Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress yesterday was a high risk gamble that may or may not produce the policy changes he sought, but he used the opportunity effectively, delivering a powerful speech that had a measurable impact on the American debate over Iran policy. Although the circumstances of the invitation and the controversy around the speech inevitably made it something of a polarizing event, Bibi took the high road. His differences with the administration were over policy, and he kept personalities and parties out of it. His speech exposed deep rifts in American politics over our Middle East policies, but Netanyahu resisted the temptation to further deepen or embitter them.
His biggest success was, as David Ignatius put it, to “raise the bar” for the Obama administration. There are some very serious problems with the administration’s Iran policy that have not been thoroughly discussed and vetted in the U.S. debate. Here at TAI we’ve been warning for some time that the administration’s regional policies have allowed Iran to make large gains across the region and become a much more dangerous power in ways that both reduce the value of any nuclear agreement with Iran and make a good deal less likely. Netanyahu made that case very effectively, and in Congress and even in the press there is a spreading sense of “uh-oh” here—a realization that a weak and unfocused regional policy may have undermined the administration’s goal of a workable nuclear deal.
Netanyahu’s biggest challenge in changing America’s Iran stance is structural. For more than 100 years, the institutional politics of America’s Israel policy have been very clear. Congress, going back to the late 19th century, has almost always been sympathetic to the Zionist cause. The State Department and the career civil service have almost always been cold. Presidents have been in the position of figuring out how to balance the various issues and considerations, and because of the politics, they usually (but by no means always) reach decisions that tilt towards Israel.
The problem now is that a) the President, for a variety of reasons (some of which are related to a personality clash with Netanyahu, and some of which are rooted in the President’s own world view and personal history) is ready to fight Israel over Iran policy and is strongly convinced of his case, and b) it’s not easy for Congress, which by a significant majority would take a strongly pro-Israel stand, to figure out how it can block a set of negotiations and executive agreements. Getting the two thirds majority needed to override a veto is very tough, and it is also harder than it looks to stop an agreement with a law.
So Bibi can win the battle in Congress—and it appears that he did—while still losing the war over U.S. Iran policy. Congress’ best bet (and Bibi’s biggest hope) might be for the two houses to pass concurrent resolutions (which don’t need presidential signatures) that 1) Congress disapproves of any agreement with Iran which doesn’t meet certain stated conditions; that 2) neither this Congress, its successors, nor future U.S. presidents will be bound by any such agreement; and that 3) both houses will not pass any enabling legislation or lift sanctions so long as no satisfactory agreement has been reached.
This would be a poison pill strategy: to draft and pass a resolution so tough and so clear that no self-respecting Ayatollah could possibly accept it. It would also be as close as the U.S. system gets to a vote of no confidence, and it would significantly weaken President Obama’s ability to manage American foreign policy for the rest of his term—on issues that go far beyond the Iran question.
This would be a very serious step, and it is hard to predict all the consequences that would flow from it. Many Democrats, even those who have qualms about President Obama’s Iran policy, would resist a resolution that would amount to a public repudiation of a sitting president, and much of the Republican establishment (which generally favors a strong presidency and thinks Congress contributes most when it does least) would also be quick to find fault with a strategy that could both weaken the incumbent and give Congress an effective tool for future power struggles with future presidents. If Congress takes an approach like this and the negotiations fail, the GOP will own the ensuing crisis.
But the mere prospect that a resolution like this could pass might force the administration to the bargaining table with Congress over Iran, and open up the administration’s policies to the wider debate the country desperately needs.
Netanyahu’s speech, and the reaction to it, had implications well beyond Obama’s Iran policy. The speech, and more particularly the enthusiastic bipartisan applause with which many if not all of his comments were met, demonstrated the utter futility of a dream that is at the heart of Obama’s foreign policy, and indeed of liberal foreign policy thinking in the United States more generally. Liberals desperately hope that there is a way to stop the nutcase jihadis short of massive, sustained use of American force. No thinking person can fail to appreciate why they feel this way. War with fanatical religious nutcase haters would be ugly, dirty and long. It’s likely—indeed it is certain—that a bigger military role for the U.S. in the Middle East would inflame the hatred and help polarize the region in ways that ended up recruiting new jihadis to the cause and growing their support.
Thus the Great White Hope of liberal foreign policy thinkers is the Moderately Islamist Muslim: the genuinely pious, authentically Islamic religious movements and leaders with whom we can reach some kind of a deal. The Moderately Islamist Muslims would serve as a kind of vaccination against the virus of radical jihadi ideology in much the same way that social democrats and democratic socialists helped curb the spread of Communism is post World War Two Europe. President Obama has been cultivating these moderates since his Cairo speech back in 2009. It is why he listed Turkey’s Erdogan as one of his five most trusted world leaders, and even offered a Erdogan a rare invitation to dine with him at the White House as late as May 2013. It’s why he backed the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt as much as he did, and why at every opportunity he goes out of his way to speak respectfully of the “Prophet of Islam”. And, quite possibly, it’s why his administration was so poorly represented in Paris at the time of the Charlie Hebdo demonstrations.
President Obama has wanted to replace what he saw as the excessively confrontational and militarized Bush strategy against the jihadis (which he and other liberals saw as a strategy of confrontation and an openly declared ‘war on terror’) with a strategy of bridge-building and reconciliation, reinforced by the drone strikes he hoped could keep the jihadis under control.
It is a noble and a worthy quest, and there are some ways in which any sensible American president would take this thinking into account. But there are problems with this strategy too, and it hasn’t been able to bear all the weight President Obama wants to place on it. Some of the problems have to do with the poor quality of leadership of some of the ‘moderate Islamist’ movements, and more have to do with the relatively unevolved nature of these movements—the commitment to liberal values, as in Erdogan’s Turkey, can be skin deep at best, and there’s a lot of delusional and paranoid thinking even among fairly senior figures in much of this world. Combine that with political and administrative inexperience, the deep developmental problems that dog many frontline countries in the fight against terrorism, dysfunctional political cultures dominated by clientalism and corruption, and throw in the canny and entrenched resistance of the ‘deep state’ and the military, and the odds against moderate Islamists as effective political actors begin to look long and daunting.
But there’s another problem with this strategy, and it’s one that Netanyahu’s speech and the reaction to it in Congress demonstrated beyond all doubt. The United States of America really does see Israel as a cherished friend and ally. Americans are proud of our role in helping the world’s Jews establish an independent state. For many American Christians (though by no means all) helping the Jews build a safe haven is a sacred religious duty. For many other Americans, secular, Christian and Jewish, what the Jews have built in Israel, despite all the problems and flaws, is a precious jewel, a beacon of liberty, and a sign of hope in a dark world.
Americans are not going to change their minds about this anytime soon. Sputtering paleocons can moan about Jews dragging Americans into the war against Hitler, the Middle East Association can wring its hands in every faculty lounge in America, the radical left can identify with Hamas and the heirs of the Arabists can tsk tsk all they want, but the public’s love affair with Israel is stronger now than it has ever been. Deep seated American political attitudes can and do change, but such change comes slowly. For any policy-relevant length of time, America is going to remain a pro-Israel country.
And here’s the problem for the Moderate Islamist strategy: there are not now and will not soon be very many Islamists moderate enough to accept the world’s most pro-Israel country as a friend and a brother. (This reality also undercuts the ‘democracy is the solution to radicalism’ concept that is so popular and so appealing. Voters in many Muslim and Arab countries, it turns out, don’t like Israel and don’t like America and want politicians who share those convictions.) Obama’s ‘outreach to Islam’ policy is hobbled by the necessary constraints imposed by America’s deep relationship with Israel, a relationship he is unable to mention without making ritual gestures of obeisance and loyalty. That isn’t going to change, and it’s going to be a powerful talking point for jihadis for a very long time. America isn’t willing to ditch Israel as the price of peace with the jihadis, and even the world’s Moderately Islamist Muslims aren’t going to be able to put out the regional fires while that is the case—at least not for some time to come.
America’s, and Obama’s method of dealing with this problem has always been to pursue the Peace Process: to hunt for a solution to the Palestinian problem so that the Israel issue will go away, or at least stop being such a problem. But this, too, is harder than it looks, and Obama doesn’t any serious accomplishments on this problem either. In any case, Peace Process or no, close U.S.-Israel relations and the perception that the U.S. is unswervingly committed to protect what many in the region will continue to see as a colonial and infidel invasion and a civilizational humiliation will continue to limit the reach and effectiveness of the Moderate Islamist Outreach strategy.
Finally, there is the problem that the Moderate Islamists are also at war with the Arab governments most likely in practice to offer effective support to the United States in the war against the bad guys. The Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians and Jordanians see the Muslim Brotherhood as dangerous rivals for power, not as potential allies against the radicals. The Obama administration’s outreach to the Brotherhood and related groups has disrupted our traditional regional alliances almost as much as the outreach to Iran; it is hard to see what benefits the administration has gained from its very determined and consistent six year program of bridge building.
So the Moderate Islamist strategy, essentially the only strategy that is un-horrible enough for liberal strategists to contemplate without self-loathing, is, while not totally useless, incapable of stabilizing the region or of making the terror madness go away—or even of keeping the threat within some kind of marginally acceptable bounds.
Even so, the proponents of this strategy can’t bear to let it go. The alternatives are so ugly and dispiriting, and so deeply unwelcome to the Democratic base, that the Obama wing of the Democratic Party’s foreign policy establishment can’t bear to think about them, much less conduct American foreign policy on different and more realistic lines. (Camp Clinton, by the way, seems somewhat less inhibited.) As a result, the deeper the Obama administration’s Islamist strategy runs into the mud, the more bitter its proponents become about what they increasingly see as the Israeli millstone around the neck of American foreign policy. This is when high minded liberals and progressives find themselves tempted to echo the arguments of the anti-Israel paleocons, and when fantasies of an all-powerful, unpatriotic Israel Lobby begin to loom in their minds.
But Israel isn’t able to make America do anything America doesn’t want to do. The deep American commitment to Israel, a commitment that Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid celebrate and venerate in every public utterance on the topic, is something that Americans have chosen, and choices have consequences.
It is prudent and humane to think about ways to palliate the harm and moderate the hostility resulting from this American choice, but it is deeply foolish to think we can airbrush Israel out of the family pictures. The Moderate Islamist strategy would be difficult and perhaps for some time impossible if Israel didn’t exist; its effectiveness is even less given that Israel is here and that America likes it.
Presidents need to make foreign policy for the country they’ve got, rather than making foreign policy for a hypothetical country that exists only in their hopes. President Obama has built his Middle East policies on false premises; that is why so much of what he has tried to do there has blown up in his face, and it is why the arguments of a foreign leader against the President’s Middle East strategy are resonating so strongly in the world of American politics.