WASHINGTON – The political ramifications are clear: House Speaker John Boehner and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a colossal mistake by conspiring behind President Barack Obama’s back, and the move has ricocheted on both of them.
The big, scary issue underlying the contretemps – how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program – is a more complicated story. I believe strongly that Obama’s approach, which requires the patience to give negotiations a chance, is the right one. To the extent that a case can be made for a more bellicose approach, Boehner and Netanyahu have undermined it.
First, the politics. Why on earth would anyone think it was a good idea to arrange for Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress without telling Obama or anyone in his administration about the invitation?
Yes, Congress has an important role to play in international affairs. And yes, the days are long gone when disputes among officials over foreign policy ended at the water’s edge; members of Congress routinely gallivant around the globe and share their freelance views of what the United States should or should not be doing. But inviting a foreign leader to speak at the Capitol without even informing the president, let alone consulting him, is a bald-faced usurpation for which there is no recent precedent.
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Pending legislation, which Obama threatens to veto, would automatically impose tough new sanctions against Iran if the drawn-out, multiparty nuclear negotiations fail. If Boehner wanted to build support for sanctions, he failed spectacularly.
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a vocal hawk on Iran policy, announced Tuesday that he would not vote for his own bill imposing automatic sanctions – at least not until after a March 24 deadline for negotiators to produce the outlines of an agreement. Nine of his pro-sanctions Democratic colleagues in the Senate joined him, meaning the bill is unlikely to win the necessary 60 votes for passage.
If Boehner’s aim was to paint Obama as somehow soft on Iran, he failed at that, too. The speaker inadvertently turned the focus on himself and had to spend the week explaining why he went behind the president’s back, not even giving the White House a heads-up until hours before the March 3 speech was announced.
Netanyahu, for his part, may have thought this was a way to boost his prospects in the upcoming Israeli election, scheduled for March 17. Or he may have fantasized that somehow, by openly siding with the Republican Party, he could snatch U.S. foreign policy out of Obama’s hands. Judging by the pounding he is taking from the Israeli media, he was mistaken on both counts.
Note to all foreign leaders: We have one president at a time. Americans respected this fact when George W. Bush was president, for better or worse. And we respect it now.
The speech episode borders on farce, but the larger debate over Iran’s nuclear ambitions could not be more serious. The central issue is whether a negotiated deal will leave Iran with the theoretical capability to build a nuclear bomb if it were to decide to do so. No amount of diplomatic legerdemain, it seems to me, can avoid answering this question with a simple yes or no.
If you say no, as Netanyahu does, then Iran must be stripped of all ability to enrich uranium. It is easy to understand why the Israeli government sees a nuclear-capable Iran as an existential threat – and also worries that other regional powers concerned about Iran’s growing influence, such as Saudi Arabia, might decide that they, too, need to get into the nuclear game.
Iran insists, however, that it has the right to a peaceful nuclear program. The government in Tehran is unlikely to give up that right but may be willing to limit itself to low-grade enrichment that produces material incapable of being used in a bomb. At least some infrastructure for high-grade enrichment would remain, however – and so would some risk of an eventual Iranian bomb.
Is this good enough? If the alternative is war with Iran, it may have to be.
I do not believe that war is in the interest of the United States. I also do not believe that war is in the interest of Israel, but of course Netanyahu has the right – he would say the duty – to disagree. Nothing that remotely resembles a perfect outcome is in sight. It must be better to keep talking than start bombing.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.