All eyes were on Capitol Hill this morning, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress, hoping to undermine nuclear diplomacy with Iran. Everyone involved in the debate, regardless of their position, had a pretty good idea as to what the Israeli leader was going to say, and he met expectations.
A senior administration official told Jake Tapper there was “literally not one new idea” in Netanyahu’s speech, and “not one single concrete alternative” to the ongoing P5+1 talks. The official added that the prime minister’s speech was “all rhetoric, no action.”
The complaints have the benefit of being true.
Putting aside the fear-mongering and the Cheney-esque rhetoric, what Netanyahu’s remarks boiled down to was a straightforward message: Iran is bad and the deal that’s coming together with Iran won’t work. What Netanyahu’s speech was supposed to do was offer policymakers and critics of the talks a viable alternative solution, and on this front, the prime minister blew it. As Jon Chait noted:
Netanyahu’s panicked plea for what he called ”the survival of our country” is hardly a figment of his imagination. His recitation of the evils of Iran’s regime was largely correct. He might conceivably be correct that the Obama administration could have secured a stronger deal with Iran than the one it is negotiating, though that conclusion is hard to vouchsafe without detailed knowledge of the negotiations. […]But Netanyahu did not make even the barest case for a better alternative.
It’s a familiar problem for President Obama’s critics: there’s an obvious problem in need of a solution; there’s a proposal preferred by the White House; and there are Obama’s critics, insisting they hate the president’s solution without offering a credible alternative of their own.
It’s not that Netanyahu critique is necessarily unpersuasive. Iran does not have a trustworthy track record, and no one in the Western world thinks it’d be a positive development for Tehran to have nuclear weapons. In fact, Obama has already said all of this; it’s an accepted consensus.
But it’s the case the Israeli leader builds on this foundation that’s problematic. For Netanyahu, no deal with Iran will work. No system of inspections will work. No verification process will work. No promises from Iran can be trusted.
And if Netanyahu is correct, the real solution is … what exactly? The prime minister had the platform to present a more effective vision, but he chose not to present one.
Perhaps the message was implicit and unstated. Maybe the audience was supposed to simply understand that Netanyahu prefers a military solution, disrupting an Iranian nuclear program through airstrikes. But (a) if that is the prime minister’s solution he should say so; and (b) there’s no reason to assume that a military campaign against a possible Iranian threat will permanently derail the country’s nuclear ambitions. On the contrary, it might even do the opposite.
“The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal,” he told American lawmakers today. In theory, that sounds great – better deals are always, by definition, superior to bad deals. But where is this elusive better deal? What are its details? How would it receive international support? How would it be implemented?
Netanyahu didn’t, and wouldn’t, say. What a missed opportunity.
Postscript: At one point, the prime minister said, “I can only urge the leaders of the world not to repeat the mistakes of the past.” This isn’t what Netanyahu meant, one of the mistakes of our recent past was listening to him when he said invading Iraq was a great idea. If we’re going to avoid repeating mistakes, maybe we can start here.