Report from Middle America: who cares about foreign policy?
08/03/2010 - 10:12
James Besser

During 12 days away from the news – in the middle of Iowa, if you can believe that - I was reminded of the curious bubble that those of us who live and work in the midst of the American Jewish world inhabit.

In that time, I didn't hear Israel, the Middle East or Iran raised a single time –unless I raised it.

There was plenty of vigorous talk about an uneven economic recovery that wasn't much apparent in the small Iowa towns we visited, and there was sometimes angry debate about who's to blame for stalled recovery and whether President Obama is doing enough. People were well read on economic issues and politics, and most had strong opinions; this is the Internet age, after all, and folks were just as likely to cite The Economist or Tom Friedman as their local newspapers

There was also plenty of talk about the Gulf oil spill and climate change – the latter a life-and-death issue for the farmers of the region who are going through a summer of freakish weather.

What I didn't hear: discussions about foreign policy.

There were murmurings about Afghanistan and worries that it is turning into a 21st century version of Vietnam, but that was background noise, at best. And beyond that the international arena just wasn't much on anybody's radar screen.

When I raised the subjects that monopolize American Jewish angst, what I heard mostly was indifference. Israel? Cool country, but not an issue most are playing close attention to. Iran? Bad if it gets nuclear weapons, but what can we do? And another war? Unthinkable. The Palestinians? Sad, but there are lots of sad situations in the world; we have our own problems to worry about.

When people found out I work for a Jewish newspaper, they didn't ask about Israel or the Middle East peace process; they asked what I and my readers thought about the perilous economic situation, or the debate over illegal immigration.

We see polls all the time showing that huge majorities of Americans favor Israel over the Palestinians, and I saw nothing during my trip to refute those numbers. I heard no anti-Israel diatribes, or talk about the Israel lobby.

But I also saw nothing to indicate many people away from the big cities and the big Jewish population centers care in any immediate, urgent way about strong U.S.-Israel relations, Israel's qualitative military edge, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks or Obama's role in the peace process.

It seems to me these polls ask the wrong question; the issue isn't whether people see Israel in a favorable light when asked about it, but whether they see foreign policy in general and U.S. policy toward Israel and the Middle East conflict as something with even the slightest importance to them.

My 12 day Iowa sojourn suggests they don't.


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That's funny ... My overlapping visit to New York (I am from Iowa) suggests the same thing about New Yorkers in general. When I wasn't among like-minded Jews, no one raised foreign policy issues. Even the Tamil man I spoke with only talked to me about the conflict in Sri Lanka after I asked for his thoughts. Perhaps I should draw the conclusion that New Yorkers don't much care about foreign policy? But, I promise that if you had stepped into my world on your visit to Iowa, many people talk about foreign policy. One of my friends is even an analyst at a foreign policy think tank in a small Iowa town. Two of my Iowa friends were recently shipped off to Afghanistan. I don't think your observations have anything to do with Iowa or middle America. It has to do with your social circle and what happens when you leave that circle. You left it and came to Iowa ... try leaving it and visiting any of the more Irish, Italian, black or Hispanic areas in Staten Island, Queens, or the Bronx. You'll find a foreign policy vacuum in there that might, in that small way, remind you of Iowa.