The big news Tuesday, of course, was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of Congress at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner. Post-speech analysis described it as an extraordinary piece of political theatre, which it certainly was. It was also essentially unprecedented. To have the head of state of an American ally address Congress to attack the foreign policy of a sitting President, at the invitation of Congress really does seem to be something brand new. And as a card-carrying liberal, I guess my reaction is supposed to be offended outrage. I’m supposed to describe the invitation as ‘disloyal’ or, depending on how partisan I feel, ‘treasonous.’I think I’ll pass.
I watched the speech, then later read it on-line, and the main thing I remember about it was the ovation Congress gave Netanyahu. It lasted forever. It was a huge standing ovation. It was Beatles-at-Shea-Stadium fervid. And, like those early Beatles performances, the noise of the wildly over-the-top ovation tended to overwhelm the music and the performance.
Basically, Netanyahu hates the idea of negotiating with Iran. The preliminary deal with Iran that the President announced in November 2013 was described by Netanyahu in apocalyptic terms. Here’s the key passage:
We must always remember — I’ll say it one more time — the greatest dangers facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons. To defeat ISIS and let Iran get nuclear weapons would be to win the battle, but lose the war. We can’t let that happen.
But that, my friends, is exactly what could happen, if the deal now being negotiated is accepted by Iran. That deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It would all but guarantee that Iran gets those weapons, lots of them.
And the US Congress went nuts applauding.
I don’t know how it played in Israel. Netanyahu is in a tough election, and Likud (his party) is very slightly behind in the polls. It’s possible that this speech, made in America, might turn the corner in a close Israeli election. It’s more likely that it won’t make much of a difference. It’s not like he said anything new. That kind of apocalyptic rhetoric has resonance with some of his voters, but certainly not all of them. A poll taken right after the speech showed Likud getting a slight bounce, but not enough to win the election. It’s still basically tied.
So, okay, negotiations with Iran continue, and have been fruitful. What’s Netanyahu’s counter-proposal? To continue with economic sanctions. Those sanctions were originally designed to damage Iran’s economy, thus encouraging Iran to discontinue it’s nuclear program. The fear is that Iran, if not stopped (or pressured to stop themselves) will build and deploy nukes, and launch an attack on Israel.
But they won’t. Vox.com’s Max Fisher carefully explained why this is not a realistic possibility. As Fisher points out, Israel has a second-strike capability that would wipe Iran off the planet, and Iran knows it. So we’re to assume that Iran’s leaders are suicidal loons capable of destroying their own nation if they can take Israel with them? Then why on earth would economic sanctions have any effect? That’s really the essence of Netanyahu’s speech: Iran is run by completely insane anti-Semites intent on Israel’s destruction no matter what the cost to themselves, but who are nonetheless rational enough to be deterred by some short-term economic pain. Really?
That kind of rhetoric, though well received by Republicans, isn’t anything new. Netanyahu’s been giving speeches in the US warning everyone of the dangers of a nuclear Iran since 1996. His rhetoric was apocalyptic then too. A nuclear Iran was immanent then, too. They were ‘on the brink’ of nuclear capability then too. And, as President Obama noted, Netanyahu made very specific predictions in 2013 about the bad things that would follow the deal when it was made, none of which have come true. The speech may have done Netanyahu’s electoral chances some minimal good. But it was a deeply illogical and dangerous speech.
I don’t think, though, that that’s what Congress heard. I think what the Tea Party wing of the Republican party heard was nothing more complicated than a foreign politician (from Israel, no less, the one foreign country loved most by religious conservatives), stand up to that Kenyan Commie in the White House.
But the speech, and the invitation to give the speech, is very likely to backfire. There’s a bill before Congress that would impose new sanctions on Iran in June if no final, comprehensive disarmament agreement is reached before then. President Obama has criticized that bill pretty strongly, saying that diplomacy is on-going, and Congressional interference would endanger complex and important negotiations. Despite the President’s opposition that bill looked like it had strong bi-partisan support, and was likely to pass the Senate, in addition to the House. Remember, there are a lot of Democrats who strongly support Israel. And you can count pro-Iranian Senators on the toes of one hand. Or the fingers on one foot. (They don’t exist, in other words).
But that bill is now dead in the water. Maybe it gets revived. But for now, the spectacle of Republicans insulting the sitting President of the United States over a question of foreign policy (constitutionally, the exclusive purview of the executive branch) has completely soured Democratic support for that bill in the Senate. Rhetoric has consequences. And applause, in this case, may have been emotionally satisfying, but it was a rhetorical blunder of the first order.
Meanwhile, one of the largest cities in Iraq, Tikrit, presently under the control of ISIS, is under attack from Iraqi forces trying to take the city back. I say Iraqi, but it’s more accurate to call it a joint military operation by Iran and Iraq. In fact, two thirds of the troops engaged in combat against Isis are Iranian. And I can’t imagine the courage of those soldiers. If they’re captured by ISIS, there will be no prisoner exchange or humanitarian treatment of wounds. Shi’a troops, captured by ISIS, are summarily executed.
In his speech, Netanyahu compared Iran’s government to ISIS:
Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. One calls itself the Islamic Republic. The other calls itself the Islamic State. Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world. They just disagree among themselves who will be the ruler of that empire.
And it’s not difficult to find evidence to support that contention in the speeches of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Ahmedinejad is out of office, and Hassan Rouhani is in. And Iran’s fighting alongside Iraq in the battlefield even as we speak. And what’s the reaction of General Dempsey, in charge of the American portion of the fight against ISIS? Awesome.
So Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech to Congress. He spoke eloquently and his remarks were well received. His speech was also extreme, illogical and almost certain to backfire. Well done, sir.