Diplomacy is hard. You have to say the right thing in the right way, to get the other party to do what you want when they’d rather not. Will Rogers said it’s the art of saying “nice doggie” until you can find a rock, which is a bit cynical. Daniele Vare said it’s the art of letting someone have your way. That’s a little nicer, but just as cynical – it’s a Jedi mind trick. These are not the droids you’re looking for.
But Talleyrand may have had it right – a diplomat who says yes means maybe – a diplomat who says maybe means no – and a diplomat who says no is no diplomat.
You never say no? Henry Cabot Lodge once said animosity is not a policy – and maybe so. But how do you say, nicely, that the other party is dead wrong and doing things that are not merely absurd but dangerous, and they should stop right now. Yeah, say that with a smile and then say let us reason together. You won’t get very far. They’re saying that to you after all, and you’re not buying it.
And then there are the niceties. There’s an etiquette involved, and civilians shouldn’t even try to manage that – a special mixture of small-talk and code, and things you just don’t say, and jokes you don’t tell, and things you say because those things are supposed to be said, even if they’re filler and no one knows what they mean anymore, which doesn’t matter because no one is really listening anyway. Form matters as much as substance, or matters more, and thus you get state dinners with everyone dressed to the nines, picking at exquisitely presented dishes and fine wine – and being careful – and being terrified when they’re not bored silly. And sometimes those state dinners do not go well – you remember January 8, 1992, when the first President Bush vomits in the Japanese prime minister’s lap. Oops. That’s no way to treat an ally. But of course it wasn’t intentional. And Bush sheepishly apologized.
But the whole business is trying, and maybe you have to experience a tiny bit of it to appreciate how trying it is. In my case it was the last year of the Reagan administration in the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs at the Pentagon. It was just a social thing, but there were these admirals and generals, and being an outsider the idea was to be pleasant and mildly inquisitive and generally say nothing in particular. But it was hard. People asked you what you thought about this and that and everything meant something else, no matter what you said. And they stared. Careers and projects were on the line, and you had no idea what you had to do with any of it. And then Carlucci, the secretary of defense at the time, dropped by. And it got even more surreal. Wheels were turning, and wheels within wheels. The Christmas party at the National Institute of Health, later that evening, was a bit better. Koop set a different tone – he generally said what he meant and didn’t give a damn if what he said was impolitic – and the alcohol helped. But why Hillary Clinton accepted Obama’s offer to become secretary of state is a mystery. The job is all that stuff at a level a million times more intense than my brief taste of that world. But some love that sort of thing. It takes all kinds. They run for office or become diplomats and live that life. They’re odd folk. The rest of us feel a bit of sympathy for the first President Bush.
But what do you with an ally like Israel? General David Petraeus went public with his belief that Israel’s intransigence on settlements is endangering American troops in the field, and Biden goes to Israel to say we stand with them, and to see if there’s a way to hold off on new settlements in disputed lands for just a bit, as that would bring that Palestinians to the table for the beginnings of talks to work things out and you have to start somewhere. But Netanyahu greets him warmly, and announces he’s just approved building massive new settlements in East Jerusalem – in spite of international law and UN resolutions and all the rest. He blindsides Biden. There wasn’t even a heads-up. And every nation in the world, including all of Israel’s allies, says Israel has no right to do that, and has done that, and that sort of thing is so provocative that it could trigger even worse holy war in the region. Netanyahu, in effect, says screw you to the Americans and all the rest of the West, not to mention the Muslim world. Jerusalem is their capital – other folks just live there, at least for now. What happens because of that is not his problem.
And that’s a diplomatic pickle. Israel humiliates the American vice president and insults the American president, perhaps thinking Obama would be so weakened by his stunning defeat on healthcare reform that he’d dare not object, or that the American far right, and those afraid of being called anti-Semitic, would overwhelm the president and Petraeus and Mullen and the other generals with support of anything Israel chooses to do. And then Netanyahu flies to Washington to address AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby that worked hand-in-glove with the previous administration, to drive home the point – we do what we want and no one can do a damned thing about it, and you’ll keep sending us billions in aide and all the military gizmos. It was to be Netanyahu’s moment of triumph. Israel puts America in its place.
But it didn’t work out. There was no stunning defeat on healthcare reform, and thus no whimpering president to be manipulated. And he had a memory too. And as Sarah Ebner reports in the Times of London, there was no state dinner either:
For a head of government to visit the White House and not pose for photographers is rare. For a key ally to be left to his own devices while the President withdraws to have dinner in private was, until this week, unheard of. Yet that is how Binyamin Netanyahu was treated by President Obama on Tuesday night, according to Israeli reports on a trip viewed in Jerusalem as a humiliation.
After failing to extract a written promise of concessions on settlements, Mr. Obama walked out of his meeting with Mr. Netanyahu but invited him to stay at the White House, consult with advisers and “let me know if there is anything new”, a US congressman, who spoke to the Prime Minister, said.
So much for etiquette:
“It was awful,” the congressman said. One Israeli newspaper called the meeting “a hazing in stages”, poisoned by such mistrust that the Israeli delegation eventually left rather than risk being eavesdropped on a White House telephone line. Another said that the Prime Minister had received “the treatment reserved for the President of Equatorial Guinea”.
Sometimes diplomacy is manipulating the etiquette, of course – who sits at what table, whether you get the Marine Band or tinny recording of your National Anthem when you arrive, whether you met celebrities or just hack politicians at the White House and so on. And this is the diplomatic equivalent of puke in your lap, but intentional.
And the message was clear:
Left to talk among themselves Mr. Netanyahu and his aides retreated to the Roosevelt Room. He spent a further half-hour with Mr. Obama and extended his stay for a day of emergency talks to try to restart peace negotiations. However, he left last night with no official statement from either side. He returned to Israel yesterday isolated after what Israeli media have called a White House ambush for which he is largely to blame.
Netanyahu made his balls-out gamble – perhaps to keep his ruling coalition together at home as if the far-right über-Zionist folks back out he’s toast. But it was a gamble nonetheless. And he lost.
But he came prepared – with a flow chart to show that he was not responsible for the timing of announcements of new settlement projects in East Jerusalem. It wasn’t his fault. You know how those far-right über-Zionist folks are. But it seems Obama was not buying. And no one was denying that this was hardball diplomacy by manipulation of standard and accepted etiquette:
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, cast doubt on minor details in Israeli accounts of the meeting but did not deny claims that it amounted to a dressing down for the Prime Minister, whose refusal to freeze settlements is seen in Washington as the main barrier to resuming peace talks.
But Netanyahu was in his own diplomatic pickle (a kosher pickle of course):
The Likud leader has to try to square the rigorous demands of the Obama Administration with his nationalist, ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, who want him to stand up to Washington even though Israel needs US backing in confronting the threat of a nuclear Iran.
He was stuck, and the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz stuck it to him – “The Prime Minister leaves America disgraced, isolated and altogether weaker than when he came.”
Diplomacy is not for the faint of heart, and the details show that:
Newspaper reports recounted how Mr. Netanyahu looked “excessively concerned and upset” when he pulled out a flow chart to show Mr. Obama how Jerusalem planning permission worked and how he could not have known that the announcement that hundreds more homes were to be built would be made when Mr. Biden arrived in Jerusalem.
Mr. Obama then suggested that Mr. Netanyahu and his staff stay at the White House to consider his proposals so that if he changed his mind he could inform the President right away. “I’m still around,” the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot quoted Mr. Obama as saying. “Let me know if there is anything new.”
With the atmosphere so soured by the end of the evening, the Israelis decided that they could not trust the telephone line they had been lent for their consultations. Mr. Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, his Defense Minister, went to the Israeli Embassy to ensure that the Americans were not listening in.
Message sent. Message received. There was no shouting, and as Talleyrand would probably note, no one said no, so this was diplomacy. When someone blindsides you and insults you and assumes you’re a weak dork, and lets the world know that is what they think you are, you don’t punch them in the mouth. That wouldn’t be diplomatic at all. This is what you do.
Of course the Times of London allows comments, so you find hundreds of them, including this one:
Wow O Wow, what leadership Obama displays and just when I think he can’t embarrass the United States anymore. Is this the same guy that the rest of the world says will heal America’s image in the world? Obama is a classless, arrogant punk, not fit to be the LEADER of the free word.
And consider the American right, like Pamela Geller at the Ayn Rand inspired Atlas Shrugs: Anti-Semite in the White House: Obama “Humiliates” Jewish Leader and “Dumps” Him – the short form of which is Obama is a weak dork and Biden and Obama deserved to be insulted and humiliated the week before, and so did all the generals, who hate Israel and love the enemy.
Or at the more respectable National Review see the historian Victor Davis Hanson:
So we are watching unfold a sort of Chicago-style Realpolitik, flavored with the traditional academic leftist disdain for the Jewish state. The subsequent result is not so much a cut-off of U.S. aid as a subtle shift in perception abroad: Israel’s multiple enemies now are almost giddy in sensing that America is not all that into protecting the Jewish state, intellectually or morally.
But at American Conservative see Daniel Larison:
The only people who seem to be “almost giddy” these days are conservative and Republican critics of Obama, who seem to think that their ludicrous obsession with demeaning Obama’s support for Israel is being vindicated by events. Of course, they cannot point to any decrease in Obama’s actual support for Israel, because there has been no decrease of any kind, so they are reduced to talking about “subtle shifts in perception,” feelings, moods, and changes in style. These shifts are so subtle that they can only be seen by the trained eye of the ideologically-motivated pundit. As I have said before, Obama’s critics were once obsessed with his supposed superficiality, and now it is they who cannot stop talking about purely superficial things when criticizing him.
It seems you should know diplomacy. Diplomacy is hard. And it’s sometimes nasty. And no one is cutting off anything to Israel. This is what you do.
And Larison also wonders what Chicago-style Realpolitik would look like:
On the face of it that sounds like a pretty hard-nosed, steely-eyed, “he pulls a knife, you pull a gun” approach that would mean that insults and disrespect would merit severe reprisals. Continued disrespect would require that an example be made of the offending party. It would be Bismarck meets Capone meets Daley. Obviously, the administration is so far from handling relations with Israel this way that there’s really nothing more to say.
Yes, Al Capone was not exactly a diplomat, and Larison puts this in perspective:
When provoked, the administration responded angrily for a few days before returning everything to the status quo. When ignored and thwarted over the last year, the administration has been fairly accommodating and continually re-states its “absolute, total and unvarnished” commitment to Israel. Instead of rebuking or criticizing Israel over its counterproductive Gaza operation, the administration has done just what you would expect and defended the operation against criticisms contained in the Goldstone report. Netanyahu went so far as to mention this last point in his AIPAC speech and to thank Obama for it. All of that is an expression of “academic disdain” for Israel? This demonstrates an unwilling to defend Israel intellectually and morally?
But Larison says he can understand Hanson’s frustration:
He and others like him have spent so much time building up an absurd image of Obama as the embodiment of everything they fear and hate, and then he turns out to be a pretty typical, boring center-left Democratic politician who holds just about every conventional, mainstream view you would expect him to have.
It has to be galling to be so profoundly wrong about almost everything one has written about the man, and so at this point the only thing to do is keep re-stating the earlier nonsensical claims with greater and greater intensity. Sure, it’s discrediting and embarrassing, but that hasn’t stopped them before now.
And Larison points to Kevin Sullivan:
So while Israel is just as militarily and strategically secure as it has ever been – if not more so – critics like Hanson worry about Israel’s perceptual and “intellectual” insecurity … whatever that means.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to take these people seriously.
And at American Conservative some dropped this comment:
I never got this whole “Chicago-style politics” thing, myself. Did I miss the chapter of Obama’s bio outlining how he used his family’s muscle with the mob to ice a couple of aldermen on his way to the state senate?
Larison adds this about taking Hanson and the rest seriously:
Unfortunately, a great many people on the right not only take them seriously, but they are absolutely convinced that these critics are brilliantly attacking Obama for his mistakes.
But where was the mistake? There’s an etiquette involved in diplomacy, and civilians shouldn’t even try to critique that.
But something else is going on too. See Matthew Yglesias with Will The Hard-Right Block START Ratification?
Here’s the issue:
The US and Russia appear to have reached an agreement on an important new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (START). Such an accord promises to save money for both countries, reduce the risk of a horrible nuclear accident, and restore the credibility of the international nonproliferation regime just as the challenge from Iran makes clear the need for reinvigoration.
But as Max Bergmann writes, the hard-right in the Senate still wants to “break” Obama:
Despite this treaty having extensive bi-partisan support among senior foreign policy officials – such as George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Colin Powell – ratification is far from assured. There are real questions over whether the Senate GOP will seek to obstruct the ratification of the treaty. Treaties require a two-thirds majority; therefore, eight or nine Republican votes are needed to ratify this treaty. If the Senate GOP wants to kill it they can. Therefore if ratification becomes a fight – it will not be a fight between Republicans and Obama, it will be a fight within the Republican caucus – between moderates and the far right.
In a sign of how extreme the GOP Senate leadership has become, Bloomberg reported, following word the treaty was done, that “Senate Republicans would object to linkages similar to the one in the 1991 treaty.” In other words, what was acceptable to Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush would not be acceptable to Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ).
The only objection that Kyl’s staff could come up with is that the treaty contains irrelevant and entirely symbolic line about missile defense in the preamble to the treaty. Ryan Patmintra, a spokesman for Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, went on the record, insisting that “unilateral declarations that the Russian Federation could use as leverage against you or your successors when U.S. missile defense decisions are made.”
Realistically, your average Senator doesn’t give a fig about nuclear arms control, so this will likely come down to raw politics. If people feel that the “obstruct everything all the time” strategy has paid off, then they’ll side with Kyl. If they feel it’s been counterproductive or problematic, they’ll side with Lugar.
Well, full obstruction of everything hasn’t worked that well so far. And Obama isn’t broken. He’s not met his Waterloo. And he seems to know how to play this game. But it takes all kinds. Some run for office or become diplomats and live that life. They’re odd folk. But they get the job done. Someone has to do it.
But it’s probably best for the rest of us to avoid diplomatic pickles. Actually, actual pickles too – they’re kind of disgusting.