Speaker of the House John Boehner's invitation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hurts his own party, the policy process and Israel.
There are some in the Republican Party who truly care about preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb. There are some with helpful suggestions for how to improve our strategy. But Speaker Boehner is now using the policy debate on Iran as a crass political attack on the constitutional authority of the president of the United States. In the process, he does great damage to our national institutions, our efforts to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and the U.S.-Israeli alliance.
Who's Your President?
Without consulting with the president or the Democrats in Congress, Boehner invited the leader of a foreign power, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, to address a joint session of Congress. There is no love lost between Netanyahu and President Obama. Netanyahu will no doubt rip into the president when he speaks on March 3.
That appears to be Boehner's purpose. "There is no other explanation for Boehner's impetuous, insulting and dangerous decision this week to break foreign policy protocol and invite Netanyahu," editorialized the Chicago Sun-Times.
Boehner's move could have been taken straight from the tea-party playbook, based on the view that Barack Obama is not legitimately the leader of the nation. Therefore, the powers given by the Constitution to the president to conduct the foreign policy of the United States can be ignored. The speaker can posture as the alternative commander-in-chief because the man who actually has that responsibility doesn't deserve the title.
As Max Fisher notes:
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.
Fisher warns that the fact that "a US political party is siding with a foreign country over their own president... is extremely unusual and a major break with the way that foreign relations usually work." This is dangerous business that could "lead to chaos" as other nations misread America's true intentions.
Iran Policy Boomerang
Boehner's overreach is likely to backfire politically. Some Republicans and neoconservatives have been using criticism of Iran policy as the tip of the spear in their continuous efforts to paint Obama as weak, dangerous and the worst appeaser since Neville Chamberlain. The Netanyahu invite is also a fairly transparent effort to use a Jewish leader to drive a wedge into the Democratic Party base. But this move is likely to rally Democrats -- some of whom have genuine disagreements on Iran policy -- around the president.
Already, the GOP-led effort to slap new sanctions on Iran is floundering. The bill championed by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) has failed to get a single Democratic co-sponsor other than his co-author, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey). And for good reason. There is broad consensus among global security leaders that new sanctions would kill the negotiations and could lead to a new war.
Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft explained the problem in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week:
I think two things are likely to happen if we increase the sanctions. They will break the talks. And a lot of the people who have now joined us in the sanctions would be in danger of leaving because most of the people who joined us in sanctions on Iran didn't do it to destroy Iran. They did it to help get a nuclear solution.
Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski then spelled out the consequences:
If the negotiations broke down, the whole process would collapse. And then what would be the alternative? Should we then attack and bomb them and thereby make the war in the Middle East even more explosive? We have to ask ourselves, why should we do this? ... I don't see any benefit in the United States in that transpiring.
Neither does the conservative prime minister of Great Britain, David Cameron, who pleaded with the GOP last week not to kill the talks with new sanctions.
The foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany and the European Union weighed in with their own plea in a joint op-ed in the Washington Post this week:
New sanctions at this moment might also fracture the international coalition that has made sanctions so effective so far. Rather than strengthening our negotiating position, new sanctions legislation at this point would set us back.
Unfortunately, this global consensus breaks down under the dome of the U.S. Congress. Politics trumps policy, and our national security suffers for it. But it is not just U.S. policy that is jeopardized by Boehner's gambit.
Bad for Israel
Boehner has a willing accomplice in Bibi Netanyahu. Behind in the polls, he is hoping to use the U.S. Congress as a prop in his reelection bid just weeks before the vote in Israel.
The highly respected pro-Israel group J Street warns:
It was a mistake for House Speaker John Boehner to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu now. Mr. Netanyahu is not only head of the Israeli government -- he is also a candidate in the midst of a highly-contested election campaign. His invitation, rightly or wrongly, will inevitably be interpreted in Israel and elsewhere as an attempt by an outside actor to interfere in the Israeli election. We would urge Mr. Boehner to postpone the invitation until after the election and then to invite whoever is elected Prime Minister, who will enjoy a fresh mandate from his or her people to address the Congress.
The Jewish Daily Forward reports that Anti-Defamation League National Director Abe Foxman is trying to get Boehner and Netanyahu "to come down from the high tree they had climbed." By joining a partisan attack of the American president, Netanyahu is jeopardizing Israel's relationship with its strongest supporter. By turning this into a partisan issue, "Netanyahu is shooting himself in the foot," one lawmaker told the Forward.
"I think mainstream Jewish organizations that place a high stock in maintaining their bipartisan identity -- including the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, and even AIPAC," warns journalist Jim Lobe, "are going to have a difficult time dealing with this situation due to the fact that Boehner has acted in such a transparently partisan manner."
Even Netanyahu himself once warned of the dangers of such actions. He harshly criticized then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres just for visiting the United States less than a month before the 1996 election. "I can't find an example of any previous Israeli government whose prime minister, on the eve of elections, made a cynical attempt to use relations between Israel and the United States as a party advertisement," Netanyahu said.
He could do worse than to listen to his own advice.