The big winners in the world of cage fighting this week were clearly mixed martial artist (and sometimes actress) Ronda Rousey and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. Rousey used her world-class judo skills to pin opponent Cat Zingano in 14 seconds. Netanyahu used similar techniques against the Cat Zingano of geopolitics, U.S. President Barack Obama. The result was very nearly the same.
When Zingano hurled herself at Rousey, she thought she would catch Rousey off guard but instead found herself moments later being twisted to the ground by an arm bar. The fight was practically over before it started. Netanyahu who we hope will never follow Rousey into the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, also used his opponent’s own momentum against him and then, with a real economy of effort, used a couple of patented moves and twists of his own to put the match away.
There are important differences, of course. For one, I was rooting for Rousey — not so much for Bibi, whose decision to accept an invitation to speak before the U.S. Congress against a nuclear deal with Iran that has yet to be finalized was confrontational, impolitic, and, in the context of any normal relationship among allies, bad form. More importantly, while a win was expected from the undefeated Rousey, prior to his visit, expectations were low for Bibi’s speech. The American people didn’t approve of the visit. And there were myriad ways his ploy could’ve backfired — from appearing to be playing politics with a vital foreign-policy issue (because it was) to producing a major Democratic Party backlash (which it only kind of sort of did).
Netanyahu’s visit infuriated the White House. Over the past six years the U.S. president and his team have developed a real distaste for the Israeli prime minister. They’re not the first. President Bill Clinton and his team felt the same way about the guy. Smooth on television, he is surpassingly arrogant and bullheaded in person. He was also gunning for an Iran deal that the president sees as his one great remaining chance at a foreign-policy legacy issue. So, as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg pointed out in another smart article, it was personal.
So working with Democrats on Capitol Hill (for a change), the White House tried to orchestrate a boycott of Netanyahu’s speech. They promoted on-air attacks against Netanyahu from their supporters. They sent National Security Advisor Susan Rice to appear on television with the base-whisperer of their wing of the Democratic Party, Charlie Rose, on whose show she lambasted Netanyahu’s visit as being “destructive” to the U.S.-Israel relationship. This was the Cat Zingano move of their match. They rushed at their opponent, and their opponent turned that rush into his opportunity.
The White House started to feel the heat that Rice, once again, had gone too far. In their zeal to make Bibi look bad and like he was playing politics with the U.S.-Israel relationship, they started to look like they didn’t care whether the relationship deteriorated further. Bibi turned up the pressure through his supporters to persuade key Dems not to join in the boycott. He then made a speech to a giant packed house of Israel supporters at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference that was, especially for him, diplomatic, almost conciliatory. Rice’s performance at the same conference was uncomfortable. She received massive applause at all the wrong junctures in her speech — a clear message from the crowd that it was not with her. She’s a smart, talented woman. Whoever told her that diplomacy was the right line of work for her was not doing her a service.
Then, the next day, Netanyahu delivered a speech to a nearly full house of Congress that was extremely effective. While it might not have changed a huge number of views about the Iran deal, it laid out genuine concerns in a fairly thoughtful way (for Bibi). And because expectations were fairly low — in fact, many in Israel wondered whether this would be a blunder that could cost Bibi the election — the fact that it was not a disaster made it a victory. Further, it cast a spotlight on the weaknesses of the pending deal that will make the debate around sanctions relief for Iran more difficult for the president.
This last point was the real difference that turned Bibi’s visit into a big victory. I had originally thought that he should have let the deal speak for itself — that his showboating would undermine his case and that of others who want a strong deal. But because of the Obama team’s overreach and misplaying this, and because of Netanyahu’s strongly made case, the opposite happened. The pending deal turned into Bibi’s ace in the hole. Because it is clear the deal we are likely to get is far weaker than the one the administration set out to achieve. The well-managed sanctions program of the first term has been undermined by a negotiating process in the second in which it became apparent the White House wanted the deal more than the Iranians did. The result is a deal that does not end the Iranian nuclear threat but instead puts it on hold. On a broad range of issues from enrichment to the duration of the deal, from the number of centrifuges to likely enforcement limitations, this is a deal that can benefit the Iranians materially in the near term while not gutting their nuclear weapons producing capability and while keeping their neighbors permanently on edge because a breach or a departure from the program could have a nuclear Iran in their midst in a matter of months.
In short, Bibi won the day because Obama effectively did not walk but actually ran right into his arm bar. On multiple levels this was a victory Obama gave his opponent. First, it was Obama’s perceived weakness as a president that sent the message to Netanyahu that he could come right into the president’s home arena and challenge him. He perceived he would not be penalized, and he is right. (Within days of his departure, the White House felt compelled to announce that it will begin to work for peace between Israel and Palestine again before the president’s term is up.) The White House’s only residual pressure came in its usual anemic form. On Friday, March 6, for example, the National Security Council tweeted out an endorsement of an article by Fareed Zakaria taking issue with Netanyahu’s predictions about Iran. The merits of Zakaria’s case aside, what pettiness on the part of the White House. Did someone really think that they achieved something by tweeting out a dig at an ally? This is diplomacy as though conducted in a junior high school lunchroom — Mean Girls foreign policy. (But definitely not fetch.)
Bibi’s effrontery, his willingness to get all up in the president’s face just down the street from his house, is just the latest sign of foreign leaders showing that they see America’s president as weak. (And for that I apologize to you, Cat Zingano, for my earlier analogy.) This is among the more benign cases, actually. Harsher examples can be found in the actions of Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Kim Jong Un, and even the Iranians (who seem to think conducting cyberattacks against us even as they negotiate for sanctions relief in the nuclear deal will have no negative ramifications — nor will their ongoing support for Assad, nor will their aggressive grab for influence in Iraq or Yemen). All of these folks think tweaking the president or violating international law or threatening America’s allies will not produce a truly tough reaction from the United States — because six years of history show it won’t.
Beyond weakness, the Obama team created the conditions for Bibi to walk out with the kind of press that has given him a modest bump in the polls back home, by managing its campaign around his visit in an ineffective way and then, above all, by offering up a flawed deal that was easy for the Israeli prime minister to attack and will be tough for it to defend — if the Obama team achieves it. The president’s limp after the riposte that Netanyahu did not offer an effective alternative to the deal and the administration’s other defensive comments in the days that followed did not help their case.
As with poor Cat Zingano, the president’s loss here will sting for a bit — especially, if as seems likely, Netanyahu wins re-election and the president will have to deal with him for another two years.
For the White House, some comfort will come from the fact that all the personality politics aside, it will probably strike the deal with Iran whether Bibi likes it or not. And the White House will implement the deal to the extent it can, leaving the hard parts for the next president. Which of course, brings us to the bigger picture and the bigger game. If the president can make the deal happen and then ensure via its implementation that the region becomes truly safer, not only will he win, but he will do so in a way that will benefit Netanyahu and all of Israel. That’s not a sure thing. It requires a broader strategy to reassure and support America’s allies in the region; careful, relentless enforcement; and the willingness to get tough with the Iranians for violations or compliance failures. If Obama does not do these things and the deal leaves the region so on edge that the Israelis or others feel inclined to take military action against Iran regardless of the negotiating process and American views — or it simply leaves Iran too close to getting the bomb — then not only do Obama and America lose, but so too do the Israelis.
There are two lessons in this. One is that all the rhetoric this past week about the America-Israel relationship being able to withstand our current set of cage-fighting leaders was actually true — because our long-term interests are so aligned. And the second is that the reason so many Americans watch sporting events like mixed martial arts is because the outcomes are so much clearer so much more quickly than they are in areas like foreign policy.