Americans have historically resisted efforts by foreigners to tell us how to do our business. Many foreigners still attempt to do so, though at times ruffling our feathers and producing an effect opposite to the one intended. Of course, we Americans are not shy about telling others how to run their affairs.
Some foreign leaders and other dignitaries have gone so far as to make their suggestions in addresses before one or both houses of Congress. Until just recently, however, it was hard to find a case of a foreign leader asking Congress to defy policies enunciated by the president of the United States, especially in his role as commander-in-chief.
But that is precisely the intention behind the invitation issued by Speaker of the House John Boehner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress, scheduled for March 3. Boehner allegedly did not come up with the idea himself but was put up to it by Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer who, like his immediate predecessor, hails from these shores but gave up his US citizenship to represent Israel in his former homeland. Of course, Boehner can argue that the White House has encouraged leaders of close European allies to push Congress to support President Obama. From the speaker’s point of view, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
Whatever the provenance of the invitation, Netanyahu can hardly be blamed for accepting and, most likely, using the opportunity to state his case about the course of negotiations by the P5+1 powers with Iran on its nuclear program. Netanyahu’s views are certainly well known, and he presents them to all who will listen, including face-to-face with President Barack Obama, whenever he gets the chance. He won’t get the chance on this occasion, however, since Obama has pointedly (and properly) decided not to be part of Boehner’s attempt to assert primacy over the president in the conduct of a major national security policy. Secretary of State John Kerry has naturally followed suit. Both used the transparent excuse of not wanting to meddle in Israeli electoral politics.
Of course, the Israeli prime minister must also see his forthcoming speech to Congress as a windfall in his quest to continue serving as Israel’s leader following elections on March 17 – two weeks after his appearance on Capitol Hill. The invitation alone will seem to show that, despite the bad blood with Obama, Netanyahu still has strong US support, which counters claims by his domestic political opponents that he is jeopardizing Israel’s relationship with Washington, the sine qua non of Israel’s security.
Netanyahu will no doubt receive a large number of standing ovations, as happens whenever an Israeli prime minister speaks to Congress. This will be all the more likely this time when the Republican leadership, now in control of both Houses, is planning to pass legislation imposing new economic sanctions on Iran. Since President Obama made clear in his State of the Union address that he will veto any new sanctions, the Republicans need to build up support in order to get the magic 67th vote in the Senate to get the two-thirds majority to override Obama’s veto.
Again, Netanyahu can’t be blamed for wanting an opportunity to speak before Congress, any more than he could be blamed for going to Paris, after the killings at Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket, to show common cause. So what if Netanyahu’s high-profile appearance in Paris will help him in his election campaign? American politicians are no strangers to such activities. Indeed, trips to Israel in particular are a staple for virtually all presidential aspirants.
If there is fault, it lies with the speaker of the House. Congressional Republicans—and a number of Democrats who also want to impose new sanctions on Iran—are certainly taking a big risk. If the Netanyahu visit, with its underscoring of the political potency of the Israeli lobby on Capitol Hill, ensures veto-proof support in the Senate for sanctions legislation, it would saddle Boehner and company with shared responsibility not only for possible collapse of the nuclear talks—a risk Obama outlined in his State of the Union address—but also for the increased chances of war with Iran.
Boehner cannot be oblivious to the fact that most Americans don’t want another Middle East war. When, in his State of the Union address, Obama said, “I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission [against the Islamic State] by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force,” the line received the most tepid applause of anything the president said. Neither Democrats nor Republicans were enthusiastic. In effect, Boehner is counting on Iran to “behave itself” even if the nuclear talks fail, and counting on Israel not to initiate hostilities.
The tactics of Netanyahu and the Republican leadership go a step further. Even if the Senate failed to override a presidential veto of new sanctions legislation—the votes to override in the House are clearly there—Iran would get the message that it cannot necessarily count on the willingness of a new administration in 2017, whether Republican or Democratic, to honor any agreement reached with Obama. Such a calculation in Teheran could also lead the talks to collapse.
Israel and the congressional Republicans have to make one more calculation. One reason that Obama would like to see nuclear negotiations with Iran succeed—as long as Iran is prepared to make the concessions needed to satisfy the US president—is to open up the possibility that Iran will help in the effort, in Obama’s words, to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). Such a possibility would be still-born if the nuclear talks fail.
Undermining US Security
This leads to a critical question. Which is more important to Israel and also to those in Congress who are seeking to defeat Obama on sanctions legislation: to one-up Obama in these negotiations, or to play every possible card in defeating IS? This is a calculation with potentially serious consequences if the president’s opponents are instrumental in derailing the possibility of a changed US relationship with Iran.
In another sense, Speaker Boehner is not doing a favor for either Israel or its supporters in the United States by challenging the president on this grave matter of national security. Some members of Congress worry about the course of the nuclear negotiations with Iran out of a genuine conviction that they may not meet the test of advancing US security. But it is no secret that most congressional support for Netanyahu’s position, in both chambers and both political parties, derives from the Israel lobby, with its hefty clout on Capitol Hill. To take on and defeat President Obama on this matter cannot be helpful either to Israel or to its American supporters and, should war with Iran occur, both could face an intense backlash in US public opinion. Only the enemies of the United States, including the Islamist terrorists, could possibly gain from such a scenario.
In the end, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might count votes very carefully to make sure that a two-thirds majority is not reached and a presidential veto holds. The Republican leadership would thus make its political point but without causing major damage to US interests. A congressional repudiation of the president on sanctions would otherwise be a grave risk to the security of the United States and to Israel but also increase the likelihood of a serious constitutional crisis. By inviting the Israeli prime minister to address the Congress, the speaker has embarked on a perilous journey. He will need to find a way to stop short of the cliff’s edge.
This article was written by Robert E. Hunter for Lobe Log on January 24, 2015. Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs.
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