Theodore Roosevelt used to say, “Our party lines stop at the water’s edge.” He was referring to the importance of America speaking with one voice to the world. What would he have made of a Republican House speaker offering up a joint session of Congress to the leader of another nation, for the express purpose of lecturing a Democratic U.S. president on the error of his ways?
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s celebratory walk to the front of the historic House chamber, just two weeks before he faces a much tougher crowd in Israeli elections, said more than words ever could about Washington today. It amounted to a no-confidence vote in both President Obama and the water’s edge ideal of foreign policy.
I’ll let the experts argue about Netanyahu’s assessments of Iran’s capabilities, the level of threat to Israel, and the hypothetical effectiveness of whatever deal might or might not emerge to control the Iranian nuclear program. His speech was a classic Rorschach test anyway, with people hearing whatever they wanted. Me, I’m still reeling at the visuals and the rhetoric. It looked and sounded like a blatant hijacking of U.S. politics and policymaking. And House Speaker John Boehner, who issued the invitation without consulting or even notifying Obama, played the role of enabler-in-chief.
It’s been a long time since Republicans or Democrats felt much obligation to respect an administration’s approach to foreign policy. But as incumbent and aspiring presidents like to say, we only have one president at a time. And it’s not like Americans didn’t know what to expect from Obama.
One of the most contentious moments in the 2007 primary campaign came in a CNN debate when Obama was asked if he would be willing to meet “without precondition” with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. Obama replied that he would, in the same spirit that John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan spoke to the Soviet Union while it was considered an “evil empire,” in Reagan’s phrasing. “They understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward,” Obama said of the two former presidents. He added that if elected, he’d promptly “send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria” about their responsibilities in their region.
Obama not only survived Hillary Clinton’s claim that he was naive, he won the nomination, he won the election, and he enlisted Clinton as chief diplomat for his first term. Then he won a second term and promptly reopened relations with Cuba after a fruitless half-century cold war. Polls since then show most Americans welcome the thaw.
Public opinion is less settled on Iran. Some 70 percent said in a Fox News poll in January that Obama isn’t tough enough on Iran, and more than 6 in 10 said military force would be necessary to prevent a nuclear weapons program there. At the same time, a poll released this week by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland found a strong majority across party lines in favor of the type of deal the United States and its allies are trying to negotiate with Iran. Many disapprove, moreover, of the Obama snub; 48 percent in a new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll said Boehner should not have invited Netanyahu on his own, while only 30 percent said the invitation was fine.
The discomfiting nature of the Netanyahu event comes into sharp focus if you start imagining comparable scenarios at divisive moments in the past. Heather Hurlburt, an international policy expert at the New America Foundation, squeezed two into one tweet, summarized here: What if a West European leader had gone before a joint session of Congress to condemn Reagan’s support of the Contras against the Cuban-backed Sandinistas in 1980s Nicaragua? Or German chancellor Angela Merkel had been offered the platform to protest the Obama administration’s 2011 intervention in Libya?
Obama himself used the example of the 2003 Iraq war “initiated” by George W. Bush and opposed by many Democrats, including him. Would Boehner and his allies have approved if Democrats “had invited, let’s say, the president of France to appear before Congress to criticize or to air those disagreements?” he said in an interview with Reuters. “I guarantee you that some of the same commentators who are cheerleading now would have suggested that it was the wrong thing to do.”
Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi said she was “near tears” throughout Netanyahu’s “insulting” and “condescending” speech. But the adulation for Bibi and his eloquent doomsday plea were a triumph for Boehner. Republicans don’t like it when their own president throws his weight around, but they were enthusiastic about a foreign leader doing the same — and in someone else’s country, no less.
Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Photo: Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint session of the U.S. Congress at the Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)