“Upending The Status Quo”: How Obama Is Shrewdly Using Partisanship To Sideline Netanyahu And Save The Iran Nuclear Deal
The conventional wisdom is that partisanship in Washington, D.C., is one of the biggest obstacles to solving America’s most entrenched problems, from fixing the immigration system to closing the inequality gap. But if the fallout from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s forthcoming address to Congress is any indication, partisanship can be a pretty useful tool when it comes to upending the status quo.
Throughout the controversy, the White House has been happy to run its relationship with Netanyahu through the partisan vortex, helping splinter a bipartisan consensus that was once the most potent domestic threat to a U.S. rapport with Iran — a deal that would constitute the crowning accomplishment of President Obama’s foreign policy legacy.
Of course, Netanyahu has himself to blame more than anyone. By accepting an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to essentially hammer the administration before a joint session of Congress, without notifying the White House or the State Department, he took his longstanding disdain for Obama to new heights. When even Fox News anchors are questioning your treatment of the president, this may be a sign you have crossed a line.
He exacerbated his problems by rejecting an invitation from Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) to privately meet with Democrats, in what they said was an attempt to “balance the politically divisive invitation from Speaker Boehner.” Netanyahu explained that the meeting would “compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit,” but it seems his rejection accomplished that just fine on its own.
“Since when does an Israeli prime minister say no to a meeting with Democrats?” bemoaned a former Israeli official to The New York Times. And referring to Durbin and Feinstein, he said, “By the way, their Israeli voting record is impeccable. Not good, not very good, impeccable.”
This gets to the crux of the problem for Obama, as he potentially heads into the final stretch of a years-long attempt to reach a deal on Iran’s controversial nuclear program. He not only has to fend off opposition from Republicans, but staunch pro-Israel members of his own party, some of whom seem intent on passing additional sanctions on Iran to scuttle any deal. The problem is so acute that, as recently as January, Obama faced the prospect of a united Congress overriding his veto for the first time in his presidency.
But that has changed. By aligning himself so plainly with the GOP, Netanyahu may have made it impossible for Democrats to join the Republicans. As Dov Zakheim writes at Foreign Policy, “Netanyahu’s determination to address Congress has all but destroyed any chance the Hill’s passing new sanctions and overriding a presidential veto. The deal will therefore go ahead.”
The Obama administration appears to realize this, taking the fight to Netanyahu in a highly public way. The White House made clear it would snub Netanyahu, saying both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden would not meet with him. It still has not said who (if anyone) will be attending the annual summit this weekend of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby. [Update: Rice and Samantha Powers, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., will attend.] Then this week, National Security Advisor Susan Rice said Netanyhu’s speech was “destructive” to U.S.-Israeli relations — not “unhelpful” or any other boilerplate diplomatic language, but “destructive.”
Then Secretary of State John Kerry used his testimony on Wednesday to the House Foreign Affairs Committee to remind everyone that Netanyahu supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Never mind that Kerry was for it before he was against it — he noted that Netanyahu is a hysterical hawk and associated the Israeli prime minister with the most divisive foreign policy issue of the last generation. After all, everyone knows that there is little rank-and-file Democrats hate more than the Iraq War and those who egged the Bush administration on. (Kerry’s attack was all the more remarkable given the fact that his friendship with Netanyahu goes back to the 1970s.)
This is all bad news for those who believe that a U.S. accord with Iran would spell doom for Israel. But for those who believe that diplomacy and negotiations are far better than the alternatives, they might have partisanship to thank.
By: Ryu Spaeth, The Week, February 27, 2015
“The Catastrophe Bibi Is Courting”: Bolstering His Re-Election And Pushing For War, He Should Be Careful What You Wishes For
So Bibi Netanyahu did not back down, and he’s here now in the United States, and he’s giving the speech Tuesday. In doing so, he has forced a true low point in U.S.-Israel relations. As has been often observed, he’s turning Israel into a partisan issue—up to somewhere around a quarter of congressional Democrats are refusing to attend the speech. That’s a crack, a big one. If he remains prime minister after the March 17 elections, the fissures between Netanyahu’s government and Barack Obama and the Democrats will only widen.
Congressional support for Israel is due for a reconsideration. As Scott McConnell wrote last month in The American Conservative (an anti-neocon magazine), Congress “does not come close to representing the views of the American people” on Israel, either with respect to Iran or the occupation. McConnell cites all the requisite poll numbers that make the case.
Now, Congress can go a long time without representing American public opinion. On certain big-money issues like banking, that’s all Congress does. But on most issues, Congress at least has to act like it’s listening to the American people, and on foreign policy questions in particular, Congress, and for that matter the president, can’t usually go where the American people don’t want to go. Obama probably wanted to drop a smattering of bombs on Syria in 2013, but public opinion was dead set against it. And remember how the Bush administration had to work public opinion in 2002 and 2003 to make sure the lies about Saddam Husssein’s nuclear ambitions got support levels up to 60 percent or so before it launched the war.
So one of these days, in two years or five or six, congressional fealty to Israel will cease being so bipartisan and reflexive—and that will be entirely an outcome of Netanyahu (and John Boehner’s and Ron Dermer’s and AIPAC’s) making.
But all that is just politics. Netanyahu is creating a much bigger problem here. Ultimately, he wants war with Iran. And American neoconservatives want it, too. Few of them will say so (although some do—see below). But that’s what they want, and we need to be clear about it.
Think about it. What is the alternative to negotiating with Iran? Well, there is only one: not negotiating with Iran. And what are the possible courses of action under that option? At the end of the day, there are two. Number one, let Iran do what it wants. Number two, ultimately, be willing to start a war to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Knowing the neocons’ world view as I’m sure you do, how willing do you think they’d be to let Iran do what it wants? Correct. Not very. That leaves war. There is the step of tougher sanctions as a middle course, but sanctions, even crippling ones, don’t usually change a regime’s behavior. So the clear implication of the anti-negotiation position is war—with a country of 77 million people, a huge army, and formidable wealth. As a point of comparison, Iraq in 2003 had about a third of Iran’s population.
As noted above, not many on the right are going to be honest enough to speak openly of war. The Republican presidential candidates, for example, don’t want the American public to think they’re crazy, so they won’t admit this—although interestingly, Rick Santorum became, I believe, the first Republican candidate to call for up to 10,000 U.S. combat troops on the ground to fight the so-called Islamic State.
With regard to Iran, the candidates hide behind the usual euphemisms. But a few war-makers are coming out of the closet. Matt Welch of Reason noted last week that on a panel at CPAC, both John Bolton and new Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton spoke openly of the desire for regime change in Iran. Bolton said U.S. policy toward Iran should be “overthrow of the ayatollahs.” Cotton added that we need regime change and “replacement with a pro-Western regime.”
Where is Netanyahu on this? Every indication he’s given us is that he’s on the Bolton-Cotton team. I don’t doubt that the prime minister sincerely believes that a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic would be catastrophic for Israel, and we should not dismiss that concern. No opponent of the neoconservative approach should be foolish enough to think that we can trust Iran. Israel has good reason to be worried. (I will, however, mention here Israel’s own 100-odd nuclear warheads, just on principle, because they always go unmentioned in columns like these.)
So Netanyahu wants, at the very least, a bombing campaign. But you know as well as I do that most of the leading experts say Iran’s centrifuge capacities are now too numerous and too geographically disparate for a bombing campaign of the usual scope to be very effective. That means a bombing campaign of unusual scope.
Do Netanyahu and Bolton really expect that Iran would not retaliate in such a case? Of course it would retaliate. And far more likely against Israel than against the United States. But the United States would be dragged into it, which is exactly what Bolton and Cotton told CPAC we should all want.
It seems to be what Netanyahu wants, too. It’s what he wanted back in 2002, when—then as a private citizen—he went to Congress and made the case for war against Iraq. As Josh Marshall noted last week, some of his words from back then are enough to make you shudder: “If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region.”
It had the opposite effect, of course. It strengthened Iran and gave us ISIS. And now we’re supposed to make up for that huge mistake by trusting Netanyahu and the neocons again?
I’m sure Netanyahu’s words will be measured Tuesday. He wants Israel’s levels of support in America to be high, and he wants to win re-election. But don’t be fooled. He and his Republican backers are leading us down a potentially catastrophic path. And catastrophic not least for Israel itself: If this path someday reaches its logical end point, it won’t be only liberal Democrats in America who’ll conclude that we should just let Israel fight its own battles.
By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, March 2, 2015
It’s all happening because I am completely ignoring every urge towards common sense and good judgment I’ve ever had–George Costanza, “Seinfeld”.
President Dwight Eisenhower warned against the growing power of the military-industrial complex, but even the former 5-star general Supreme Allied Commander in World War II couldn’t do it. The quagmire of Vietnam couldn’t do it. The quicksand of Iraq couldn’t do it. The killing fields of Cambodia couldn’t do it. The Bush/Cheney failure on 9/11 couldn’t do it. Allowing bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora, and then failing to find and capture him, couldn’t do it. Allowing Pakistan to develop the “Islamic bomb” couldn’t do it.
Even the election of the Iraq invasion’s opponent as president couldn’t do it.
But, John Boehner (R-OH) has done it.
He cannot do much else, but he has achieved what no other politician could do for half a century: expose the entire Republican national security “brand” as a fraud.
Remember the pious platitudes about the first function of government to be protecting the American people? Remember the decades of demagoguery skewering Democrats as being lax on security issues, the disgusting draft-dodging Saxby Chambliss leveling that accusation on war hero and triple amputee Max Cleland (D-GA) in the waning days of a senate campaign? Recall the Bush/Cheney 2004 ads showing snarling wolves that would be unleashed against the American people if John Kerry were elected?
Now, thanks to Speaker Boehner, the Republicans have no credibility or standing on national security. None, zero, zorch, nada. The next time you hear a Republican bleating about national security, you can have a good laugh.
They were willing to leave us vulnerable, and took their threats to the brink.
A minimally competent Democratic party should be and would be screaming bloody murder. After all, Republicans are playing political games with our lives and our families’ security. Democrats would be filling the airwaves and the (now-neutral!) net non-stop, spreading the alarm to “every town, middlesex, village and farm” that Republicans will sacrifice our nation’s safety, and raise legitimate issues about their love of country.
[Not hearing that? Well, do not ignore the qualifier “minimally competent”.]
Not to be outdone, however, Bibi’s blunder is even worse for the neoconistas. At least since the Yom Kippur war in 1973, and perhaps earlier as well, it has been virtually impossible for US foreign policy to diverge in meaningful ways (i.e., those that might actually lead to peace) from Israel’s as defined by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Any president, member of Congress, or candidate who criticized Israeli policy, who even spoke about pressuring Israel was immediately pounced upon by AIPAC, carrying with it the threat of political oblivion.
Until Bibi’s blunder, support for Israel was considered to be 100% support for whatever the government of Israel du jour decided to do.
The political price to be paid for deviating from that support was always more of the myth than reality. American Jews, although backing Israel, nevertheless vote more on economic and social issues than they do on competing claims of which candidates are helping Israel more.
Now, that myth is exposed. President Obama and many Democrats are shunning Bibi, but not wavering in their support of Israel. They refuse to be pawns in his political games to win the Israeli election. They refuse to scuttle prematurely the opportunity of avoiding another major armed conflict. They refuse to compromise the moral authority the US will have achieved by going the last mile with Iran if the negotiations fail.
From this day forth, presidents and members of Congress can oppose new settlements on the West Bank as impediments to peace without waiting until their retirements. They can let the Israelis know that our support is strong, but that we have expectations of them, too, that need to be honored.
Thanks to John Boehner (R-OH), Republicans have relinquished their (specious) claim to caring more and fighting harder to perform government’s primary mission, safety and security. Fearmongering 101 is not only no longer available to them, it will be fodder for mockery.
And, thanks to Bibi, liberated from the need to express support for everything any Israeli government does as a measure of how much they support Israel, the US will now become a more effective partner to bring peace and security to Israel and dignity to Palestinians.
Bibi has neglected to realize that Americans, like other people, do not appreciate a foreign leader who deliberately tries to embarrass the President, just like foreign countries tend not to enjoy being invaded and occupied.
There has always been a segment of the population who cannot abide a black man in the White House, especially exercising the powers of his office. The visual images rankle. [Obama is not just the first person of color to be president, he is the first black man ever to rule a white majority nation]. Some of that same segment, however, may find themselves for the first time siding emotionally with him as President when an Israeli (yes, Jewish) leader tries to embarrass him.
By asserting American priorities and not being cowed by Bibi’s influence in the US, the President will gain support among the American people, not just from his own base, but from die-hard opponents as well, exactly the opposite of what Bibi wanted.
Achieving the precise opposite of one’s intended outcome is one definition of incompetence. The US adventures in Vietnam and Iraq spring immediately to mind.
Boehner’s and Bibi’s blunders have liberated US foreign policy from the iron grip of the neoconistas.
Viva la incompétence!
By: Paul Abrams, The Blog, The Hufington Post, February 28, 2015
When House Speaker John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress without bothering to let the White House know, as is normal practice when dealing with foreign leaders, he no doubt thought he was getting a little sauce for the gander. You want to find ways to get Republicans mad, President Obama? Okay, how about if I invite the leader of one of our closest allies here to basically lobby against your position on Iran? How do you like that?
Boehner was right on that score: President Obama doesn’t like it very much. Neither did Nancy Pelosi, who blasted Boehner’s move this morning as “inappropriate,” adding: “It’s out of the ordinary that the Speaker would decide that he would be inviting people to a joint session without any bipartisan consultation.”
But maybe this skirmish over diplomatic protocol is a good thing for everyone. Maybe we can stop pretending that Americans and Israelis are nothing more than loving and committed allies offering unwavering support to one another, when the truth is that parties in both countries are active participants in each other’s partisan politics.
The current disagreement is about negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. There’s a bill in the Senate, sponsored by Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Bob Menendez, to impose new sanctions on Iran if a deal isn’t struck by June 30. The administration says that passing such legislation now, while the negotiations are at a sensitive point, would guarantee failure: the Iranians would pull out, then ramp up their nuclear program.
Republicans, and some Democrats like Menendez, don’t think so. They seem to believe that the only thing that produces results is being “tough,” and that even in diplomacy there are no carrots, only sticks. This also happens to be the position of the Netanyahu administration, which supports the sanctions bill. But not all in the Israeli government agree. Josh Rogin and Eli Lake report that the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, has been telling both the Obama administration and whatever American senators will listen that “if legislation that imposed a trigger leading to future sanctions on Iran was signed into law, it would cause the talks to collapse.”
So the Republicans have asked Netanyahu to come join them in this debate, and he is more than willing. Which shouldn’t be much of a surprise. For years we’ve had one party (the Republicans) that is fervently committed to the right-wing Likud’s vision for Israel, and another party (the Democrats) that is much more committed to the Israeli Labor party’s vision. When each holds the White House, they put those beliefs into policy. But both will say only that we all have a bipartisan commitment to “support” the Jewish state, as though what “support” means is always simple and clear.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has done what he can to help Republicans. In 2012, his all-but-explicit advocacy for Mitt Romney ended up getting him in trouble back home. The current Israeli ambassador to the U.S. is American-born political operative Ron Dermer; as Josh Marshall says: “His relationship with Netanyahu has been compared to Karl Rove’s with George W. Bush. And a main reason for his being Ambassador is his ties to DC Republicans.”
And here’s a colorful illustration of the symbiotic relationship between the GOP and Netanyahu’s Likud. The Republican Party’s greatest patron is casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who spent somewhere between $100 and $150 million trying to unseat Barack Obama in 2012. And who is Benjamin Netanyahu’s greatest patron? None other than Sheldon Adelson, who a few years ago created a free daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, whose primary purpose is to blanket the country with news favorable to Netanyahu.
It has long been true that the debate about what Israel should do — with regard to the Palestinians or anything else — is infinitely more varied and robust in Israel itself than here in the United States, where the only allowable public position for a politician to take is that we support whatever the Israeli government wants to do. This unanimity is maintained by a variety of forces, most notably the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which calls itself “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby,” but in practice has for decades been not the Israel lobby but the Likud lobby, representing one particular faction in Israeli politics.
Benjamin Netanyahu is the leader of his country, but he’s also the leader of that faction, and at the moment he’s in the midst of an election campaign (one the Obama administration would be all too happy to see him lose). If Congressional Republicans want him to come be a spokesperson for the Republican position in the debate over Iran, that’s fine. But we should use the occasion to allow ourselves a little honestly. Yes, the United States and Israel are close allies whose core interests are aligned. But in neither country is there agreement about how to serve those interests. There’s no such thing as a “pro-Israel” position on this issue, because Israelis themselves have a profound dispute about it, just as there’s no such thing as one “pro-America” position on anything we argue about.
So we can call this speech what it is: an effort by one conservative politician to help a bunch of other conservative politicians achieve their preferred policy. Maybe afterward, John Boehner can return the favor and cut some ads advocating Netanyahu’s reelection. Though I’m not sure how well that would go over in Israel.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line, The Washington Post, January 22, 2015
Yesterday wasn’t the best day for Rand Paul’s efforts to transform himself from a less cranky version of his old man into a power broker and potential presidential candidate in the Republican Party. Aside from Chris Christie’s contemptuous rejection of Paul’s suggestion that they sit down over a tall cool one and resolve their war of words over foreign policy, Paul failed to make much headway in the Senate in his long-standing attempt to cut off military aid to Egypt, despite having an almost ideal set of circumstances. While Democrats united behind the administration’s position that an aid cutoff could de-stabilize Egypt, most of the floor action involved the pummeling of Paul by his Republican colleagues, prior to a 86-13 vote against his amendment to the THUD appropriations bill.
WaPo’s Dana Milbank captured the flavor of the debate:
More than a dozen senators sat or stood at their desks in the usually empty chamber, engaging Paul, who tried to rebut their points. So many wished to join the fray that Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) extended the debate.
The result reinforced the proud tradition of internationalism in the body, and in the GOP. For all the talk of a Republican civil war over foreign policy, Wednesday’s vote showed that the internationalists still dominate. McCain portrayed Paul as the heir to the America Firsters. But there has been no growth in the isolationist sentiment since March, when an amendment to restrict aid to Egypt failed, 74-25, or since September 2012, when a Paul bill to cut off aid to Egypt, Pakistan and Libya went down, 81-10.
The coup de grace probably occurred when Lindsay Graham read aloud a letter from AIPAC opposing the aid cutoff.
McCain needled Paul. “The question here is whether the senator from Kentucky knows what’s better for Israel, or Israel.”
Paul shook his head, reclaimed the floor and challenged the “so-called leadership” of AIPAC.
When the clerk called the roll, McCain whipped his colleagues aggressively: arguing with Dean Heller (R-Nev.) after the new senator took Paul’s side, applauding when John Hoeven (R-N.D.) voted against Paul and working over Tim Scott (R-S.C.) until the senator cried uncle. “I’m with you,” Scott said.
For the Republican internationalists, this wasn’t about winning but dominating.
Well, maybe. 13 Republicans decided to Stand with Rand on aid to Egypt. That’s just one short of the number of Republican senators who stood with McCain and Graham on immigration reform, which was supposedly a triumph of party “pragmatism” against the craziness of the House GOP. You also see some significant names supporting Paul’s amendment: Mike Lee, the majordomo of the Senate’s “constitutional conservatives,” and his boon companion Ted Cruz, a potential rival of Paul’s in 2016. There’s Mike Enzi of Wyoming, who may be counting on help from Paul in rebuffing a primary challenge from Lynn Cheney that bids fair to become a national Neocon crusade. And then there was Mitch McConnell, who has clearly decided that snuggling up to Paul is his best insurance against his own primary challenge next year.
For dedicated Paulites, this was just another vote in a long struggle against foreign policy internationalists in both parties. For the GOP as a whole, it’s unclear whether the vote pitted the dominant faction against the fringe, or the party’s past against its future.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, August 1, 2013