Everyone will now remember the day the leader of the free world came to the United States to address a Joint Session of Congress, to upbraid and shame the young and hopelessly naïve president of that now equally hopeless country – invited to do so by the few remaining Real Americans – those who prefer war to diplomacy, and don’t like gays, and who prefer minorities stay in the background, quietly, and like their women modest and generally silent. That would be the Republicans of course.
Everything had been arranged. The leader of the free world was invited to come, and to set things straight, behind that hopelessly naïve president’s back. There was need to tell him what was up – and those few remaining Real Americans would thus show the rest of the other whining and useless Americans, who voted the wrong way, twice, what a real leader does, or at least what a real leader says. That seemed to be the general idea. After this, no one would ever vote for a Democrat again, not even for dogcatcher. The big guy would show Americans the mistake they had made, twice. All they needed was a hook, and they had one:
With dark warnings and a call to action, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel used one of the world’s most prominent venues on Tuesday to denounce what he called a “bad deal” being negotiated with Iran and to mount an audacious challenge to President Obama.
In an extraordinary spectacle pitting the leaders of two close allies against each other, Mr. Netanyahu took the rostrum in the historic chamber of the House of Representatives to tell a joint meeting of Congress that instead of stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Mr. Obama’s diplomatic initiative “would all but guarantee” that it does, in turn setting off a regional arms race.
“This deal won’t be a farewell to arms,” Mr. Netanyahu told the lawmakers, who responded to him with a succession of standing ovations. “It would be a farewell to arms control. And the Middle East would soon be crisscrossed by nuclear tripwires. A region where small skirmishes can trigger big wars would turn into a nuclear tinderbox.”
In short, look at this fool you elected twice. He’ll get us all killed, and this is quite obvious:
Such dire predictions could make it much harder for Mr. Obama to sell an agreement to a Republican-led Congress even if his negotiators reach one in Geneva.
That was the whole point, but the boy-president shot back:
The president quickly tried to counter the prime minister by dismissing the speech as “theater” and “nothing new.” Mr. Netanyahu, the president told reporters, had no better ideas than the status quo or, in theory, military strikes against Iranian facilities.
“The prime minister didn’t offer any viable alternatives,” Mr. Obama said after the speech at the start of a meeting with his new defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter. He added, “The alternative that the prime minister offers is no deal, in which case Iran will immediately begin once again pursuing its nuclear program, accelerate its nuclear program, without us having any insight into what they’re doing, and without constraint.”
There he goes again, being logical. Is that leadership? That was the question:
Mr. Netanyahu’s address, by far the most anticipated speech to Congress by a foreign leader in many years, drove a wedge between Democrats and Republicans. While he was escorted into the chamber by a bipartisan delegation of lawmakers and greeted with raucous enthusiasm, especially by Republicans, more than 50 Democrats skipped the event. Representative Nancy Pelosi, the party’s House leader, called his speech an “insult” to the United States.
Longtime congressional veterans could recall few if any precedents for such a confrontation by a foreign leader on Capitol Hill, or for such a partisan response. Most foreign dignitaries invited to speak to Congress are celebrated figures, like Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel, or leaders of American allies delivering unifying messages. Perhaps the closest parallel involved not a foreign leader but Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was invited to address Congress a week after President Harry S. Truman fired him in 1951.
Truman still fired him, but the battle lines were drawn:
Democrats blamed Mr. Netanyahu and Speaker John A. Boehner for arranging the event without consulting the White House in an effort to undercut the president, while Republicans faulted Mr. Obama for reacting with such hostility to the genuine concerns of an endangered ally.
None of that was resolved. It wasn’t supposed to be resolved, although Netanyahu tried to smooth things over:
Mr. Netanyahu tried to defuse some of the tension surrounding his visit by praising Mr. Obama for all he has done to support Israel and by embracing lawmakers of both parties. “I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political,” he said. “That was never my intention.”
But he did not succeed in mollifying all Democrats, who recalled a history of what they deemed doomsday messages by him. Ms. Pelosi appeared agitated on the floor during the speech, shaking her head, gesturing and commenting to those around her. She later issued a statement saying she “was near tears” because she was “saddened by the insult to the intelligence of the United States” and “the condescension toward our knowledge of the threat posed by Iran.”
Yeah, well, President Obama didn’t watch the speech – he was holding a video conference at the same time with European leaders about Ukraine and this and that. He said he later looked over a transcript of Netanyahu’s remarks and he saw nothing new there.
That was waving a red flag at the powerful bull:
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader, moved on Tuesday to allow procedural votes as early as Monday to advance legislation requiring the president to submit any agreement to Congress and restricting his authority to waive sanctions for 60 days to give Congress time to weigh in.
Obama has said he’d veto that. The negotiations are still going on, and waiving a few sanctions would be part of any final deal, so this was jumping the gun, and Netanyahu wasn’t helping matters either, and then there was the situation back home for him:
In Israel, where Mr. Netanyahu’s speech has proved no less contentious, political analysts praised his rhetorical skills. But they said it was unclear whether the speech would have any effect on the future of Iran’s nuclear program, or whether it would help or hinder Mr. Netanyahu’s chances of being re-elected on March 17.
“There was nothing really new here for Israelis,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political communications at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.
“On the one hand, you have people getting up and cheering in Congress, and on the other, people here are asking whether it was worth causing such damage” to Israel’s relations with the Obama administration.
And there was this:
All of Israel’s major television channels broadcast the speech, but with a five-minute delay mandated by the Israeli Central Elections Committee to give local news editors time to block out any sections that could be construed as violating Israel’s strict election propaganda laws. Nothing was censored.
Isaac Herzog, the Zionist Union leader who is challenging Mr. Netanyahu in the elections, said that “there is no doubt that Netanyahu knows how to give speeches,” but that the speech in Congress “will not stop Iran going nuclear.”
Mr. Herzog said the prime minister’s trip had delivered “a harsh blow to American-Israeli relations.”
Real Americans don’t see it that way. National Review columnist Quin Hillyer wrote that “Netanyahu, not Obama, speaks for us” – and called him “the leader of the free world” – so the Israelis will have to realize who’s on top here. They should be proud that Netanyahu put America in its place.
That idea upset MSNBC’s Chris Matthews:
I’ll get to the heart of this speech now. This man from a foreign government walked into the United States legislative chamber and tried to take over U.S. foreign policy. He said, “You should trust me, not your president on this. I am the man you should trust. I am your true leader on this question of U.S. geopolitics. To protect yourself, you must listen to me and not this president.”
It was a startling situation. To allow someone to come in – knowing that was going to be their message – to the U.S. Congress. This was a decision made by Boehner and certainly complied with by Netanyahu and his ambassador [Ron Dermer]. They went into the U.S. Congress to take over U.S. foreign policy from the president.
Matthews wouldn’t let it go:
Think it through, what country in the world would let a foreign leader come in and attempt to wrest from the president control of the U.S. foreign policy? This was a takeover attempt by Netanyahu with this complying America partners to take American foreign policy out of the hands of the president.
Ah, but that was the general idea, and the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman tried to wrap his head around that:
The U.S. position – shared by China, Russia, Germany, Britain and France – is: Given that Iran has already mastered the techniques to make a bomb and managed to import all the components to do so, despite sanctions, it is impossible to eliminate Iran’s bomb-making capabilities. What is possible is to demand that Iran roll back its enrichment and other technologies so that if Iran decided one day to make a bomb, it would take it a year — more than enough time for the U.S. and its allies to destroy it.
I think such a deal would be in America’s interest if – if – it includes Iran agreeing to constant, intrusive and unannounced inspections of, and limits on, all bomb-making capacities and if, even after the specified 10 years, there are more-than-the-usual inspections. I would also welcome Congress accompanying the deal by granting the president formal authorization – right now – to use “any means necessary” to respond should Iran try to break out of the deal.
These conditions would satisfy U.S. strategic concerns, while opening the possibility – nothing more – for Iran to become more integrated into the global system. Ultimately, the only safeguard against Iran’s nuclear ambitions is an internally driven change in the character of Iran’s regime.
My problem with Netanyahu is that he warned that the interim deal Obama negotiated with Iran – which froze and rolled back parts of Iran’s nuclear program and created these negotiations – would lead to a collapse of sanctions and be violated by Iran. None of it happened.
There may be nothing more important than deterring Iran, but there is reality:
If that were my top priority, would I engineer an invitation to speak to Congress by leveraging only the Republican Party and do it without even informing the president, who is running the Iran talks? And would I do it two weeks before Israeli elections, where it looks as though I am using the American Congress as a backdrop for a campaign ad, raising the question of whether my opposition to Iran is partly a political pose? And if I needed the Europeans to be on my side for tighter sanctions, wouldn’t I announce no more settlement-building in the West Bank in areas everyone knows will be part of any negotiated Palestinian state? Such a move would cost Bibi politically with his base, but would certainly increase Israel’s support from Europe.
Friedman is not impressed:
Bibi is Churchill when it comes to isolating Iran, but he is AWOL when it comes to risking his own political future to make it happen. I have a problem with that. … I also have a problem with my own Congress howling in support of a flawed foreign leader trying to scuttle the negotiations by my own government before they’re done.
Sure, but who leads the free world these days? Who’s your daddy, Friedman?
Slate’s Fred Kaplan also sees some nonsense here:
The Israeli prime minister pretended to criticize the specific deal that the United States and five other nations are currently negotiating with Iran, but it’s clear from his words that he opposes any deal that falls short of Iran’s total disarmament and regime change. He pretended merely to push for a “better deal,” but he actually was agitating for war.
At the start of his speech, he played nice, thanking President Obama for the generous bounty of security assistance, the rescues from embassy sieges, the shipment of Iron Dome missile-defense batteries (which probably saved hundreds of Israeli lives from Hamas rocket attacks), and for his help in other programs so highly classified that they cannot be mentioned.
But this had all the sincerity of Mark Antony coming to praise Caesar, not to bury him. The burying soon commenced.
That was obvious:
As an opening dig, he listed the many ways in which Iran is a threat to the region and to Israel: It supports terrorists, seeks to expand its influence, and still shouts slogans of death to America and Zionists. These claims are, of course, incontestable. But what do they have to do with the nuclear deal on the table?
This is a question that Netanyahu not only failed to answer, but thoroughly muddled.
No logic followed:
His problem with the deal is twofold: It doesn’t obliterate Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, and it relies on international inspectors to detect cheating. This, of course, is the “problem” with every arms control agreement that has ever been negotiated, except for treaties of surrender at the end of a war.
He failed to note that the deal, as it’s been outlined, would force Iran to reduce its stockpile of centrifuges, to freeze its enrichment of uranium well below “weapons-grade” levels, and to open its nuclear facilities to extraordinarily intrusive inspections.
And then there was the idea that the deal, if there is one, would expire in ten years. There is no deal, so the ten-year thing is just a possibility, if it has even been discussed, but Netanyahu said you can Google it, so it must be true, and this cannot stand:
At that point, Netanyahu warned, Iran would be free to resume its juggernaut toward a nuclear weapon, this time with economic sanctions long lifted, resulting in the continuation of Iranian aggression and a nuclear arms race between Iran and its regional foes.
But it can stand:
This is a legitimate concern but consider the following. First, a lot can happen in 10 years. (Take a look back at the most recent three or four 10-year periods.) Second, almost every arms-control accord ever negotiated has an expiration date. Third – and this is key – the horrible things that Netanyahu foresees 10 years down the road, if the deal is signed, might happen – by his own logic, would happen – in the next two or three years if the talks fail.
The only difference would be that, if the talks fail now, the sanctions would still be in place. But in fact this seems unlikely. The U.S. government’s sanctions would probably hold, but not those imposed by the European Union and other nations – which have lasted as long as they have only because of the nuclear talks. President Obama and others have persuaded many others that the sanctions have helped pressure the Iranians into negotiations. If the negotiations break down, that argument falls apart – especially if they break down because the U.S. Congress rejects the deal, and doubly so if it rejects the deal because of a speech by the prime minister of Israel.
So what does Netanyahu offer as an alternative to the present deal on the table (which, it should be emphasized, has not been completed and, by all reports, still has many disputes to resolve)? “The alternative to this very bad deal,” he told the assembled American lawmakers, “is a much better deal.”
That sounds fine, but it’s a bit absurd:
He defines “a much better deal” as a deal that doesn’t merely freeze and inspect Iran’s nuclear infrastructure but dismantles it – completely. Furthermore, the deal should be written so that, at the end of the 10-year period, the restrictions shouldn’t be lifted unless Iran stops all aggression against its neighbors, stops supporting terrorist groups, and stops its rhetorical threats to annihilate Israel – in short unless Iran changes its behavior or (here’s the real upshot) changes its regime.
This is a nice world that Netanyahu envisions, but it just isn’t going to happen, and he knows it. During the decades of Soviet-American arms control talks, many conservatives similarly argued that the president shouldn’t sign a deal unless the Kremlin stopped supporting Communist insurgents, dropped its Marxist-Leninist views, and joined the international economic system. Thankfully, Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan thought it was in U.S. interests to control, and then reduce the nuclear arsenals, even in the absence of a change in the political, economic, or ideological spheres.
Then Netanyahu gets even stranger:
“If Iran threatens to walk away,” he told Congress, “call their bluff. They need this deal a lot more than you do. By keeping up the pressure on Iran, you have the power to make them need it even more.”
This is nonsense, and he knows it. Early in the speech, he warned of Iran’s growing strength: It was “charging into the void” to export terror throughout the Middle East; it “dominates four Middle Eastern capitals;” it is “busy gobbling up” nations. “We must stand together,” he urged Congress, “to stop Iran” from subjugating the region, then the world.
But later on, when he sought to assure Congress to demand stiffer terms and to let Iran walk away from the talks if they don’t like it, he changed his tune. Iran can be pressured into accepting a better deal because, he said, it’s “a very vulnerable regime, especially given the recent collapse in the price of oil.”
So which is it, Mr. Prime Minister: Iran as a rapacious beacon of Islamic terrorism, comparable in its beastliness to the Nazis or to Haman, the Persian viceroy who sought to wipe out the Jews 2,500 years ago (and yes, he made comparisons to both) – or Iran as a weakening regime, sure to change its entire political structure and foreign policy if only we applied a little more pressure?
Kaplan sees no reason to trust this guy:
It’s worth noting, for now, that Netanyahu has been consistently wrong on this whole issue. He denounced the interim accord, signed a year ago, as a fraud that wildly favored the Iranians and that the Iranians would soon violate anyway; in fact, it’s been remarkably effective at freezing Iran’s nuclear activities, while freeing up a small fraction of its sanctioned funds. For the past 15 years, he’s been warning that Iran could or would go nuclear in the next year – and yet, here he still stands, in a Middle East where the only nation with nuclear weapons is his own.
Kaplan sees a guy who wants a war, and Betsy Woodruff tells us of others who see the same thing:
Rep. Jared Huffman of California, who attended the speech, accused the prime minister of trying to push the United States into war.
“This is a prime minister who’s never seen a war he didn’t want our country to fight,” Huffman said, adding that diplomats negotiating with Iran shouldn’t be distracted by Netanyahu’s address.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a liberal Illinois Democrat, suggested Netanyahu’s credibility is suspect because he also backed the 2003 war in Iraq.
“What I heard today felt to me like an effort to stampede the United States into war once again,” she said.
Another Democrat compared Netanyahu to George W. Bush’s former vice president. “This speech was straight out of the Dick Cheney playbook,” said Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth. “It was fear-mongering at its ultimate.”
Yarmuth also said that Netanyahu’s requests were akin to those of a small child looking to visit an amusement park.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu basically said that the only acceptable deal was a perfect deal, or an ideal deal,” Yarmuth said. “It’s like the child that says, I want to go to Disneyland every day, eat ice cream and drink Coca-Cola every day, and not go to school.”
Not everyone saw the real leader of the free world, and William Saletan saw this:
First, the indisputable purpose of this speech was to enlist Congress as a weapon against Obama. Two weeks ago, according to Haaretz, Israel’s ambassador to the United States – the Netanyahu protégé who negotiated the speaking engagement – told officials in Jerusalem that Netanyahu was going to Congress because Israel “has almost no ability to influence the negotiations through other channels.” Last Friday, campaigning in Israel, Netanyahu said he was coming here to lobby “the only body that may prevent” the Iran deal. The gist of both statements is obvious: Netanyahu doesn’t like Obama’s policy, so he’s trying to use Congress to block it.
Netanyahu says he’s doing this only because Iranian nukes are an existential threat to Israel. But this isn’t the first time Netanyahu has publicly challenged Obama. The last time he did it – lecturing Obama in the Oval Office, in front of television cameras, for seven minutes in May 2011 – the subject wasn’t Iran. It was peace talks with the Palestinians.
This is not a nice man:
In Israel, Netanyahu is exploiting his fight with the administration. He accuses his rivals in the center and on the left of “groveling to the international community” while he stands up to foreign pressure. A Likud campaign ad casts Netanyahu in the tradition of past Israeli leaders who, according to the ad, defied “the American secretary of state” and “the American State Department.”
So let’s be clear: Netanyahu has come here to defy Obama. He has done so because confrontation is in his nature. And he’s politicizing it. You can dismiss all his protestations that the speech shouldn’t be taken as an assault on the authority of our head of state. Because that’s exactly how Netanyahu treats criticism of his own policies back home.
And there’s more:
In January, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, France organized a massive march against terrorism. The French government asked Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas not to attend. France didn’t want Israeli-Palestinian issues or Netanyahu’s election campaign to cloud the message of the march. Netanyahu attended anyway. In a direct challenge to the national solidarity and pluralism France wanted to convey, Netanyahu urged “all French Jews” to move to Israel. He worked his way up to the front row of the march and plugged his own biography in a speech. “I am personally familiar with the wounds of terror,” he recalled. “As a soldier, I was wounded in an operation to free hostages who had been kidnapped on a Sabena airplane.”
Having sown division in France, Netanyahu used his trip to quash dissent in Israel. He portrayed his participation at the march – which he had decided to attend only after discovering that two other Israeli politicians would be there – as glory for Israel, since Netanyahu represented the nation. “There is great significance in what the world saw, the prime minister of Israel marching with all the world leaders in a united effort against terrorism,” said Netanyahu. In fact, he asserted, “I came to Paris not only as prime minister of Israel, but as a representative of the Jewish people.”
That’s his thing:
When Israelis question the wisdom of Netanyahu’s hard line on Iran, or his plan to speak in Congress, he dismisses them and purports to speak for the whole nation. Two weeks ago, he told Israelis that he would come to Congress “representing all the citizens of Israel.” On Sunday, he went further: “I am the emissary of all Israelis, even those who disagree with me, of the entire Jewish people.” A statement from Likud accused dissenters of betraying national security: “On such a crucial existential issue for the citizens of Israel, opposition leaders should rise above political and personal considerations and stand alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
The man has a healthy ego, but at least he doesn’t claim to be Jesus, returned, and angry – or he hasn’t claimed that yet. He does, however, claim he speaks for all Jews, and now for the free world, which Saletan finds offensive, just like his speech to Congress:
So please, Mr. Prime Minister, don’t pretend we shouldn’t take offense at what you just did. If anybody did the same to you, you’d never stand for it.
This speech may have been a stunningly bad idea, and full of stunningly bad ideas, but then the few remaining Real Americans cheered didn’t they? They cheered the real leader of the free world. Everyone else just sighed. The world is full of stunningly bad ideas.