On 23 September, Jim Webb announced that he was giving serious consideration to seeking the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
Jim Who? And what does he have that Hillary Clinton doesn’t?
A great deal.
Few Israelis, I suspect, have heard of James Webb, former US Senator from Virginia. Few Anglo olim, either. But by virtue of character and experience, he may well be the most qualified person in America to take on the job. Since 2001, America has endured two of the worst – arguably, the two worst – presidents in its history. America cannot afford a third. Neither can Israel.
Not so many centuries ago, Americans assessed possible candidates by asking, “Is he presidential timber?” Circa 1992, the question became, “Paper or plastic?”
Time to get back to something solid. Time also for a genuine non-insider, non-self-deluding, non-career politician to bring a little freedom and perspective to the job.
So, who is this guy? Then, how I know him, aka “full disclosure.” Then the Inevitable Question. Good or bad for Israel?
Jim Webb started life as an Air Force brat, Americanese for the children of career military. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1968, then went on to become one of the most decorated Marines of the Vietnam War: Navy Cross, Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts for wounds.
After he was medically retired, he took his law degree at Georgetown University, then worked on Capitol Hill as a committee counsel from 1977 to 1981. He also found time to write his first two books: Fields of Fire, the still-in-print classic Vietnam novel, and A Sense of Honor, set at the Naval Academy. In 1984, he won an Emmy for his front-line television reporting with the Marines in Beirut.
That year, President Reagan named him an assistant secretary of defense. In 1987, he became Secretary of the Navy, a post he later resigned to protest fleet cuts. He returned to writing (ten books published so far) and pro bono legal work until 2006, when he won his Senate seat as a Democrat, in perhaps the toughest campaign of that ugly season.
In 2012, Webb chose not to seek re-election. Now, two years later, in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, he announced his intention to take a hard look at running and sketched out his concerns for America. Coverage was restrained and a bit quizzical. Webb does not fit into any convenient category. That makes him hard for the media to figure, but also hard to dismiss. As for taking on Mrs. Clinton, whom the conventional wisdom long ago decreed unbeatable . . .
Personal disclosure time.
I first met Jim Webb thirty years ago through a mutual friend. I suspect that Webb found me a curiosity: an Ivy League-educated Jewish Marine. My initial reaction to him was more complex. He displayed intense intelligence and energy, kept under tight control but also capable of furious eruption. Yet he also showed a certain tranquility, the quiet demeanor of someone who has mastered the habits of courage and endurance, and is capable of doing many things well.
We’ve stayed in touch, sporadically. When I learned that he was considering a run, I shot him a fast email. Go for it. We’ve communed a bit since then. He’s shown a lively curiosity about things Israeli, things that don’t appear in the policy papers and briefing books.
Now . . . good or bad for Israel?
I know not what AIPAC or J Street think of Senator Webb. I know not and I care not. Webb’s foreign policy priorities are still evolving, and it’s a long way to November 2016. But his principles seem clear enough.
Webb is neither a rampaging interventionist (imperial or humanitarian) nor ready to give anybody blank checks. He opposed the Iraq War and the Bush/neocon delusion. (One of his sons served in Iraq, another in Afghanistan, both as Marines.) He believes that the United States should “assert its national security interests” in the Islamic world but never again become an “occupying power.” He did not mention Israel in his speech.
Fair enough. In this decade of chaos and flux, single-issue fixations can be multi-issue disastrous. I suggest here only that any president who’s good for America will be, at the end of the day, good for Israel.
Regarding the specifics of the American-Israeli relationship – again, it’s a long way to 2016. We may presume that Webb will yield neither to bullying nor to threats. My sense of the man is that he’s not easily convinced, but ready to listen. So if he does pull off the electoral upset of the century so far, or even decide to take a serious shot at it, those who speak for Israel had better be ready to make their case.
Best they make it a strong one.
Senator Webb’s Web site: www.jameswebb.com
Next: Time for some fiction, perhaps the most influential Israel/America novel since Exodus. Assuming I can get the friggin’ thing published.