I exchanged emails around the time of the last Presidential election with a reader in Europe who had watched the Presidential debates and wasn't sure why Americans set so much stock in them, as he had watched them and was embarassed to admit that he couldn't really discern any significant political differences between the two candidates.
I think that reader's difficulty arose out of the fact that most countries have a Right and a Left, and he was expecting the Democratic candidate to sound reasonably progressive seeing as the Republicans are clearly a party of the right, so the Democrats - by default - must be the party of the left. The problem with that way of thinking is that it relies on a false premise, as we simply don't have a competitive national-level party of the left. Instead we have a Republican Party that covers the right-to-lunatic-right end of the spectrum, and a Democratic Party that covers the center-right-to-right part. With all serious Presidential candidates coming from that small part of the political spectrum, it can be difficult for people who are used to choosing between candidates with genuine ideological differences to spot how exactly a Republican candidate for President is significantly difficult from a Democratic candidate, and I think that was the source of my correspondent's problem.
No issue highlights the absence of a Democratic alternative to Bush policies more than Israel. Since Israel began its onslaught on Lebanon, there has been some striking coverage and commentary from bloggers on what you might loosely call the left blogosphere like Billmon, Angry Arab and Informed Comment, but the leading lights of the Democratic blogosphere have been resoundingly silent: Markos won't blog about Israel-Lebanon because he says he doesn't know much about it; Atrios won't touch it because he says America's war is in Iraq .
I don't know if the leading Democratic bloggers really believe that what Israel is doing to Lebanon is nothing to do with us, or that the Arab-Israeli conflict is somehow peripheral to U.S. interests in the region and therefore not worth grappling with. If they do believe that, their political ignorance would be so great as to bring into question the value of their insights on the subjects that they do blog about, which I don’t think anyone would seriously suggest. I think the answer is simpler than that, and is related to Upton Sinclair's adage that: "It's difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on him not understanding it." I think the leading Democratic bloggers are AWOL on Israel not because it doesn’t matter, but because the Democratic Party has entwined itself so tightly into supporting the government of Israel no matter what it does, that it cannot countenance honest debate about Israel without tearing itself apart. And so Democratic bloggers, even when faced with outrages that should be an affront to anybody's liberal values, are unable to offer anything except a pathetic silence.
But if they don't show more propensity for formulating a practical, principled foreign policy alternative than they have for the last six years, the Democrats will find this is a silence that will come back to bite them in the ass. And here’s why.
When we look at how badly the Bush Administration's Middle East policy is blowing up in everybody's face, it's easy to forget that in many ways it is the Republicans, not the Democrats, who have traditionally shown more even-handedness in the Arab-Israeli conflict. September 11th sent George Bush into a panic-induced frenzied flail across the Arab world, but his open alliance with the Israeli looney right and the homegrown Christian Zionist looney right really is an historical anomaly.
I don't suppose that Republican Presidents have any special love for Palestine, but there are other political realities that generally make them less susceptible to a foreign policy of Israel-right-or-wrong. Firstly, they know what is good for business; and the fact is that the business of the Middle East is oil and that is not found on the Israeli side of the Arab-Israeli equation. Secondly, they have enjoyed a certain freedom of action over the years vis-a-vis Israel simply because they haven't had to worry about alienating the Jewish-American voter or political contributor: Fuck the Jews, they don't vote for us anyway, as James Baker III summed it up so delicately. I think that's why the major instances when this country actually said "no" to Israel have come from Republican Presidents: from Eisenhower's forcing Israel to relinquish all of the Sinai after the Suez Crisis of 1956, to Reagan's insistence on pushing through the sale of AWACs to Saudia Arabia, to George H W Bush dragging a reluctant Yitzhak Shamir to the Madrid Conference in 1991 by threatening to cut off U.S. loan guarantees to Israel.
The reason I bring up this historical background is that it shows that Republicans have a "realist conservative" position to fall back on now that Bush's neo-conservativism has become a fiery wreck. (And if you want to know what a realist conservative policy looks like in the Middle East, think of the Mearsheimer-Walt paper which - although smeared by the usual suspects as some kind of looney left Protocols of the Elders of Zion - reflects the basic premises of realist conservatism: 1. that Israel has a right to exist; 2. that Palestinians have a legitimate political grievance; 3. that the U.S. has interests in the Middle East far beyond Israel; and therefore 4. conflating U.S. and Israeli interests in the Middle East may be bad for Israel, but is certainly bad for the U.S. in that it destroys the prospect of normal relations with the Arab world). You can hardly say the same thing about a Democratic Party that is institutionally unable to utter a rational word about Israel. And this has the potential to really hurt the Democrats unless they can get their act together, open up debate, and come up with their own coherent foreign policy alternative to neoconservatism.
About two months ago, Ha'aretz carried an interview with Republican Senator John McCain, in which he implied in closing that Israel's contribution to shaping a new Middle East will be a withdrawal to the 1967 borders. And though he had Ha’aretz issue a clarification later in the week to the effect that he hadn’t explicitly said that, it was surprising to see him even suggesting it, seeing as McCain is very far from a Congressional Friend of Palestine.
Then, two days ago, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel gave a talk ("A Defining Time for 21st Century American Leadership") at the Brookings Institution, in which he envisaged a new U.S. policy for the Middle East that would be a sharp departure from the current model of disengagement and unilateralism. In its emphasis on the Beirut Declaration of 2002, Hagel's plan envisages essentially an end to the Peace for Peace formula of the Clean Break crowd, in favour of a return to Land for Peace on the basis of 1967 borders, which is the position of overwhelming international consensus.
The relevance of this is that McCain and Hagel are widely viewed as leading contenders for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2008. Think about the implications of that. Leading GOP Presidential contenders are distancing themselves from Bush policy and putting their toes in the water of conservative realism. And in contrast to that, what foreign policy platform will Democrats - who still can't even bring themselves to say that the invasion of Iraq was wrong, but continue to mutter that if they'd done it, they would have somehow done it better - have to stand on? So far we have Hillary, and her never-ending quest to better her own already impressive Personal Best in the "pandering to Israel" category, while most of the rest of the Congressional party is reduced to repeating truisms about Israel having the right to defend itself which, when set against a backdrop of a bombardment of Lebanon that really is very little to do with defending oneself, simply hammer home how tongue-tied the party is.
I'm certainly not urging anybody to go out and vote Republican. But the fact is that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the most important foreign policy issue facing the U.S., and the Democrats have painted themselves into a corner. Unless Democrats can start to offer more than an awkward collective silence, they will be left effectively holding the baby for Bush's failed unquestioningly pro-Israel policy, long after the Republicans who invented it have collectively jumped ship. That's bad for the Democratic contenders in 2008, and bad for all of us in the meantime: stuck for two more years with no rational leadership inside the White House, and no coherent opposition outside.
 I stole the title from Monthly Review Online's interview with George Galloway: Recognize the Centrality of the Palestine Question.Q: President Bush is in his last term of office, as is PM Blair, we are told. What steps will the next leaders of these countries take to heal the rift with nations such as Iran, Syria, and so on?
A: I think they'll do nothing different. I think that Gordon Brown and Blair are two cheeks of the same arse, and Bush and Hilary Clinton are two cheeks of the same arse. In fact, Clinton is demanding more forces to be sent to Iraq. Despite a brief flirtation some years ago with the idea of a modicum of justice for the Palestinians, she has now turned utterly against the Palestinians. She is as slavish in her support of Israel as Bush is.
I can tell you, from 30 years of intimate contact with Gordon Brown, that he will be no different from Tony Blair in the material aspects. If Brown and Clinton are not the next leaders, then it will be people of their ilk, as there is no one on the radar who will do anything differently.
Q: So, will the list of disgruntled countries keep growing?
A: Of course.
 Americablog has certainly not been silent on Israel, but I'm not sure how far I would call that a Democratic blog. John Aravosis' view of the bombardment of Lebanon was Well, Lebanon's a democracy, and they voted for Hizbollah so what's wrong with bombing them? (A line of reasoning that could equally be used to justify blowing up buses in Tel Aviv because the elected government of Israel commits war crimes, if one were so inclined). Judging by a 2002 article of his that appears at the Likud Netherlands web site - Israel is being too nice - John wasn't just having a bad day when he had his Lebanon brain-fart, but really does see bomb-them-all-and-let-God-sort-them-out as acceptable foreign policy. That's so Likud in its outlook that you wonder to what extent Americablog is Democratic or liberal or progressive at all, and whether John wouldn't be happier on the on the loonier fringes of other side of the political divide, if only they would drop their gay-bashing.
Then again, Alan Dershowitz still calls himself a liberal Democrat, so who knows where you draw the line anymore?
Related Link: On Israel, We Must Never Be Silent by Jonathan Tasini