Friday, January 23, 2015

Boehner, Netanyahu and George Washington's Farewell Warning

by Nomad

Without consulting the White House or the State Department, House Speaker Boehner has invited Israeli PM Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress in less than a month.
George Washington in his last official statement had a thing or two to say about allowing our allies from too much interference in US foreign policy.

Time of Challenge
As most of you have heard, House Speaker John Boehner has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before Congress next month. Presumably Netanyahu will attempt to scuttle extremely negotiations with Iran on its nuclear weapons/energy program. In a statement Boehner explained his reasoning.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu is a great friend of our country, and this invitation carries with it our unwavering commitment to the security and well-being of his people. In this time of challenge, I am asking the prime minister to address Congress on the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life.”
The statement should be read very carefully. It seems to be speaking on behalf of the US government. The term "unwavering commitment" might sound great on paper but it can sound very different to the people to whom it applies.

In any case, the White House wasn't impressed. Press Secretary Josh Earnest described it as a breach of typical protocol since the White House wasn't consulted or involved in the decision. Said Earnest, it has been standard procedure for a nation's leader to contact the White House before planning a visit to the United States. 
In this case, however, the White House heard about the invitation  not from the Israelis but from Boehner's office,. Some would call that breach a sign of disrespect for the president and the executive office in general.
Earnest said the White House is reserving judgment about the invite until U.S. officials talk to their Israeli counterparts. Boehner's office confirmed that Netanyahu has accepted, and will give a speech to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 11. The date is significant: It's the 36th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.
Boehner said in a statement that he had invited Netanyahu to speak on "the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life." Yet, critics would counter that there were plenty of other experts available, with much more unbiased sources, to speak on such matters.

Critics have already begun to question the legitimacy of Speaker's decision and the wisdom of Netanyahu's speech before Congress. They would call it interference.
Netanyahu is playing a game with US domestic politics to try to undermine and pressure Obama — and thus steer US foreign policy. Boehner wants to help him out. By reaching out to Netanyahu directly and setting up a visit without the knowledge of the White House, he is undermining not just Obama's policies but his very leadership of US foreign policy. The fact that Netanyahu is once again meddling in American politics, and that a US political party is siding with a foreign country over their own president, is extremely unusual, and a major break with the way that foreign relations usually work.
Like most things that Boehner has attempted in the past, like the threat to sue the president, to investigate (manufacture) impeachment worthy scandals, or shutting down the government in order to de-fund affordable healthcare, this too will backfire. American possibly damaging US relations with Israel for the long term.

How Americans Feel
While support for Israel is unquestioned by both parties, Gallup found that Republicans much more sympathetic to Israelis than Democrats are. And church-going Republicans are more solid supporters than any other group. Overall, an average of 59% of Americans have been sympathetic to the Israelis and 16% sympathetic to the Palestinians, with the rest saying "both" or not having an opinion. Interestingly, polls showed a decline in American support for Israel in minorities and younger age groups. Why? 

Pollsters have suggested that it has much to do with religion. Young people are less likely to be members of denominations that tend to support Israel and it is white evangelical Protestants who are really bolstering American support for Israel. 

When it comes to how Americans feel about negotiations with Iran, things are somewhat different. Few would claim that Iran inspires love in the hearts of Americans. 

However, in June 2014, polls showed that the American public had some fairly pragmatic views about negotiations with Iran. More than half of the respondents (56%) said that they supported an interim deal that would ease some of those economic sanctions and in exchange require Iran to accept major restrictions on its nuclear program. Democrats registered a 66% to 27 % split in favor of the idea with 8% unsure. Even among Republicans, the numbers were surprisingly high (45%) saying such a measure would be supported.

However, President Obama's critics claim that the president in making a deal with Iran, is sacrificing close ties with Israel. The administration, Fox News claims, hasn't done enough to curb Iran's suspected pursuit of a nuclear weapon. They say that Israel is a "key country in providing Middle East stability."  

For some time now, along with other nations, the US has imposed economic sanctions on Iran which have been instrumental in getting Iran to the bargaining table. With a change of leadership in Tehran, the timing couldn't have been better to come to some kind of workable agreement. Meanwhile, Iran was facing growing pressure and growing doubts whether a nuclear weapons programs was really worth all of the trouble.

Last year, even before the unprecedented collapse of oil prices, Iran's economy was in dire straits as a result fo the sanctions. As PBSreported a year ago,
Economists say the nation’s economy has been badly damaged. The World Bank estimates Iran’s GDP contracted 1.5 percent last year and almost 3 percent in 2012.
The official unemployment rate ranges from 10 to 15 percent. But most analysts believe it’s double that, maybe higher for young Iranians. This economic pain is made even worse because the local currency, the rial, lost about 75 percent of its value in 2012, and has scarcely recovered.
While not all of these economic effect can be directly attributable to the sanctions, most economists agree that the sanctions have capitalized on inherent mismanagement by the previous regime. 
In short, the sanctions are working. American foreign policy was actually working. For once.

Netanyahu: Straining the Limits
So, this forces us to ask the all-important question. What does Israel really want the US to do? Sanctions have crippled Iran economically, and Iran is now ready to negotiate. 

The "deal" under discussion is presumably filled with enough verification and monitoring not to allow the Iranians to fudge on its commitments. It should be good news, excellent news, especially since Israel has not been to give up its own nuclear weapons. Still, despite all the advantages Israel receives from a satisfactory dismantling of the Iranian nuclear weapons program, Netanyahu seems determined to tamper with US foreign policy.

If the phrase "let's give sanctions a chance" sounds vaguely familiar, it should. It is the same thing that our European allies like France and Germany once said before the invasion of Iraq. The inspections are working, the sanctions are working. We must be patient.
Instead of listening, the Bush administration rushed headlong into war throwing aside wise counsel. 

But why? What was the reason for the impulsive decision? Where was the immediate threat to the US?

Philip David Zelikow, a member of a top-level White House intelligence group in the Bush administration- later to be the executive director of the 9/11 Commission- had his own theory. In 2002, a year after the terrorist attacks (but before the invasion) Zelikow suggested that the main reason for the Iraqi invasion wasn't to protect America or American citizens.
In remarks made at a foreign policy conference at the University of Virginia, Philip Zelikow says that Iraq is more of a threat to Israel than to the US and that protecting Israel would be a major motive for a US-Iraq war.
That's his opinion of course but certainly Zelikow is in a better position to know the reasoning of the Bush administration than most of us.

If true, then the idea that Israel promotes stability in the region is called into question. It is hard to point to any one thing that Israel has done in the last twenty years, for example, as a promotion of stability in the Middle East.
One of the most glaring examples to show how Israel has promoted instability is its policy of building settlement on disputed territory. It is a policy in direct defiance of repeated American requests.
 Netanyahu himself was adamant that Israel would not take orders, even requests, from the US, "on where Jews can live in Jerusalem."

Late last year, when both the US and the UK strongly urged Israel to reconsider its decision  to approve one of the largest appropriations of Palestinian land for settlement,  the response from Israel's economics minister, Naftali Bennett
"What we did yesterday was a display of Zionism. Building is our answer to murder."
Sounds positively constructive, doesn't it? Yet, even a seemingly benign statement like that is loaded with meaning when you consider that since 1975, the UN has considered that Zionism was "a form of racism and racial discrimination".

While the building of settlements might be a proud display of Zionism, according to international law,  the projects are also illegal. The 2004 ruling by the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, declared that "Israeli settlements.., including East Jerusalem, are illegal and an obstacle to peace.."

In April 2012, UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, in response to moves by Israel to legalize Israeli outposts, underscored previous UN objections to all settlement activity. The UN considers Israel's policy illegal, and that it "runs contrary to Israel's obligations under the Road Map and repeated Quartet calls for the parties to refrain from provocations."
*   *   *
Despite this, John Boehner's decision implies that the problem in America's Middle East policy lies with the Democratic president and not with Israel. That however is simply not accurate. President George H. W. Bush had blocked action on the loan guarantees because Rabin's predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir, insisted on aggressively expanding Jewish settlements in territories that Israel had occupied since the Six-Day War in 1967. President Clinton too penalized Israel for its continuation of settlement construction.

Contrary to what Boehner and the conservatives in Congress claim, these complexities with Israel do not characterize a relationship between close allies. It suggests, some would say, a lack of appreciation and respect for US foreign policy. The behavior of Netanyahu in accepting the invitation of an extremely partisan Congress at such a delicate time in the Iranian negotiations provides further proof. 

After all, Israel reportedly receives  annual direct aid of US$3-4 billion every year and that should buy at least a little respect.  

What George Washington Said
None of these complications would have surprised George Washington. He knew well the very real danger of making "unwavering commitments" to our allies. He urged extreme caution.

In his 1796 farewell address to the young nation, he warned against the developing too close relations with any other nation. He advocated a balanced approach in order to keep the US from being dragged into wars which offered no benefits to Americans. He wrote:
"A passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification."
Despite its flowery language of the day, the address provided thoughtful advice on American foreign policy. "History and experience," Washington said, "prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government."
He also wrote:
Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other.
Inviting Netanyahu to speak before Congress was simply inviting meddling from a foreign nation- something Israel itself refuses to accept. Any American politician who allows this, according to Washington was a "tool" and a "dupe" who, while "usurp the applause and confidence of the people" are actually surrendering their interests. 
Meanwhile real patriots who might resist the intrigues of the favored nation will become suspected and "odious."
As far as a prediction, Washington scores ten out of ten.

Jefferson's Take
John Boehner's decision also raises other questions about the limits of Congress to set foreign policy. 
The Speaker of the House has no role in foreign policy. It is not even implied in the Constitution. It has always been considered the domain of the State Department which answers to the President. The responsibility of foreign policy lies with the Commander in Chief, the President of the United States. Any ratified and signed treaty is also subject to review by the Supreme Court.
According to the Constitution, the House of Representatives by itself has no role in foreign policy. The Senate, on the other hand, has a role of giving advice and consent. The upper House has two important functions, to declare war and to ratify treaties by two-thirds of the Senate. It also has in the past used its ability to cut funding on foreign policy that it thinks may harm America. (That's what happened when Congress learned about Reagan's covert support of the Contras.)

Back in 1790, the first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
''The transaction of business with foreign nations is executive altogether. It belongs, then, to the head of that department, except as to such portions of it as are specially submitted to the Senate. "
Any exceptions to this rule must be strictly considered, presumably by the approval and consultation of the president. That makes perfectly good sense. A nation cannot function when unqualified politicians are allowed to hijack the initiatives set out by the Commander in Chief.   
When challenged, Jefferson remained adamant. He said
''as the President was the only channel of communication between the United States and foreign nations, it was from him alone 'that foreign nations or their agents are to learn what is or has been the will of the nation'; that whatever he communicated as such, they had a right and were bound to consider 'as the expression of the nation'; and that no foreign agent could be 'allowed to question it,' or 'to interpose between him and any other branch of government, under the pretext of either's transgressing their functions.'
In fact he refused to discuss the matter any further. He tersely replied that this statement of fact was by the authority of the President, George Washington and that the president would not issue any exceptions in the matter. 

The Liberty You Highly Prize
In Washington's Farewell Address, he also said that the unity of government was "The main pillar" of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad, of your safety, of your prosperity of that very liberty which you so highly prize."

Boehner's decision to bypass the executive office by inviting Israel's Prime Minister to speak before Congress is thumbing his nose at the president in order to score points with the Republicans. It was more than simply a "breach of protocol." 
It is an assault on the division of powers and the executive office.

Just as Washington warned, there would be many tricks employed on the American people to weaken their minds to the conviction of truth, some will be applied actively and come "covertly and insidiously."

The wise first president also warned against the partisan politics which today threatens to destroy whatever coherent policy Obama has attempted. Washington said that the unity of the nation will be undermined by
"cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion."
Boehner's triumph at humiliating President Obama may have made Republicans rub their hands in glee. I am sure that will also make a lot of Obama haters extremely happy. 

However, patriotic Americans, heading Washington's warnings, should be thinking about the long term impact of conflicting foreign policies.