel is concerned, having worked as his senior foreign policy adviser for five years, I know Senator Biden is one of Israel's staunchest supporters in the Senate. In fact, during the time I worked for him, Israel was one of the few subjects we rarely spoke about because his views were so clear and long-standing there wasn't much to say.

He did tell me how support for Israel and Jewish causes was one of the first positions he adopted in the Senate -- initially after talks with a close friend from Delaware and then as a result of his first trip abroad in 1973 when he met Prime Minister Golda Meir and her young military aide, Yitzhak Rabin. He also told me how much he learned from the late Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor and until recently Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who worked as an adviser to Senator Biden in the 1970s. Podhoretz's story about an exchange with Menachem Begin is more than anything else a reminder of how long-standing and close the Senator's relationship is with the state of Israel and how much he has fought for Israel over the years, leading the fight in Congress against the sale of F-15s and AWACs to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s and taking on semi-official anti-semitism in the Middle East and Europe.

Also last week, another neo-conservative pundit, Michael Rubin (no relation), wrote a diatribe in the Washington Post accusing Senator Biden of "blinking" on Iran. His charge is that Senator Biden favors engagement with the government of Iran. Engagement, he claims, is a sign of weakness and Senator Biden is "Iran's favorite Senator."

The favorite Senator argument is a small-minded smear that is all too typical of Republican politics. Remember how Senator McCain used to say that Barack Obama was the preferred candidate of Hamas? McCain stopped making that claim after it turned out that John McCain was the one who was open to direct talks with Hamas before he started running for president. (See Huffington Post's tape and story of McCain flip-flops on Hamas) Meanwhile, Senator Biden wrote the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act that prevents U.S. funds from going to Hamas until it renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel.

The larger point is about U.S. policy towards Iran. The neo-cons, who really ought to be called the naïve cons, still think the United States can somehow cause regime change in Iran. Therefore, anyone who wants to engage with them is soft. But it is the neo-cons and their supporters in the Bush administration that are soft in the head when it comes to Tehran. That regime isn't going anywhere, not for a very long time at least. From the standpoint of securing America's interest, Senator Biden 's approach is realistic and right on the mark. We should engage with the Iranian government, just the way we engaged with the government of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, just the way the Bush administration is now engaging with the government of North Korea (which by any standard is the worst on the planet), and just the way serious policy-makers have always worked to advance America's interests through diplomacy.

President Bush has achieved absolutely nothing with his on-again, off-again refusal to engage with Tehran. On the Bush administration's watch, Iran has gone from a long-term proliferation problem to an urgent nuclear danger. Because the administration has been unable to formulate a coherent Iran policy, Washington and its allies have never developed the kind of serious package of incentives and disincentives that actually could influence Tehran to scale back its nuclear program.

Senator Biden's alleged sin is that he wants to directly engage the Iranian government and present them with two alternatives. The first would be a future of isolation, economic sanctions, and international pariah status, and the second would be a credible, step by step path to improved relations with the United States and the West along with the elimination of the Iranian threat to develop and brandish nuclear weapons. That's no sin. That's the kind of approach we urgently need to adopt.

Not only has Joe Biden been a true friend of Israel throughout his decades in the Senate. But if things go well this November, his leadership could help Israel ensure a future without the threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of the regime in Tehran. That's what America, Israel and the civilized world should all be working toward.

James P. Rubin teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He was Assistant Secretary of State under President Clinton.