Comments, a few weeks back, by 2012 presidential aspirants Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, in opposition to the building of a mosque in New York City, are a case in point (Palin called the mosque a "stab to the heart" while Gingrich claimed that "America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization"). Other top Republican contenders are no better. Mike Huckabee, a leader of the religious right, has made disparaging comments about Muslims and is so bizarrely pro-Israel that he has stated "there's really no such thing as a Palestinian"; while Mitt Romney, once moderate Governor of Massachusetts, now darling of conservatives, has, on more than one occasion, suggested that the government wiretap mosques.
The GOP has virulently opposed President Obama's Middle East peace initiative and outreach efforts to the Muslim World. Following his June 2009 Cairo University speech, I debated Liz Cheney and former Senator George Allen, both of whom working from Republican Party talking points, took the President to task accusing him of selling America short in order to curry favor with Muslims. They charged Obama with "moral equivalence" (meaning that he equated his concern with the Palestinians with the traditional American concern for Israelis) and "apologizing" for our use of torture and the Iraq War.
The effort to score partisan political points by exploiting fears of Muslims and exacerbating tensions emanating from the Arab-Israeli conflict led two Republican stalwarts, Bill Kristol (neo-conservative editor of the Weekly Standard) and Gary Bauer (one time Presidential candidate and leader of the Christian right), to form the "Emergency Committee for Israel". The group has sponsored TV ads attacking a Democratic senate candidate accusing him of befriending radical Muslims and being an enemy of Israel.
The same aggressive hard-line behavior is on display in Congress. Just last week, Texas Republican Louie Gohmert introduced a resolution explicitly authorizing an Israeli attack on Iran. While Gohmert can be dismissed as a loose cannon - given his penchant for long winded fundamentalist rants about Israel's claims to the Holy Land - it is disturbing that his "Israeli attack on Iran" resolution was endorsed by 1/3 of the Republican Caucus.
Also last week, Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who would become chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee if Republicans take control of Congress, countered the Obama Administration's effort to elevate the status of Washington's PLO office by circulating a letter calling on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to expel Palestinian diplomats from the U.S. and move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
This ideological drift has filtered downward and is now playing out in elections around the U.S. In Colorado, for example, Republican senate candidate Jane Norton criticized the Obama Administration's efforts to include Muslims in NASA's science and technology programs, calling it a "feel good" effort that Americans could not afford. In Tennessee, the sitting Lt. Governor, Ron Ramsey, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor, was quoted saying "you could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, a way of life or cult". And a candidate for Congress in Tennessee has made an issue of efforts by the local Muslim community to build a mosque, saying that "our nation was founded on the tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition; we have a right to defend that tradition".
This marriage of neo-conservatives and the Christian right and its impact on the Republican Party's approach to Middle East policy was on display last week at the annual gathering in Washington of the group, Christians United for Israel. While one lone Democrat was on the program (stridently hawkish Congresswoman Shelley Berkeley), other headliners included the GOP's Minority Whip, other Republican elected and former elected officials and representatives of hard-line, right-wing, pro-Israel groups and conservative think tanks.
All of this has had a profound impact on deepening the partisan divide on a range of issues, including how Democrats and Republicans approach critical Middle East policy issues. In recent polls we have noted a disturbing gap between the two parties. For example, in an answer to the question "How should the Obama Administration pursue peace in the Middle East", 14% of Democrats said "Support Israel" and 5% said "Support the Palestinians", but 74% responded that the U.S. "Should steer a middle course". 71% of Republicans, on the other hand, said "Support Israel" and 3% said "Support the Palestinians", while only 20% said "steer a middle course".
This Republican drift and the harshness of their anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric is worrisome. America's engagement across the Middle East and South Asia is too important and the dangers we face are too great for such virulence and misunderstanding to have taken hold in one of our political parties - especially when that party's current leaders appear so willing to vent their venom and use it for political advantage. Even George W. Bush, for all his flaws, knew better, as did his two Secretaries of States, and his father and many other Republican leaders of the not too distant past. It's high time for these traditional conservatives to come forward and challenge the current GOP crop who are running their party, and I fear, our country into a deep hole.