Sen. Barack Obama took the stage for the first time as the likely Democratic nominee Wednesday morning in front of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, declaring his steadfast support for Israel, but demanding a change in U.S. foreign policy by withdrawing from Iraq and engaging in “strong” diplomacy with Iran.
“I don’t think any of us can be satisfied that America’s recent foreign policy has made Israel more secure… Because of the war in Iraq, Iran — which always posed a greater threat to Israel than Iraq — is emboldened and poses the greatest strategic challenge to the United States and Israel in the Middle East in a generation,” Obama said. “Israel’s quest for peace with its neighbors has stalled, despite the heavy burdens borne by the Israeli people. And America is more isolated in the region, reducing our strength and jeopardizing Israel’s safety.”
“As president,” Obama reassured the members of the strongest pro-Israel lobby in the United States, “I will never compromise when it comes to Israel’s security.”
In his AIPAC speech, Obama restated his commitment to withdraw American troops from Iran and said he would be willing to meet with Iran’s leaders, a move that both Clinton and presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain have criticized and marked as a sign of Obama’s inexperience.
Obama said, however, that he would not allow Iran to become a nuclear power.
“I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama repeated. “Everything. That starts with aggressive, principled diplomacy without self-defeating preconditions, but with a cleareyed understanding of our interests. We have no time to waste. We cannot unconditionally rule out an approach that could prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Later in his speech Obama said he would always “keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel. Do not be confused. Sometimes there are no alternatives to confrontation.”
As president, Obama said, “I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leader at a time and place and my choosing — if and only if it can advance the interests of the United States.”
Obama backed a two-state, Israel-Palestinian settlement and also took a jab at President Bush, saying he won’t “wait until the waning days of my presidency” to work on a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict.
In a conference call shortly following Obama’s speech, McCain’s senior foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheuneman, called Obama’s diplomatic approach to Iran “cowboy summitry with unspecified leaders.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman, also speaking on the conference call, said Obama’s statements at AIPAC calling for action against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard presented a disconnect with Obama’s vote in the fall against the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment, a resolution that passed with three-quarters support in the Senate to designate the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization.
“I was hoping and I am still hoping that he will say that vote was a mistake,” Lieberman said.
McCain addressed AIPAC on Monday as the Republican nominee, promising that, as president, he would work with America’s allies to put economic pressure on Iran.
Despite Obama’s claim of being the presumptive Democratic nominee, Clinton, who said she would take some time to consider her next move, appeared before AIPAC sounding every bit the candidate. Clinton addressed the conference after Obama and assured the group that Obama will be a “good friend to Israel.”
“The Democratic Party’s strong commitment to the state of Israel is one of our party’s cherished values and it will continue under our next democratic president….It is an honor to call Senator Obama my friend. I know Senator Obama will be a good friend to Israel.”
Rumors circulated on Tuesday afternoon that Clinton would consider the No. 2 spot in what some call the “dream ticket” as Obama’s vice president, but the Obama campaign told NPR’s Don Gonyea that the two candidates had not discussed the possibility and would not comment on the reports that Clinton was interested.
The two candidates spoke on the phone last night, and Gonyea reported that Obama’s campaign was ready to sit down with Clinton but as of Wednesday morning no meeting was scheduled.
Clinton did offer these words about the future of her campaign in a speech from New York Tuesday night: “In the coming days, I’ll be consulting with supporters and party leaders to determine how to move forward with the best interests of our party and our country guiding my way.”
President Bush offered his congratulations to Obama but did not speak directly with the senator on the phone, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Wednesday. “He knows from personal experience that the presidential nominating process is a grueling one and Sen. Obama came a long way in becoming his party’s nominee.”
Meanwhile, McCain wasted no time powering up the general election tete-a-tete: he challenged Obama to a series of 10 joint-town hall meetings across the country this summer — with the first one starting next week at New York’s Federal Hall.
The proposed forums would include up to 400 people chosen by an independent pollster, be moderated by a local individual and have unscripted questions from the audience.
“What a welcome change it would be were presidential candidates in our time to treat each other and the people they seek to lead with respect and courtesy as they discussed the great issues of the day, without the empty soundbites and media-filtered exchanges that dominate our elections,” McCain wrote in a letter to Obama’s campaign.