It’s a sports thing. Teams fall behind and panic – they forget their game plan that they had so cleverly and carefully practiced, over and over, until every move was instinctive. They’re losing and get desperate. This player or that will try to win the game all on his own – forget what the coach says, and forget teamwork. Forget winning too. Bold and unlikely moves, out of the blue with no thought and planning, without any practice to see if they work, end in disaster again and again. Trying too hard is the problem. That’s far worse than not trying at all. There’s a reason there’s a game plan. There’s a reason for all that practice. There’s a reason there’s a coach. He’s there to head off desperation moves by the next guy who has a brilliant idea that just might work. That brilliant idea that just might work almost always assures the worst possible outcome. Stick to the game plan.
This was the week the Republicans forgot that, and they paid the price:
The backlash continued Tuesday after 47 Republican senators sent a signed letter to Iran’s leaders warning them against cutting a nuclear deal with the Obama administration.
The letter, organized by Senator Tom Cotton, a freshman from Arkansas, warned Iran that “we will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”
The New York Daily News on Tuesday put photos of Cotton, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on its front page along with the boldfaced headline “TRAITORS.”
Things weren’t any better by the end of the week. One-third of Republican insiders in Iowa and New Hampshire have problems with the open letter to Iran from Senate Republicans, according to Politico’s ongoing anonymous survey – where folks can let it rip. “More than 100 of the most plugged-in activists, operatives and elected officials in Iowa and New Hampshire” saw a disaster and were saying things like this:
“The GOP letter – while sound in substance – caused the debate to shift from the administration’s wrongheadedness to the GOP’s tactics,” said a New Hampshire Republican, who – like all 92 respondents this week – completed the survey anonymously in order to speak candidly. “That’s not helpful.”
“Policy wise, the deal Obama is trying to cut is a bad one,” said another. “Politically speaking, however, the letter has been a disaster. The Democrats have totally framed and owned the debate, and our GOP senators are getting pummeled.”
This was a desperation move by a team that had fallen behind. Obama was going to get Iran to stop trying to make nuclear weapons, for at least ten years, with intrusive inspections and all the rest. In return, we would start to lift all the economic sanctions, and so would the other five nations who were part of the negotiations. But this would be a triumph for Obama. He’d win. Republicans would lose. The only thing to do was send a letter to the Iranian government, saying that the Republican Senate over here didn’t like the deal, and if this were a treaty, they’d never ratify it. As it’s not a treaty – if Obama pulls this off it would be a series of executive agreements – they wanted to remind Iran that the next president will be a Republican, who would revoke it all. It was a reminder to the Iranian government to explain how our government really works. The president is a figurehead. They were dealing with the wrong guy. They should be dealing with Tom Cotton, who speaks for the Republican Senate, which determines this nation’s foreign policy, and which speaks for America. Tom Cotton is the new guy on the team – he’s been a senator for two months now – and this was his idea.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, was not impressed – “This kind of communication is unprecedented and undiplomatic” – and he dismissed the letter as purely political. He knows our constitution better than Tom Cotton does. He shrugged. This was Obama’s problem, if it was a problem. It was more like an irritant. Zarif could have easily said Iran would stop negotiating with the United States for now, because the United States seems to be in the midst of a coup and it might be best to pause negotiations until the Americans decide who actually runs their government – but he wants the sanctions lifted and doesn’t mind giving up on the bomb thing for now. He’ll deal with Obama and with the other five nations at the table. He’ll deal with the Republicans when they’ve abolished the presidency, have their own Army, and declare the Constitution null and void, but until then… whatever.
Then there was this:
President Barack Obama said he’s “embarrassed” for the 47 Republican senators who signed a letter to Iranian leaders earlier this week.
“I’m embarrassed for them. For them to address a letter to the ayatollah who they claim is our mortal enemy, and their basic argument to them is ‘don’t deal with our president ’cause you can’t trust him to follow through on agreement,” Obama said in a trailer for a Vice News interview scheduled to run in full on Monday.
This item also mentions that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Twitter account said that the Cotton letter “is indicative” of an American “collapse in ethics” – whatever that means. Americans aren’t honorable people? Who knows? Twitter is not a place for depth.
Jonathan Chait has a different take. He points to Bill Kristol behind this:
The letter, which was conceived of by freshman GOP Sen. Tom Cotton, was influenced in part by prominent national security hawk and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol. Kristol said he had no part in drafting or editing the letter, but did consult with the senator about it.
“I did discuss it with Tom as he was conceiving it and pondering whether and how to do it. I know he consulted with others as well with some government and foreign policy experience, as you’d expect,” Kristol told The Daily Beast.
Given that, Chait sees Cotton as the future of neoconservatism:
The letter episode contains all the characteristic traits of a neoconservative project. First, of course, is the wild confrontationalism, which in this case was directed not against Iran but against the Obama administration. It may not be treason for the Senate to undermine the president’s negotiations with a foreign power, but it surely represents the bluntest and most hostile possible exercise of opposition to the executive branch’s strategy. Kristol’s advice in any situation, domestic or foreign, is for his side to display maximum belligerence, and the Cotton letter reflected that impulse.
Second, the letter was drafted and signed with maximum haste and a total contempt for planning or serious thought of any kind. “It was kind of a very rapid process. Everybody was looking forward to getting out of town because of the snowstorm,” confessed John McCain. “Many of the 47 signatories reasoned that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s endorsement was vetting enough,” notes former Bush administration speechwriter Michael Gerson, disgustedly. “There was no caucus-wide debate about strategy; no consultation with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has studiously followed the nuclear talks (and who refused to sign).” Most people who signed on did so because they assumed somebody else had thought through the details. It was the Iraq invasion of foreign-policy maneuvers.
Third, the ploy has failed even by the standards of its own logic. The neoconservative plan for Iran is to undermine Obama’s Iran deal and replace it with what Benjamin Netanyahu called, vaguely, a “better deal.” The sequence of this strategy requires getting a bipartisan Senate group to impose more stringent sanctions on Iran, thus forcing Iran away from the table, and then securing international cooperation for stricter sanctions.
That’s not going to happen now:
The partisanship of the letter undermines the prospects of any additional Democrats giving the Iran sanctions bill the veto-proof majority it needs. And if Iran does walk away from negotiations, it will argue that negotiations were sabotaged by Republican ultra-hawks, not its own recalcitrance. That would make the international cooperation required for effective sanctions even harder to round up. As Gerson puts it, “this approach depends on the tightening of sanctions in cooperation with Europe, as well as Russia and China. And this effort can be held together only by the impression that the United States has negotiated with Iran in good faith.”
How can we negotiate in good faith when we’re in the middle of a coup? The Republicans have announced to the world that they alone speak for us. The Constitution – see the Treaty Clause and the War Powers Clause and the Appointments Clause and the Foreign Commerce Clause – and the law – the Logan Act specifically – say Obama speaks for us. Who is right? With whom does one negotiate?
Chait is just amazed:
Numerous Republican signatories have admitted, tacitly or overtly, that the letter was a mistake. Senator Pat Toomey concedes he “didn’t have any particular anticipation of the level of controversy.” His colleague Ron Johnson now says maybe the letter should not have been addressed to the Iranian regime. But Kristol regards the concession of error as a form of weakness. His response to his own party’s queasiness at its hastily conceived and botched maneuver is the same as it was when the Iraq occupation began to disintegrate. He is scolding the doubters for their half-heartedness and calling for renewed willpower…
His Weekly Standard colleague Stephen Hayes, author of a book touting the connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, insists the Cotton letter has succeeded spectacularly. “The Cotton letter has already achieved its goal,” writes Hayes, “We are, finally, engaged in a serious national debate about the threat from Iran.”
You may think people were already debating Iran before Cotton’s letter, and you may further think the letter has changed the subject from Obama’s negotiating strategy (which may or may not work) to the GOP’s highly controversial attempt to subvert it. But you’d be wrong, say the neocons. It was a cakewalk.
Those neocons are a hoot, aren’t they? But ever since their singular foreign policy achievement, the war in Iraq, fell apart on them, they’ve been like that team that falls behind, and sees the end of their season facing them, and then tries too hard, assuring the worst possible outcome. That’s what they got, and then there’s this:
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an unannounced visit this week to the Mahane Yehuda market here [in Jerusalem] he did not invite the local news media. Instead, selected scenes from his tour were filmed and the video released by his campaign.
The curious decision to not invite the press stemmed from security concerns, campaign aides said, but Israeli security officials told reporters they had not made the decision. Israeli political commentators concluded that even in this traditional stronghold of support for his conservative Likud Party, Mr. Netanyahu was worried about being heckled.
By Friday, with just days to go before the national elections, the reasons for Mr. Netanyahu’s concern were apparent. Most of the last polls to be published before the vote showed Likud trailing its main rival, the Zionist Union, a center-left slate headed by the Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and his running mate, Tzipi Livni, the leader of a small centrist party.
Mr. Herzog and Ms. Livni have agreed to split the four-year term as prime minister if they win, with Mr. Herzog serving in the post for the first two years and Ms. Livni for the second.
How did that happen? Slate’s Fred Kaplan sees a guy who is trying too hard:
Trailing in polls four days before Israel’s parliamentary election, he’s shedding his pretense of friendly relations with the United States. Finishing second next Tuesday won’t, by itself, destroy Netanyahu’s career. But the manner in which he’s doing it has made him toxic. His days as a credible representative of his country are over.
Blaming others is always a bad idea, and now he’s blaming us:
Netanyahu has blamed “European states” for some of his election troubles. Until recently, he had left the most explicit America-bashing to surrogates such as his intelligence minister, who warned Israelis on Tuesday of a “mobilization … by elements in the United States against us.” But in the last two days, Netanyahu has sharpened his attacks. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post on Thursday, he accused his rivals of suggesting that “we should bow our heads to the U.S.” Under his own leadership, Netanyahu pledged, “The days when Jews bow their heads are over.” He argued that an Israeli prime minister must “draw the line” not only against Iran’s nuclear program, but also against dividing Jerusalem and withdrawing to Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
On Friday, speaking with the Times of Israel, Netanyahu implied that some Americans and their government were targeting him for his resistance. He denounced “an effort by leftist NGOs throughout the world, and left-leaning tycoons and consultants from various political parties, including from the United States, to try to bring down the Likud and me.” The Times asked him: “Do you think the Obama administration wants to see the back of you as prime minister?” Netanyahu replied: “Well, it’s not a tremendous leap of imagination, don’t you think?” He pointed to the “enormous campaign here from abroad … to get out the Arab vote in vast numbers, get out the left vote in vast numbers, and conduct a negative campaign against me.”
Now everyone is out to get him:
Sometimes, Netanyahu pretends that his defiance is just about an existential threat from Iran. But then he brags about standing up for settlements, which every U.S. administration has opposed. On Thursday, in a letter to right-wing voters, Netanyahu touted his refusal to halt Jewish construction in the West Bank, not just during his current term, but also in his prior term, when Bill Clinton was president. “We stood up against great international pressure to withdraw,” he crowed. “We built thousands of housing units in Judea, Samaria, and Jerusalem.”
And, he might have said, he really stuck it to those useless Americans, from Clinton, to the second Bush, to Obama. Well, screw them all! That would be all except the current Republicans, and Kaplan finds all of this mighty odd:
When Netanyahu addressed Congress on March 3, he swore his trip wasn’t political. “I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political,” he told the assembled lawmakers. “That was never my intention.” But on Thursday, Likud released a commercial that shows the prime minister receiving a standing ovation in the House chamber.
Think about that. First, Netanyahu accepted a unilateral invitation from congressional Republicans. Then he ignored signals from the White House not to come. He stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and urged Congress to oppose the Obama administration’s foreign policy. He lamented, in a tone of wounded piety, the notion that anyone might think his speech was political. Hundreds of lawmakers, taking him at his word, stood and applauded. And then Netanyahu used their applause in a campaign ad. There is no greater chutzpah.
Netanyahu does, however, claim the speech helped his country:
“Respect for Israel in the U.S. is at a record high, despite the differences there have been with the administration,” he told the Post. But after the trip, Netanyahu’s favorable rating in the United States dropped seven points, and his unfavorable rating rose five points. Nor did the visit help his campaign. Likud officials admit that they had counted on the trip to boost their party and that it didn’t work. “Netanyahu’s speech to Congress last week should have created a turning point for us and strengthened Likud in the polls,” a Likud insider told Haaretz. “It’s clear that we didn’t achieve the desired outcome.”
Oops. When you’re behind, in this case when Obama is probably going to get a pretty good deal with Iran, even if not the best deal anyone could ever even imagine, and you also know that then you’re going to look like a jerk, you try too hard. That only makes matters worse. It did here:
It turns out that when you go to the capital of your most important ally and slap its president in the face – particularly when that ally is the only friend standing between your country and near-total international isolation – your own people don’t necessarily conclude that you’re a hero. Many of them conclude that you’re a jerk, a fool, and a hazard. In a poll released Tuesday, 49 percent of Israeli Jews said the U.S. would be less friendly to a government led by Netanyahu than to a government led by his rivals. Only 7 percent said the opposite. When Jewish Israelis were asked which head of state was responsible for frayed relations with the United States, only 32 percent blamed Obama. Twenty-seven percent blamed their own prime minister.
Maybe Netanyahu is right. Maybe the whole world is out to get him. But if that’s true, it’s not because he’s brave or righteous. It’s because he has gone out of his way to antagonize so many people. Obama is just another leader he couldn’t get along with. Among heads of state, rolling your eyes at Netanyahu has become a bonding experience.
Of course, like Bill Kristol and Tom Cotton and Dick Cheney, this guy doesn’t think that way:
Netanyahu thinks his behavior earns him “respect.” He has invincible faith in his ability to outtalk, outmaneuver, and impose his will on others. That’s why Israel is holding this election. In December, Netanyahu fired the ministers whose parties were propping up his government. He thought he could win without these partners. He would just tell Israelis what’s what, and they’d sweep him back into power with an incontestable mandate. Today, as Likud stumbles toward a second-place showing that will force it to bargain with other parties for the chance to form a government, Netanyahu refuses to compromise. His rivals are willing to share the prime minister’s office, but he isn’t. “I won’t rotate the premiership,” he says.
Netanyahu has thus assured the worst possible outcome:
Even his own party is fed up. In anonymous interviews, Likud officials are burying him. “Netanyahu kept Likud ministers far from decisions,” says one, citing the prime minister’s “excessive focus” on himself. Another complains: “He decided to put himself at the front. … It turns out the public is weary of Netanyahu, but he didn’t think that was a good enough reason to scale back his presence in the campaign.”
There is such a thing as trying too hard:
Netanyahu is botching the election the same way he botched Israel’s leverage in the Iran deal, its relations with the United States, and everything else. He commandeers the stage, insults his allies, and refuses to shut up. That’s who he is. And that’s who he’ll still be a year or two from now. But he won’t be prime minister of Israel.
That brilliant idea that just might work almost always assures the worst possible outcome. Stick to the game plan. Hell, have a game plan. That seems to be the lesson in both these cases.