The only thing less helpful to world peace last week than House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, unilaterally inviting Israel’s prime minister to address a joint session of Congress was Benjamin Netanyahu’s instant acceptance.
Within a matter of minutes, the two hard-liners’ lack of principle, farsightedness and common sense were blended into a political mud pie and flung into the face of a U.S. president.
With the possible exceptions of the American Revolution and a few years during World War II, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg’s famous 1947 declaration that politics ends at the water’s edge has been merely wistful. The notion that somehow America’s foreign diplomatic efforts should or could be free from the exigencies of partisan politics barely outlived George Washington’s administration. In the very first year of John Adams’ presidency, the XYZ Affair and the Federalist-Republican split on how the U.S. should respond to it very nearly caused an unnecessary war with France’s postrevolutionary government.
From then, the sharing of power in foreign affairs that the Constitution established for Congress and the presidency had guided actions by both branches, for the most part in relative peace. Presidents tended to keep Congress updated on their foreign policy initiatives and Congresses mostly went along, both recognizing that relations with foreign countries went better when America spoke with one voice.
But Boehner’s action last week, taken with no advance notice to the White House yet in consultation with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Israel’s ambassador to the United States, reached an unprecedented level of arrogance and disdain for well-established protocol.
It was, despite Boehner’s lukewarm protestations, a direct thumb in the eye of the president of the United States, with Netanyahu as willing accomplice. It is unprecedented for a member of Congress to invite a head of state to visit the U.S. without consultation with the administration and for that head of state to accept. And it’s wrong and dangerous.
In their minds and in the minds of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, it may be a satisfying public rebuke because the current holder of that office is a man they despise.
Hard-liners 1, Barack Obama 0.
But such abandonment of any vestige of protocol can backfire on the perpetrators in more than one way.
Netanyahu’s speech March 3 is only two weeks before he stands in a hotly contested election. And it comes in the middle of a showdown between congressional Republicans, who want to vastly accelerate sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, and Obama, who says he will veto additional sanctions and continue to try diplomacy.
Thus our political struggles and Netanyahu’s are bound even more tightly, with Netanyahu becoming a major, direct player in U.S. politics and Congress inserting itself into Israeli domestic affairs. The people of both countries should be alarmed and angry about that.
Much more precariously, however, the Boehner-Netanyahu coup can poison American-Israeli relations far into the future and guarantee the failure of the efforts of the U.S., Britain, France, Germany and the European Union to deal diplomatically with Iran and its nuclear ambitions. If the result of that failure is a major war in the Middle East, whether started pre-emptively by Iran or defensively by Israel, neither the Israeli nor U.S. political parties that precipitated it should expect to be treated kindly.
Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at email@example.com.