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.
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.
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.
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.
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.