[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f you look past the Democratic boycott and past the GOP’s fawning Bibi BFF love-fest and past the regrettable fact of a Joe Biden-free joint session, it was pretty much like any other day at the Republican-controlled Congress.
Benjamin Netanyahu certainly fit right in. Like the Republicans, he doesn’t like what Barack Obama is doing. Like the Republicans, he doesn’t have a viable alternative to what Obama is doing. Like the Republicans, Netanyahu believes that stopping Obama is always the answer to the question, and then, you know, we’ll just see.
If Bibi had taken a shot at Hillary Clinton Tuesday morning, I think he could have run away with the Republican nomination. Yes, he was born in Tel Aviv, but he went to high school in Philly and college at MIT, and if your name isn’t Obama, isn’t that close enough?
[pullquote]If Bibi had taken a shot at Hillary Clinton, I think he could have run away with the Republican nomination.[/pullquote]
He’s got qualifications. He’s strong. (You think Jeb Bush is strong?) He’s a good speaker. (I’m sure Scott Walker was furiously taking down notes.) He knows his sound bites — “When it comes to Iran or ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.” (Ted Cruz could only look on with envy. Of course, ISIS and Iran are the same, and while we’re at it, let’s bring out the “axis of evil.”)
The speech accomplished many things. It probably helped Netanyahu back home where there’s an upcoming election in which he’s reportedly in some trouble. It gave John Boehner some cover to say the House will pass a clean funding bill. And it almost certainly deepened the divide between Netanyahu and Obama, despite the brief and winking praise of Obama near the top of the speech. Soon, Netanyahu would get to his point — and I’ll paraphrase here — that Obama is naive in the ways of the world and that, in his ignorance, he is selling out Israel’s very existence. No wonder the Republicans went wild in their response.
Netanyahu has long buddied up to the party that the great majority of American Jews have repeatedly rejected. But if he smiled Mitt Romney’s way, that was just a flirtation. This is different. Netanyahu can appeal to fawning Republicans all he likes, but, in the real world, the president is a Democrat and the Democratic president — whose administration is currently negotiating with Iran along with the other major world actors — is the one who will actually make the call. Does it really help Netanyahu’s cause to recruit a Republican Congress as his cheerleaders?
Let’s get to the basis of Netanyahu’s argument — that the deal Obama is negotiating is worse than no deal. I haven’t seen many experts praising the outlines of the deal. There is legitimate concern that Obama so much wants to negotiate an agreement that he’ll settle too easily. It’s certain that America’s partners in this negotiation are less hardline than Obama.
But here’s Netanyahu’s alternative plan: Unless Iran gives up its entire nuclear program, removing itself forevermore from nuclear ambition, and unless it renounces the vicious anti-Semitic, we-will-bury-you, anti-Israeli rhetoric Iranian leaders regularly spew, there should be no agreement. He says that if America and the West even further tighten sanctions that that should be enough, and Iran will eventually crumble.
Unfortunately, the argument makes no sense. As the inimitable Jeffrey Greenberg points out, Netanyahu likes to call Iranian leaders a “messianic apocalyptic cult.” Do messianic apocalyptic cults crumble in the face of sanctions? Facing the current level of sanctions, the messianic apocalyptic cult has built 19,000 centrifuges. Facing the current level of sanctions, Iran and the cultists are a major player, and not in a good way, throughout the region.
Whatever Netanyahu thinks, I’m pretty sure Obama’s team is aware of all the pitfalls and the actual danger that Iran poses — and has posed for many years. What Obama is looking for is a way to contain Iran, which depends on the fact that Iran is a rational player, and prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power over the next 10 or 15 years.
As Peter Beinart says in the Atlantic, Obama is not alone. He writes:
[blockquote]That’s why the Bush administration’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate said Iran is “guided by a cost-benefit approach.” It’s why Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in 2012 that “we are of the opinion that Iran is a rational actor.” It’s why Benny Gantz, then head of the Israel Defense Forces, declared the same year that “the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.” [/blockquote]
And so on.
But if Iran can never be trusted to stick to a deal, if Iran can never be deterred, if Iran truly is a suicidal cult certain to rain down its bombs on Israel, what is the alternative? There’s only one — to bomb Iran out of the bomb business. No one knows if that is even possible, given all the sites that would have to be taken out — and the likelihood that Iran could simply rebuild. But what’s pretty clear is that we, the United States, would have to play a role in that. A large role. With probably large consequences.
Netanyahu gave a good, effective speech. But if you agree with him and you don’t like Obama’s plan, you might actually want to consider the real alternative before you stand up to applaud.
[ Screenshot: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing Congress, 2015.]