It is not often that a candidate in a tight US Senate race actually says something significant about the Middle East peace process—or the lack of a process. Pennsylvania Democrat Joe Sestak has done so, with a call for the administration to do more than just "open lines of communication."
Sestak, who defeated incumbent Arlen Specter in last month's Democratic primary, faces a tough fall race with Republican Pat Toomey in what is likely to be one of the roughest races of the fall.
As such, Sestak might have been expected to avoid discussing the Middle East. Most candidates, especially most Democrats, do—and that has been doubly the case in recent weeks, as relations between Israelis and Palestinians have degenerated following the Israeli military raid on an aid flotilla headed for the Gaza Strip.
Instead, Sestak has waded into the debate by prodding the Obama administration to take a leadership role in encouraging and facilitating direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This is certainly not a radical stance. But it is an important one, as the director for Defense Policy on President Clinton's National Security Council not only calls for direct negotiations but also scores those who criticize advocates for renewing and advancing the peace process for not being sympathetic enough to Israel.
Speaking as a friend of Israel who knows that country and the surrounding region's security issues as well as anyone, Sestak says: "We must move forward with faith in our commitment to our special alliance with Israel, and to those who are dedicated to justice and freedom for all people, to encourage the sustained direct talks that will be necessary to bring about a just and lasting two-state solution. This is the only outcome that can offer true security for Israel, the region, the United States, and our allies around the world, and we must be ready to do what it takes to see it through."
The proper way to move forward, the retired three-star admiral and current Democratic Congressman argues, is to recognize that "the way forward in the Middle East, as it has been around the world and throughout history, is communication. There must be direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, mediated by the United States. The proximity talks that began recently were an important step, but there will never be peace by proxy."
Sestak explained in remarks prepared for delivery on Flag Day that "an open channel of communication cannot be the goal of diplomacy; it must come at the beginning. A commitment to dialogue should be the basis of negotiations, not a bargaining chip in the process. And the roadblocks that talks are meant to resolve should not be expected to be overcome before those talks can move forward."
That's the right message for Obama, who has taken cautious steps in the right direction but has not moved quickly enough or aggressively enough.
It is, as well, the right message for Sestak's fellow Democrats, and for responsible Republicans who fear being attacked if they advocate for meaningful negotiations.
"Here at home, we must find the political courage for a better approach," says Sestak. "We cannot point fingers as we work to find solutions, and we cannot stifle meaningful dialogue in our country at the same time we try to encourage it abroad. In order to lead the process of peace, we must rise above the politics of conflict."
Sestak's full remarks, as prepared for delivery outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia, merit consideration—especially as they ouline the case for what the candidate refers to as "a comprehensive commitment to our leadership in the world that depends on robust diplomacy, strategic foreign assistance, and relies on military force only as a last resort."
Sestak places his points regarding the Middle East in that broad context. One need not agree with all of what he says here to recognize that this is an important message.
This is Sestak's speech:
Here in Philadelphia 233 years ago, the Second Continental Congress officially adopted the American flag.
That banner was hoisted over a minor rebellion in a second-rate colony in the most obscure corner of the globe—and quickly marched to resounding defeat at the Battle of the Brandywine.
Our stars and stripes would have become an obscure relic of history if it had merely been the standard of a country. But from the beginning, it was a symbol of universal principles—principles that have drawn strong allies to our side since the earliest days of the revolution.
Today, the statue that stands closest to the Oval Office of the White House is not of an American. It is a statue of General Rochambeau, the French field marshal who joined forces with General Washington for the decisive victory at Yorktown.
The inscription on the statue reads:
"We have been contemporaries and fellow labourers in the cause of liberty, and we have lived together as brothers should do, in harmonious friendship. Washington to Rochambeau, February 1, 1784."
It stands not just as a sign of gratitude, but of our enduring alliance with all those who "labor in the cause of liberty."
During my years in the Navy, I grew to appreciate how our strength came not just from the ships and planes of the fleet but from the flag that we sailed under. We are respected for our strength, but we are admired for our ideals-and that has been more central to our security and standing in the world than any force of arms.
Our alliances are enduring because they are grounded on a bedrock of shared principles, not on the sands of political expedience. These alliances, and our position of respected leadership in the world, are the greatest tools we have to contain our adversaries, avert wars and improve the lives of people around the globe.
It was a lesson we learned the hard way.
The First World War was supposed to be "the war to end all wars." Instead, we failed to support the League of Nations, arms control, and institutions of economic stability. The result was the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and an even more devastating global war.
After World War II, we recognized the need for institutions to provide international stability and began to develop a strategic worldview. Realizing that economic threats are as potent as military ones, we implemented the Marshall Plan and founded the IMF and World Bank. We entered into arms control and defense agreements. And we committed ourselves to encouraging global dialog through the United Nations.
It was the strength of these institutions, under US leadership, and a commitment to a proactive foreign policy—not just technological and military prowess-that allowed us to prevail in the cold war.
This kind of real leadership is not easy. It often means doing what isn't politically safe, or popular, or expedient.
It was not popular to use American money to rebuild other nations, including our enemies, after World War II.
It was not an easy decision to invest some of our authority in international institutions and alliances like the United Nations and NATO.
And it took political courage to brave accusations of being "soft on national security" by talking to our enemies and valuing intelligence over toughness at key moments during the cold war.
These measures contributed not only to the relative peace and prosperity of the world today, but our position of respected leadership in it—a position that could never have been achieved through warfare and gunboat diplomacy.
The ability to make the tough decisions that real leadership demands would not have been possible without a dedication to our founding principles that inspire confidence at home and the trust of our allies abroad.
We've been reminded what happens when we forfeit our leadership.
During the war in Afghanistan, of the thirty ships under my command, twenty were from allied nations. There were even Japanese ships conducting one of that nation's first deployments outside its waters since World War II.
The world was with us and had full confidence in our leadership.
But when I turned the battle group from the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf in preparation for the invasion of Iraq, only the ships from the UK and Australia sailed with us, and I knew—just from that alone—we were making a tragic mistake.
That "go it alone" approach weakened our alliances, diminished our standing in the eyes of the world, and has made it more difficult for us to counter threats from nations like Iran and North Korea.
These lessons will be critical in the twenty-first century.
During my time in the White House on President Clinton's National Security Council, I helped develop a strategy of engagement that drew on the lessons we learned before and after World War II.
I argued for a comprehensive commitment to our leadership in the world that depends on robust diplomacy, strategic foreign assistance, and relies on military force only as a last resort.
Increasingly, there will be no military solution to the challenges we face. The wars of this century will be ideological, technological and economic.
The world is becoming a very small place. Effects ripple farther and faster than ever before, threats are never far away, and everywhere interests are intertwined: military, diplomatic, economic, environmental, humanitarian.
Threats can emerge from anywhere and without warning—but we cannot and should not seek to police the globe.
Our principled leadership in the world has long inspired allies to join us, and more than ever we must depend on shared vigilance to guard against threats that are defined by no nation or border.
Our alliances will not only help keep us safe at home, they will give us the power to shape events abroad.
The battle in so many places now is not to defeat our enemies—it is to cease to be enemies. That is the "labor of liberty" today. And that is the new victory that our alliances can enable us to achieve.
This effort is needed nowhere more than in the Middle East.
The conflicts that appear so intractable do not have to be. However, when so many nations and factions are defined by their opposition to one another, when the stakes are so profound, and when too many are more focused on settling old scores than healing old wounds, leaders cannot be expected to yield intractable positions—let alone take the risks that peace demands—without the support of a powerful, respected ally to serve as an independent "honest broker."
The United States is the only entity that can fulfill that role. Our flag is the only one that nations in conflict can look on with the faith that it represents not just the interests of our country, but the principles that so many desire—freedom, justice and peace.
The way forward in the Middle East, as it has been around the world and throughout history, is communication. There must be direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, mediated by the United States. The proximity talks that began recently were an important step, but there will never be peace by proxy.
An open channel of communication cannot be the goal of diplomacy; it must come at the beginning. A commitment to dialogue should be the basis of negotiations, not a bargaining chip in the process. And the roadblocks that talks are meant to resolve should not be expected to be overcome before those talks can move forward.
The struggles, controversies, and tragedies we have seen recently—on all sides—are only too familiar. They are the result, not the cause, of conflict. If they are allowed to stand in the way of progress they will only guarantee more setbacks. The march to peace must not be derailed by the very conflicts it seeks to end.
This is a situation where no one can abide the status quo—and yet, a step in any direction, by any party, presents significant challenges. That is why our leadership and support is so crucial. Serving abroad in the Navy, and in the White House as President Clinton's director for defense policy, I've seen how nations and organizations are more willing to take risks for peace with the presence and the leadership of the United States.
We must take care, however, not to let ourselves fall into what too often has been a kind of trench warfare of diplomacy—where the lines are drawn, the positions are fixed, and any movement is an opening for partisan attack.
Here at home, we must find the political courage for a better approach. We cannot point fingers as we work to find solutions, and we cannot stifle meaningful dialogue in our country at the same time we try to encourage it abroad. In order to lead the process of peace, we must rise above the politics of conflict.
We have the courage of our convictions. We know where we stand: Israel's security is our security. We all have a stake in peace and stability. We must move forward with faith in our commitment to our special alliance with Israel, and to those who are dedicated to justice and freedom for all people, to encourage the sustained direct talks that will be necessary to bring about a just and lasting two-state solution. This is the only outcome that can offer true security for Israel, the region, the United States and our allies around the world, and we must be ready to do what it takes to see it through.
We recognize that there are forces who seek only violence and destruction. They will be overcome. But for those who seek peace, they must know that while "harmonious freedom," in the words of General Washington, may be a distant goal, we will always be there—as we always have been—unshakable allies with all who labor in the cause of liberty.