It says something about the state of affairs in the Middle East that from a U.S. foreign-policy perspective it hardly matters that the U.S.-Israel relationship is in the worst shape we’ve ever seen it. It is largely a domestic political issue in the two countries involved. Sadly, however, it is once again distracting the leaders of both countries — and citizens in each — from addressing the much bigger concerns that ought to be commanding their attention.
While it is easy to pin blame on both sides in the current spat, special honors for ratcheting it up go to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. Since there is literally nothing Bibi can say to the U.S. Congress that will come as a surprise — no new insight he can offer into an Iran nuclear deal that is not yet done — all he can do on his visit to Washington, D.C., next week is posture and vent. Since there is little chance his well-cultivated impression of a volcano spewing righteous indignation will change for the better the opinion of one single U.S. leader or voter (unless, as polls indicate he actually further undermines his position and lowers public opinion of him), the only possible reason he can be doing this is to win votes back home in Israel.
So, with the assistance of House Speaker John Boehner, Netanyahu has appropriated the rostrum of the U.S. congress to serve as a soapbox from which he will make a campaign speech directed to the people of a small country roughly 6,000 miles away. Presumably he feels this will show his influence as a statesman and his tirelessness in their defense. The fact that in making the speech he will actually dramatically diminish his influence in the United States and ensure bad relations with the government in Washington for the next two years suggests a flaw in his reasoning and creates a challenge for the Israeli people. If they really value the relationship with the United States or want a prime minister who can effectively work with their country’s principle ally and sponsor, they’ll take one look at Bibi’s ill-considered star turn and vote for someone else.
Of course, some will argue that the pending U.S.-Iran deal (if it ends up taking the shape that is currently being reported) is a danger to Israel and that Netanyahu is obligated to do everything he can to stop it. Again, if the speech would actually help on that front, delivering it might make sense. But all you have to do is read the comments of senior Obama administration and Democratic Party officials, and it is absolutely clear that what he’s actually doing is undercutting his influence (and likely reducing it on other issues that may arise going forward). Further, given how polarizing the speech seems likely to be, it will only solidify the positions of those who are already for or against the deal with Iran — not change, shape, or impact in any meaningful way the deal’s likelihood of being implemented.
The speech is already a blunder. It’s on Bibi. But it has been made worse by the unnecessary choice of the Obama team to fan the flames of discord. Once again, I invoke one of the most important tenets of all foreign policy, the Rule of STFU. It posits that if what you are going to say does nothing to advance the interests of the country you represent, then, no matter how good it may make you feel to say it, shut the fuck up. This is not the same, it should be said, as my Grandma’s rule that, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.” Sometimes one has to be tough. Diplomacy is about choosing ways to be tough that are also effective. In circumstances like this in which restraint would allow the other party to be neatly and surely hoisted on its own petard and in which actions speak much louder than words, the White House would have benefited more from silence than from opening itself up to critics who want it to share the blame for this particular stumble in the relationship. (They’ve already got a few of those to their credit as it is.)
That said, the bigger issue is the pending (and seemingly almost certain to happen) nuclear deal with Iran, which warrants a more thoughtful debate than the partisan name-calling and reflexive staking-out of positions that the Bibi speech is helping to encourage. And bigger still than that is the even less widely discussed, vastly more important question of where a nuclear deal — or the U.S.-Israel relationship for that matter — figures in an American regional strategy for the Middle East that at this point is just a distant fantasy on the minds of a few old policy hands who remember when such things were important. (Which, by the way, is always.)
As for the nuclear deal, at least a preliminary take on what it looks like seems to suggest that Bibi’s overall blunder may be compounded by the fact that his own ham-fistedness and arrogance may actually be distracting from a more substantive discussion that could conceivably win over support for his point of view better than his being a high-profile jerk will do.
I say this as someone who would welcome any deal that will achieve the three key goals that a good deal should be directed toward. First, it should materially reduce the likelihood that Iran will develop an atomic weapon. Second, it should reduce the likelihood of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could greatly increase the risk of nuclear weapons being used. Thirdly, it should advance America’s overall interests in making the Middle East a stable region that threatens neither us nor our allies, that doesn’t draw away too many of our resources (including leadership bandwidth), and is a place where Americans, American companies, and our allies can prosper in ways that benefit us.
I also stipulate that a perfect deal is impossible — indeed, one that completely puts at ease someone like Bibi Netanyahu is probably impossible to achieve. In the first case, this is because Iranian negotiators face political realities at home. In the second, it is because negotiations are always to some degree about compromise. And re: Bibi, it is because however sincerely he may fear an Iranian nuclear threat, he chooses to present it as the biggest existential threat facing Israel because the genuinely biggest existential threat, the growth in numbers of Palestinians within the post-1967 borders of Israel, is one he does not wish to seriously deal with. Within a couple of years, Israel will face the choice as to whether it wishes to be either a Jewish state or a democracy, and Bibi lacks the will, the vision, or the political support from his base on the right to deal with this in a constructive way.
The broad outlines of the pending deal seem to be, based on published reports and conversations with those close to the negotiations: Iran retains a functioning and rather expansive civilian nuclear development program, it retains the right to enrich nuclear fuel, it keeps perhaps 6,500 centrifuges, and it is subject to an inspection program that is broad-based but is not without constraints on the behavior and purview of inspectors. And all this is meant to be part of a deal that has something like a 10-year sunset provision after which the deal expires. In exchange for agreeing to these terms, Iran will get immediate sanctions relief and gradually increasing relief of all international sanctions. Further, it also seems that some of the key questions regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program that were posed by the U.N. when it imposed sanctions may be sidestepped or swept under the rug.
It is, in short, another interim deal that will make economic life easier for the Iranians almost immediately but is only likely to reduce the risk of Iran gaining nuclear weapons for a limited period of time. Indeed, if these are the final terms, one area of its slippage from original goals can be found around the idea of the deal’s goal. Once the goal was, at least in theory, to completely end the Iranian nuclear program. Now it seems to be to ensure that Iran stays roughly one year away from the capacity to develop a weapon. In fact, according to the parameters this deal seems headed toward, it ensures that Iran will not only have many of the resources needed to remain a threshold nuclear state, but that it will now be able to have those with the world’s blessing and in the context of a strengthening economy. The problem with this approach is that while it is certainly better than nothing, it poses among Iran’s adversaries at some time in the relatively near future the prospect of a suddenly greater Iranian threat even if Tehran respects the terms of this deal (which, of course, cannot be guaranteed and would be contrary to its past behavior). This in turn makes it highly likely that those adversaries, such as the Saudis, will ratchet up their own nuclear research programs and in turn will advance us toward a regional arms race, precisely one of the scenarios the deal was supposed to avoid.
Such an escalation might be avoided if the United States were systematically and simultaneously reassuring our allies in the region that we are committed not only to the enforcement of the deal but to a Middle East in which Iranian influence and ambitions were directly, clearly, and comprehensively counterbalanced and that we would work with them and invest in ensuring that was the case. Indeed, that is the kind of strategic “big picture” thinking that could make such a deal not only more palatable to our allies but also more likely to advance our longer-term interests. The president has been advised that such an approach would make sense and that he should carefully frame this big-picture view, but to date has yet to do so. Indeed, failure to have laid the groundwork on this front with our most important regional allies has been perhaps the biggest flaw of the administration’s approach to addressing the Iranian threat — an approach that has been admirably tough at times (on sanctions) and has been nothing if not doggedly determined to see what diplomacy can achieve rather than repeating past mistakes of rushing into wars like the one in Iraq.
Think how our allies must be feeling right now. We need them more than ever to help combat violent extremism (as was emphasized at the recent White House conference on this topic). We tell them that. But meanwhile we have at key junctures failed to communicate fully where we are going with the Iran deal or how we will ensure its enforcement, and what we will do to ensure their security. They in turn are understandably surprised when we concede to Iran the same enrichment capabilities we have denied to countries like the United Arab Emirates. Further, some are just upset or confused by our treatment of them on other issues — our waffling on taking early action against extremist threats, for example. Certainly, Israelis fall into this category of allies disaffected by our recent behavior.
Another especially important country has been whipsawed by our behavior, and at a moment of great strategic importance, our relationship with them is in tatters. That is Egypt. Whatever the flaws of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government may be, a few facts are clear. First, U.S. policy and communications mismanagement has left essentially everyone in Egypt, regardless of affiliation, skeptical of the United States. Second, Egypt is the historical anchor tenant among the region’s more moderate states; there is no alliance of such states possible without them; and there is no comprehensive way to turn back extremists without such an alliance. Similarly, such an alliance is absolutely critical to counterbalance Iran and send a clear message to it that adventurism is dangerous. Third, Egypt is currently surrounded by metastasizing states — failed states in which malevolent forces are seeking to establish bases from which they can destabilize and undercut their neighbors. In Yemen, in Libya, and in Sinai, these threats are real — manifestations of the scope and changing nature of the threat of violent extremism. Finally, should Egypt be destabilized or become weakened, the broader regional alliance will be weakened as well — and the threats on Egypt’s borders are likely to worsen.
There is no way to stabilize the region, no way to combat some of the most imminent extremist threats, no way to create the regional balance required to make the best of a flawed Iran deal, without recognizing that it is necessary to support the Egyptian government, even as we work with them to promote necessary economic and political reforms.
Indeed, the spat with Israel distracts from the disturbing reality that our relations with virtually every single state that is essential to our twin strategy priorities in the Middle East are worse than they were six years ago or at least have been significantly shaken by the White House’s unreliable and sometimes erratic behavior.
It is not too late. If the president and his team believe that they have struck the best Iran deal that is possible and that, though it is imperfect, it will make the region at least a little safer for a little while longer, then they need to step back from the partisan trap that is being set for them by Boehner and Bibi. They need to do what they have only talked about doing and actually frame a real strategy in the region. They need to convince those who worry about the deal’s defects that they are building inspection, diplomatic, and military fail-safes to guarantee that it is honored. They need to convince regional allies who are key to fighting extremism, to the long-term stability of the region, and to America’s interests that they have a plan and that the plan is in the collective interests of our allies. They need to show it with active support (not speeches, not show-and-tell state visits), and they need to swallow hard and accept that in the interest of achieving our major priorities, we will have to accept slower progress on some other fronts. That’s realism.
Also, if they wish to encourage reformers in Iran by moving a deal forward, they need to accept that both because reformers have stumbled in the past and because other important countries fear Iran (based not on its past behavior, but on its current actions regionwide), they need to rebuild and refresh ties with our historical friends — including Israel, but also a vital group of states across the Arab World. Because in the end, history is an indicator of what the future holds. And because if there is a miraculous change in the role Iran plays, we still benefit from balance in the region between forces whose tensions have roots that date back a millennium.