The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Never Be Too Proud to be Present--or Too Proud to Stay Away

I don't really do political blogging anymore, but a friend of mine asked recently whether the invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress to denounce ongoing negotiations with Iran was a good or bad idea, which led me to put on my long-discarded hat of political science major and think it through. Certainly reaction has been vehement across the political spectrum, even a bit histrionic. This article rounds up examples of some of the political fallout to the speech. While I don't think flamboyance or outrage is justified on either side of this one, the discussion has been full of both.

Let me begin by noting that as to the merits of any deal, assuming a deal is reached, I'm agnostic--the great rule of bargaining is that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and applies to the talks, so we're in the dark as to what terms, if any, will be reached. But I think that, whatever eventuates, the speech is ill advised in several ways:

1. It provides Iran with political cover if no deal is reached--it can say that it became clear that no deal could pass the Senate (treaties must be ratified by a 2/3 vote of the Senate, after all, which is in GOP hands). Remember, Obama's fallback strategy in doomed negotiations is to make the other party look like the unreasonable one in negotiations (e.g., the GOP repeatedly turning down budget deals heavily slanted to its priorities rather than raise a dollar in tax revenue). If that was the fallback game plan here, the Congress has blown it.

2. Congress inviting a foreign leader of any nation to sabotage negotiations in which the US is curently engaged is just a bad idea. Foreign policy is primarily in the hands of the Executive. This significantly undercuts that principle.

3. The US is not, by the way, the only counterparty in these talks to Iran--a deal could be reached without us, which would have the effect of loosening other countries' sanctions on Iran, and cutting us out of the oversight. Do we really want to leave the negotiations and implementation of an agreement to the rest of the so-called P5+1--that is, the UK, Russia, China, France and Germany? Myself, I'm a firm believer in C.P. Snow's dictum: Never be too proud to be present.

4. It undermines trust between the Israeli and American administrations even further--Netanyahu's leaking of various proposals made in the negotiations as if they were agreed on (remember, nothing is agreed until evrything is agreed) has already caused the Obama Administration to cease sharing details of the negotiations with him. Also, as the article linked up top suggests, it has the potential to erode the longstanding consensus that support for Israel is a non-partisan issue.

5. If a deal is reached, and it's a stinker, the Senate can simply not ratify it. There. Crisis averted.

I should add that I don't think Netanyahu is primarily at fault here--he seems to be relying on his adviser and ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, who is a former GOP operative, and whose familiarity with American politics he is justifiably relying on. I don't doubt that Dermer sincerely feels it is in Israel's best interests to bypass the President under these circumstances, but the appearance of partisanship is worsened by Dermer's background.

On balance, I don't see how it helps--the Obama Administration is scarcely in the mood to listen to the Prime Minister now--and I think it could do harm.

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