The Obama administration fears the kind of plain speaking that Netanyahu will deliver to Congress
When Speaker of the House John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on Iran's nuclear weapons program, one might have thought that America's politicians could benefit from participating in a serious discussion about a menacing global threat from the leader of a gravely endangered U.S. ally.
Instead, controversy erupted over the propriety of the speaker's invitation, the etiquette of when he or Israel's Washington embassy should have informed the State Department, whether President Obama would receive Netanyahu at the White House and, most frivolously of all, whether Boehner's invitation violated the Constitution. Rather than discussing potentially mortal risks for the United States, Israel, our Arab friends and, indeed, the whole world, we witnessed a cat fight, instigated embarrassingly by America's president, over whether everyone was using the right fork.
In short, this “debate” has been the very embodiment of placing process and style over substance in the making of foreign policy. And like all such distracting exercises, it is at best a waste of breath. Ask the ayatollahs in Tehran, who surely find this misallocation of American time, attention and resources to be totally amusing.
Unfortunately for the United States and all other countries concerned with the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the consequences of White House petulance are far more serious. The very pettiness of the dispute, moreover, actually underscores that Obama is unwilling to debate the underlying merits of his policies.
There was controversy in Israel, from a strictly domestic political perspective, whether Netanyahu should be speaking to Congress so close to the March 17 Knesset elections. Not surprisingly, Netanyahu asked that his address to Congress coincide with the annual Washington convention of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, an event every Israeli political leader wants to attend.
Whether Israelis criticizing Netanyahu were jealous of his scoring a “twofer” in America, whether he violated some unwritten protocol or whether his speech might actually backfire politically, Israeli voters will sort out on March 17.
Instead, I am concerned here with whether Boehner did anything improper or unwise from a U.S. perspective. And the answer clearly is “no.”
For Americans, debating substance must replace critiquing style. America (together with the other four Security Council permanent members and Germany) is negotiating over Tehran's nuclear-weapons program in a fashion almost certain to produce a tragically flawed agreement that will leave Iran with the upper hand and the world in peril.
The stakes are as high as they come. But Obama cannot be candid about the terms of the ongoing discussions, especially now. The inevitable consequences of his dangerous position already are provoking widespread bipartisan disapproval in America.
The White House most fears the effect Netanyahu will have on congressional consideration of further Iran sanctions if no deal is reached. Obama is worried with good reason. Although Iran and the West have been negotiating since 2003, only Obama has made the massive concessions to Tehran that have brought a deal close at hand. And it is not just what Netanyahu will say in Washington but also his timing that set off Obama and his acolytes.
In fact, Netanyahu previously addressed a joint session of Congress on May 24, 2011, demonstrating, among other things, his gaping differences with Obama regarding Israel's ultimate borders, under negotiation with the Palestinians. The New York Times reported that “Mr. Netanyahu received so many standing ovations that at times it appeared that the lawmakers were listening to his speech standing up.” Even worse, from Obama's perspective, The Times said Netanyahu's “speech had many of the trappings of a presidential State of the Union address.”
Ironically, Obama touched off the current controversy when he persuaded or allowed British Prime Minister David Cameron to lobby members of Congress against the pending Iran sanctions proposals. At a joint Obama-Cameron news conference in Washington, the British leader answered forthrightly that he had spoken with senators and would likely speak to more, to convey “the opinion of the United Kingdom” that sanctions legislation would impair the ongoing negotiations.
Although publicly admitting Cameron's lobbying efforts was highly unusual, they were hardly shocking in a day when foreign countries hire Washington lobbying firms to influence Congress, the executive branch and even U.S. public opinion. And even less shockingly, we do the same to foreign governments.
What likely irritated Obama more was that Netanyahu's star power will almost certainly eclipse Cameron's and that the arguments in favor of sanctions legislation are more persuasive than the Obama-Cameron view has been thus far. Moreover, British parliamentary elections are set for May 7, so Cameron's timing obviously does not differ in principle from Netanyahu's.
In short, Boehner outgunned and outmaneuvered Obama politically, a presumptuousness that could not go unchallenged from the heights of Mount Obama. In America, plain speaking remains a virtue. That's what Netanyahu will bring to Congress — and what Obama fears.
John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and, previously, the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security.