McCain touts Iran policy, says Iraq War benefits Israel

Sen. John McCain made headlines for launching this year’s AIPAC conference June 2 with an attack on Sen. Barack Obama’s Iran policy.

But more remarkable was how the presumptive Republican presidential nominee chose to close his speech: He defended his commitment to the Iraq War by casting it as important for Israel’s safety.

“Another matter of great importance to the security of both America and Israel is Iraq,” he said. “You would never know from listening to those who are still caught up in angry arguments over yesterday’s options, but our troops in Iraq have made hard-won progress under Gen. [David] Petraeus’s new strategy.”

McCain was referring to the troop escalation that he advocated a year ago, and that was carried out under Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

“It’s worth recalling that America’s progress in Iraq is the direct result of the new strategy that Sen. Obama vehemently opposed,” McCain continued. “Allowing a potential terrorist sanctuary would profoundly affect the security of the United States, Israel and our other friends, and would invite further intervention from Iraq’s neighbors, including a very much emboldened Iran. We must not let this happen.”

The line earned applause at the AIPAC policy conference — the lobby’s membership skews far more Republican than the wider Jewish voting public — but how it will play with the broader American Jewish public remains to be seen.

Jews and black Protestants oppose the war in greater numbers than any other religious group — more than 70 percent, according to some polls. That and McCain’s commitment to conservative social mores — particularly his anti-abortion positions and stated admiration for recent GOP judicial nominations — would apparently make him a difficult sell to American Jews.

But recent polling has shown McCain in a race against Obama faring much better among Jews than any Republican candidate since Ronald Reagan. In a Gallup poll of Jewish voters last month, McCain garnered 32 percent against Obama’s 61 percent, substantially better for the Republican candidate than the 24 percent that President Bush earned in 2004.

McCain’s backers credit a “straight talk” strategy, which would explain McCain’s tack at the AIPAC conference: Voters favor a candidate who says what he means even when they don’t agree with him, the backers say.

“What is most strikingly different from other candidates is that he is strongly principled and an independent thinker,” said Lew Eisenberg, a McCain campaign national finance co-chairman. He cited McCain’s backing of the surge a year ago and his support for an unpopular immigration reform bill around the same time.

In his AIPAC speech, McCain targeted Obama’s signature foreign policy distinction, his willingness to directly engage with the leaders of pariah nations, including Iran.

“The Iranians have spent years working toward a nuclear program, and the idea that they now seek nuclear weapons because we refuse to engage in presidential-level talks is a serious misreading of history,” he said.

Despite supporting the war, McCain is working hard to distance himself from the president, particularly to appeal to Jewish voters, a senior adviser said.

McCain “said in 2003 that unless we change things we’re going to be in real trouble — he argued for a change in strategy, a counterinsurgency, the troops that were needed,” the aide said.

In a recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, McCain displayed a willingness to chart his own course, even while echoing much of Bush’s thinking on Iran and Iraq. In particular, he signaled a commitment to playing a more active role in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

“I would have a hands-on approach,” McCain said in the interview, in sharp contrast to the current president’s much-noted reluctance to play such a role. “I would be the chief negotiator. I have been there for 30 years. I know the leaders, I know them extremely well. Ehud Barak and I have gone back 30 years. I knew Olmert when he was mayor of Jerusalem. I’ve met many times with Netanyahu. I’ve met with Mahmoud Abbas.”

Another tack for appealing to Jewish voters, McCain backers say, is to argue that although McCain supports conservative policies, he thinks for himself — an approach that they hope will go some way toward assuaging concerns of Jews who are concerned about the conservative shift in the U.S. Supreme Court.

McCain has stated his admiration for Bush’s judicial picks, but also drew the ire of conservatives several years ago, when he spearheaded a group of Democratic and Republican senators who reached a deal that effectively paved the way for Democrats to block several of Bush’s most controversial judicial nominees, while permitting the appointment of dozens more.

Downplaying considerations regarding the court will help focus Jewish voters on security issues, said Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the deputy minority whip and a principle Jewish surrogate for McCain.

Concern over Israel and American security “applies more than ever to the American Jewish community at this time,” he said. “Iran is the issue for the American Jewish community.”

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.