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Bibi Comes to Washington

Why is foreign policy so difficult? If you were to ask Tip O’Neill, he’d tell you that “All politics is local,” a phrase he credited to his Dad. Take that mindset and set it loose in an integrated world and pretty soon you have nations talking right past each other with no hope of ever finding common ground.

That’s what brings Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Washington on 3 March to speak to a joint session of Congress – but not President Obama. It’s also what makes it very likely that this will be an epic disaster for at least some of the parties arranging this trip.

Netanyahu simply looks like a hard-liner.

Netanyahu simply looks like a hard-liner.

The speech itself is a major breach of protocol, apparently unprecedented in Washington. Speaker Boehner (R-OH) invited Netanyahu without consulting President Obama and continued making arrangements over Obama’s objections. The reason for the Presidential snub? The trip comes just two weeks before a scheduled Israeli election on 17 March, and the White House never gets involved in another nation’s domestic politics (at least not this openly before an election).

The unusual and hastily arranged trip satisfies the needs of Congress and Netanyahu, not the US and Israel. Congress wants to use its new power to humiliate Obama and Netanyahu wants to be re-elected. Both have a common interest in preventing a US rapprochement with Iran which may be coming through the years-long talks on Uranium enrichment. If you ignore any sense of tradition and protocol it seems like a natural fit – but that is exactly why it’s likely to be a disaster for Congress, Netanyahu, or both.

The last foreign leader who could tell us what to do.  He's been dead for 50 years.

The last foreign leader who could tell us what to do. He’s been dead for 50 years.

For one, Americans hate having a foreign leader tell us what to do. It really doesn’t matter who it is, be they an ally or enemy. If Netanyahu goes beyond a detailed explanation of what he is afraid of in Iran and steps into what even smells like a dictation of policy, it’s almost certainly going to look terrible.

Another problem is Netanyahu himself. He’s not exactly charming and will almost certainly say something bold, forthright, and totally inappropriate for a US audience. Which takes us to the next problem.

Netanyahu will almost certainly be speaking to an Israeli audience which has its own politics and its own language. By doing so, it will appear that anything that brings down the house in raucous applause will be a sign that Americans are wading into an intractable conflict that we already are in up to our necks. That will almost certainly scare the Hell out of everyone in the US.

The US is already war-weary.  The last place we want to go into deeper is Israel.

The US is already war-weary. The last place we want to go into deeper is Israel.

Then there is the question of the media, which will cover this in the US from their reliably myopic US-only perspective. Having established an unprecedented breach of protocol they are unlikely to give anyone, especially Netanyahu or Boehner, any benefit of the doubt on controversial points. They’ll most likely want to egg the situation on as the story of “Boehner takes on Obama” is an easy piece of manufactured news that will be alarming, important sounding, and very easy to write.

Lastly, we have to consider the Israeli audience which knows how important US backing is for them. The Obama administration will probably put as much distance between themselves and Netanyahu, giving the Israeli left a legitimate story that Netanyahu’s recklessness is risking the isolation of the hunkered down fortress nation. It is very likely that something will show tremendous strain in this trip that any credible reporter or opponent can make something out of.

Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran.  He is not a reliable bogeyman, but can we go as far as to make peace with him?

Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran. He is not a reliable bogeyman, but can we go as far as to make peace with him?

Given the incredibly high stakes for this trip, why is it happening? The best answer can only be Shakepeare-grade hubris. Netanyahu is not in any trouble in this election, and Boehner has to have something else he can use against the President.

Then again, high-stakes games like this can only come from desperation. Both Boehner and Netanyahu probably fear a genuine deal with Iran and may very well know that one is in the works. They would be desperate to head one off for their own political as well as ideological reasons. Nevermind that Netanyahu has warned that Iran is 3-5 years away from making a nuclear bomb for more than 20 years now – it’s his big issue and he clearly believes it’s a critical one.

The worst possible outcome for both Congress and Netanyahu is that the public, once engaged in the issue of Iran, starts to see how beneficial it is for the US to have at least some kind of relations with our long-term enemy. For this trip to backfire this completely everything will have to fall into line and the US press will have to actually do their jobs by reporting in depth on Iran and the developing Shia-Sunni conflict that we are also blindly wading into. But stranger things have happened, and the American public have a limited appetite for more and more war at this point.

Why is this trip happening? Because two politically aligned camps have very narrow, parochial interests and both have the finesse of four year olds. All politics is indeed local, but increasingly it plays out on an international stage. All that’s missing are three witches and an Elizabethan accent for this to play out like MacBeth.

Even without a total failure, however, one or more of the parties is likely to find themselves wishing it never happened. It shouldn’t happen for that reason alone, let alone the massive breach of protocol.

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17 thoughts on “Bibi Comes to Washington

  1. You managed to write a piece on Netanyaho and Congress without being partisan. I am impressed.
    But you are right this is a hugely dumb idea. It will be an epic fail.

    • Thank you! I am so sure that this is going to be a disaster that I wanted to stake my prediction to the ‘net with as much clarity as possible, and do it in a way that there was no taint of partisanship. I want this to be read by everyone. Because I am THAT sure of it – as are you.
      Perhaps this is really obvious – but it went right past Boehner and the Republican leadership. Are we getting a measure of just how dumb they are?

  2. Boehner and Netanyahu are, by any reasonable measure, two of the most repellent scoundrels around. They deserve each other, but I don’t think we deserve either.

    • I could not possibly agree more. I think once Americans see who we are supporting in Israel that support for Israel will drop off to somewhere around the approval rating for Congress. That should demonstrate why a genuine Democracy (ie, not what’s going on now) is a desirable thing. I have little doubt that 90% of the American public, once they see what’s going on, will make the right choice here. It’s THAT obvious.

  3. This is already a disaster. Even the right seems to think this is a bad idea probably for the reasons you say. I have already learned more about this guy and he seems like exactly what is wrong in the middle east right now more than anything.

  4. He is a complete a-hole. If Americans got to know him the $$$ to Israel would shut off immediately. I’m all for him speaking here because people need to know what we are into by supporting Israel.

    • If you are against our support for Israel, I agree that getting Netanyahu on prime time is a good way to put an end to it. But that seems incredibly destabilizing to me all around. There has to be a sane middle ground (yes, I realize I’m talking about the Middle East when I say that).

  5. Calm down everyone and smoke a joint.

    There’s nothing wrong with trying to humiliate the president.

    Everyone knows that Republicans tend to be more pro-Israel than Democrats. Democrats are more pro-Palestinian.

    Maybe the state of Israel wasn’t the best idea given that it has tends to provoke varying amounts of belligerence from its neighbors.

    Now and then in history the Persians get irritable and expansionist but a middle east dominated by Arabia and heirs to the Ottomans to me is a better formulation for peace.

    • A balance is needed even more than liberalization, IMHO, because a balance should provide some stability and peace that will allow liberalization to proceed at its own pace. The UAE, Qatar, and other Gulf Nations are doing pretty well along those lines as Arabia (I refuse to call it “Saudi”) stagnates.
      There is a place for Israel, yes, and Hamas is terrible. But Bibi just pisses me off.

      • The United States talk to the Iranians all the time. We have both adverserial and cooperative relations. The cooperative and consultative relations relates to terrorism from 9-11.

        Should there be detente and rapproachment with Iran? I would say no since I don’t think Pres. Obama’s attempt at engaging Iran has been useful.

        If Democrats do think constructive engagement has been useful, they would just need to make the arguments for why.

        If you are saying Republicans in Congress and Netanyahu are being demagogic on Iran, I would agree to some extent, but the focus I think should on Iran since they aren’t supposed to be doing nuclear development.

        Personally I think you should do a blog solely on what type of relationship the US should have with Iran.

        If you start with the argument that factions in Israel are obstructionist and destructive on Palestinian statehood, that may also be true to some extent. I thought the formulation is land for peace, however, what you think about Israel depends on how you want the land for peace equation to take place.

      • I won’t disagree with you on this. The talks with Iran have been fruitless largely because Iran has no interest in complying with any international standards for the conduct of a nation from what I can see. Given that, isolation is a good thing.
        They got to that point because of their own local political needs – a hardline government clamping down on a society that was quite open and liberal for several generations. Isolation suits them because it prevents outside ideas from leaking in and provides an effective bogeyman to blame all their problems on.
        That’s the rub – it won’t change until there is more openness. What kind of openness is needed or even possible? That’s where I can’t say much more since I’m not there, which is why I don’t write about it. How do you crack open the almond? I really don’t know.
        However, a stronger hardline on our part only plays into the hardliners there, I am sure. Status quo until they are willing to join the international community makes sense to me, which means that years of fruitless talks will continue fruitlessly. Harder sanctions will likely be counter-productive.
        BUT – it’s in everyone’s interest to have Iran play by the rules. That includes Iran, I am sure. Getting them to that point is probably very nuanced and difficult, and I can’t have a strong opinion about it because I’m not there.
        As for Israel they have several problems here. A nuclear Iran cannot be allowed, yes. But they also need to end support for Hamas from Iran, which is to say there has to be progress. Something has to change. Again, a strict hardline isn’t going to be the most productive way to achieve that.
        That’s where I’m coming from on this, but again I don’t know enough to chime in on the details.
        No matter what, I do believe that Netanyahu’s speech here is fraught with peril for those who support Israel and/or a hard line on Iran. I wrote this piece in the most neutral tone I could because no matter what anyone’s opinion is on Iran or Israel this cannot be seen as a logical or rational thing to do with all the risk.

  6. The relationship between the US and Israel is complex, no doubt. But I think the Israelis have to be forced to dial down their aggression and territorial expansion at the expense of others, and the only way to do this is to dial down US support. But Israel has a powerful support apparatus in the US, one that very few politicians want to go against. I think more and more people are understanding that peace in the Middle East is the only solution to many problems, including the erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law in the US.

    So what makes it OK for Israel to have nuclear weapons but, “A nuclear Iran cannot be allowed”?

    • Let’s see if you got me being illogical and/or hypocritical.
      I support Israel, but do think that we should “dial down” support for them – or at least make them think it has its limits. They are aggressive when it comes to settlements and so on.
      However, they also have Hamas firing rockets at them. It’s an immediate threat and I do feel they have a right to respond to that.
      What makes Israel different from Iran? Iran’s ambitions are much larger in both territory and ideology. They are the natural protector of Shias everywhere, and seem to be willing to support a large number of groups with nasty tendencies for just this reason. Isreali nuclear weapons are a problem, yes, but their discretion and limited ambition makes nuclear weapons hardly useful for aggression. Iran, on the other hand, is in a position where nuclear weapons would easily fit into an expansion beyond their boundaries today. To me, that’s very different.

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