On the record, President Obama and his team have said very little about congressional Republicans partnering with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to derail international nuclear talks with Iran. Administration officials said the president will not meet with Netanyahu during his March trip, but that’s only to prevent the appearance of interference with the Israeli election to be held two weeks later.
Behind the scenes, however, it seems the White House isn’t pleased.
“Senior American official” as quoted by Haaretz: “We thought we’ve seen everything. But Bibi managed to surprise even us. There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price.”
Josh Marshall added that even American Jewish groups “who seldom allow any daylight between themselves and the Israeli government appear shocked by Netanyahu’s move and are having difficulty defending it.”
There are things you simply don’t do.
I’ve been thinking about why this story strikes me as so important, and I realize that on the surface, it may not seem shocking to everyone. Republicans oppose the diplomacy with Iran; Netanyahu opposes the diplomacy with Iran. Perhaps their partnership was predictable?
Sure, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) ignored U.S. protocol by circumventing the administration and reaching out to a foreign leader on his own, but given the degree to which Republicans have abandoned traditional norms in the Obama era, maybe this isn’t that startling, either.
The problem, however, which I fear has been largely overlooked, is that it’s genuinely dangerous for the federal government to try to operate this way.
I’m reminded of an incident from August, near the height of the crisis involving Central American children reaching the U.S. border, when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) traveled to Guatemala. While there, the senator met with leading Guatemalan officials, including their president, and told them that the problem was Obama’s problem, not theirs.
In other words, an American senator visited with foreign leaders on foreign soil, denounced the American president, and undermined American foreign policy. During the Bush/Cheney era, Republicans used to characterize such moves as borderline treasonous.
Five months later, the GOP en masse is working to cut off American-led international talks at the knees.
The point, of course, is that in the Obama era, Republicans have no use for the maxim about politics stopping “at the water’s edge.” For many GOP lawmakers, there is no American foreign policy – there’s the president’s foreign policy and there’s a Republican foreign policy. If the latter is at odds with the former, GOP officials are comfortable taking deliberate steps to undermine the White House.
There is no real precedent for this in the American tradition. The U.S. system just isn’t supposed to work this way – because it can’t. Max Fisher’s take on this rings true:
To be very clear, this is not just a breach of protocol: it’s a very real problem for American foreign policy. The Supreme Court has codified into law the idea that only the president is allowed to make foreign policy, and not Congress, because if there are two branches of government setting foreign policy then America effectively has two foreign policies.The idea is that the US government needs to be a single unified entity on the world stage in order to conduct effective foreign policy. Letting the president and Congress independently set their own foreign policies would lead to chaos. It would be extremely confusing for foreign leaders, and foreign publics, who don’t always understand how domestic American politics work, and could very easily misread which of the two branches is actually setting the agenda.
All of which leads us back to this week. The United States and our allies have reached a delicate stage of diplomacy on a key issue, but as far as congressional Republicans are concerned, the United States isn’t really at the negotiating table at all – the Obama administration is. GOP lawmakers not only disapprove of the process, and they not only have no qualms about trying to sabotage the international talks, they’re even willing to partner with a foreign government to undermine American foreign policy.
At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I honestly don’t think this has ever happened before, at least not in our country. In effect, Boehner has invited Netanyahu to play the legislative branch of the U.S. government against the executive branch of the U.S. government, and the Israeli prime minister is happy to accept that invitation.
Cynicism about our politics is easy, but this isn’t just the latest outrage of the week. We’re talking about the ability of the United States to conduct foreign policy.
There are things you simply don’t do – and right now, Republicans are doing them.