National Security & Defense

Obama, Netanyahu’s Speech, and American Leadership

The controversy isn’t just about Iran. It’s also about America’s role in the world.

‘Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.”

So said Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the conclusion of his bitterly debated speech to Congress about the Iranian threat. He then offered a qualifier: “But I know that Israel does not stand alone. I know that America stands with Israel.”

Both lines elicited standing ovations from lawmakers, but only one was categorically true: The White House, quite obviously, did not stand with Netanyahu’s Israel. And it is the reality of this divide, not merely the substantive disagreements that fill it, that ultimately lies at the heart of this controversy.

America’s policy toward Iran in part reflects a broader goal of geopolitical distancing that repudiates — at the expense of its closest allies — the nation’s historical role as the world’s indispensable superpower. In its stead, the White House has embraced a quixotic strategy of multilateral diplomacy untethered to economic or military pressure — and rooted in the assumption that the projection of American power enflames radical regimes rather than deters them.

This approach poses a problem for weaker allies — such as Israel — that have long relied upon the projection of American strength as a key plank of their national-security strategies.

Suddenly, for them, Pax Americana seems rather distant. Suddenly, they feel very much alone.

*****

Long before Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech kindled a partisan conflagration, an Israeli prime minister ascended the dais of the U.S. House of Representatives and offered a gentle warning about future disagreements.

“We express our confidence,” Yitzhak Rabin told lawmakers on January 28, 1976, “that such developing ties [between the United States and Arab countries] need not be and must not be at the cost of my own country’s vital interests of liberty and security and if, in the pursuit of our shared goals, differences do arise from time to time, then let us recall Jefferson’s wisdom that ‘every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.’”

Rabin, the first Israeli leader ever to address a joint session of Congress, did not utter these words in a vacuum. In the previous year, President Gerald Ford, frustrated by Israel’s refusal to withdraw from the Sinai without a peace treaty with Egypt, had launched a “reassessment” of U.S.-Israel relations that led his administration to freeze arms deliveries to the Jewish state. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger also urged “every department” to “put Israeli activities at the bottom of the list.”

While congressional pressure ultimately helped defuse the crisis, the affair shook Rabin profoundly, leading him to write in his memoirs that it was “one of the worst periods in American-Israeli relations.” As Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, wrote in a 1996 paper, Prime Minister Rabin believed that the Jewish state needed Washington desperately — for weapons, for funding, for counteracting the Soviet Union and the United Nations. “Israel’s mere existence,” Rabin said months after the speech to Congress, “will be in jeopardy in case of total desertion by the U.S.”

Thus, Rabin’s address to Congress was in large measure an extraordinary paean to American leadership and values. He spoke of his moving visit to the Liberty Bell, the debt of free people everywhere to the Declaration of Independence, and the two countries’ common roots in the biblical ethic. He cited Leviticus, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and Twain. And he emphasized Israel’s commitment to peace.

And he said this: “There is no freedom, nor shall there be peace in this world, without a United States, strong and confident in its purpose. World peace rests upon your fortitude.”

It would be easy to dismiss such rhetoric as wispy diplo-speak. Yet these were not idle words. Rabin understood that global stability requires the hegemony of a benevolent superpower that stands behind and supports its weaker allies. And few states faced challenges quite like Israel’s: hostile Arab regimes on all sides, a Soviet empire that persecuted its own Jewish population, and an unsympathetic international community.

Therefore, the American superpower, which not only shared Israel’s values and interests but also could reinforce them with unparalleled military might, struck the Israelis as a natural ally — despite, as Rabin noted, any tactical differences that might arise.

In later decades, most Israeli leaders addressing Congress would echo Rabin’s refrain. In 1987, for example, with America’s victory in the Cold War just over the horizon, President Chaim Herzog told a joint session: “Countless myriads in the teeming masses of the world depend on you. They look to you and draw courage and inspiration from your moral fabric.”

In 1995, Prime Minister Shimon Peres hailed the 20th century as the “century of America.”

In 1996, in the first of his three addresses to Congress, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lamented “the terrible misfortune of the Jewish people that, in the first half of this century, the United States had not yet assumed its pivotal role in the world.”

In 2006, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called America “a superpower whose influence reaches across oceans and beyond borders.”

But Netanyahu’s second speech to Congress, in 2011, marked a shift of emphasis in Israel’s message. Rather than merely thank America for its contributions, Netanyahu highlighted what Israel did not need from America, and he barely referenced America’s historic role as the global superpower:You don’t need to do nation-building in Israel,” he said, in a striking allusion to American war-wariness and President Obama’s pledge to extricate U.S. forces from the Middle East. “We’re already built. You don’t need to export democracy to Israel. We’ve already got it. And you don’t need to send American troops to Israel. We defend ourselves.”

For 9/11 had inaugurated a dramatic new dimension in U.S.-Israel relations. The transnational death cult of Islamist extremism, which Israel had combated for years, and which until then had gone largely ignored or unnoticed by the United States, had replaced the Soviet Union as America’s chief foreign adversary. And as Americans watched with horror when Palestinians celebrated 9/11 on the streets of Gaza, they began to view Israel in a new light.

In his second speech, Netanyahu thus portrayed the United States and Israel as comrades-in-arms in a common war against radical Islam. Whereas American backing for Israel during the Cold War aimed to help a dramatically weaker ally confront the threat of Soviet expansionism, American backing for Israel in the post-9/11 era marked an investment in a seasoned ally that already had years of counterterrorism experience.

*****

And yet. Notwithstanding the strength of the alliance, the problem of Iran has in part triggered one of the greatest rifts between an Israeli prime minister and an American president since Israel’s founding.

On a substantive level, the core of their quarrel can be stated simply: When the Israeli prime minister observes Iran, he sees an existential threat that must be eliminated; when the American president observes Iran, he sees an opportunity for diplomatic engagement. Obama believes that Iran can become, through the sheer power of diplomacy, a “very successful regional power” that can “get right with the world” and play a stabilizing role in the region. He has revised his original objective of dismantling Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, and now he seeks merely to contain it. And he believes Iran can serve as a key ally against ISIS and help stabilize Iraq and Syria.

These policies reflect Obama’s broader approach to international affairs. On the most fundamental level, the president believes that America — particularly under his Republican predecessor — has long played a destabilizing role in the world, and that the projection of U.S. strength fuels more conflicts than it resolves. The president counsels withdrawal from global entanglements and insists, despite copious evidence to the contrary, that diplomacy untethered to economic pressure or the threat of military force can alter the ambitions of Tehran.

Obama declines to fund his own military such that it can respond to a range of threats. He refuses to provide military support to Ukraine. He ignores his own red line on Syria. He offers a nebulous, half-hearted strategy to defeat ISIS that spurns meaningful military commitment. He refuses to identify the enemy by its name: radical Islam. And while Obama may imagine these positions are principled efforts to avoid conflict, many skeptics see them differently — as projections of weakness that demoralize allies and embolden adversaries. Netanyahu is one of those skeptics.

In this sense, the differences between the two men are not merely tactical. They are, contra Rabin’s appeal, differences of principle, and they reflect irreconcilable views about the balance of power in the Middle East. Indeed, Netanyahu believes that Obama’s vision, in effect if not intent, places Israel’s very survival at risk.

Critics contend that Netanyahu’s willingness to challenge the president’s Iran policy reflects ingratitude. They trumpet America’s robust security assistance for Israel, its efforts to strengthen Israel’s qualitative military edge, its defense of Israel at the United Nations, and its funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. They wonder how anyone can suggest that the president backs Israel insufficiently.

But this argument misses the point. Israel, Netanyahu recognizes, can withstand a U.S. endorsement of an anti-Israel U.N. resolution. It can even survive if President Obama refuses to provide billions of dollars in annual security assistance. But the Jewish state cannot live with a nuclear-armed Iran. And if Iran goes nuclear thanks to a bad deal spearheaded by Obama, the military and diplomatic aid that normally undergirds the alliance would become vanishingly insignificant beneath the enormity of the nuclear threat.

As another foreign leader, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, recently told a joint session of Congress in a plea that went ignored by the White House: “One cannot win the war with blankets.” Likewise, one cannot stop an Iranian nuclear bomb with Iron Dome batteries and U.S. veto threats in the U.N.

To date, the debate over Netanyahu’s speech has focused largely on political questions. Did Netanyahu violate protocol by accepting Speaker John Boehner’s invitation? Did his address constitute a cynical exercise in political gamesmanship aimed solely at increasing his reelection prospects? And would the speech, in any event, actually have a real-word impact on President Obama’s policies?

The true significance of this controversy resides elsewhere: Obama’s renunciation of the very leadership role that animated previous Israeli leaders, and other nations, to seek an alliance with America in the first place. If President Obama’s vision holds sway, no longer, as Rabin put it, will world peace rest upon American fortitude. And no longer, as Peres declared, will this century be an American century.

Netanyahu, like other U.S. allies abandoned by the Obama administration, probably believes this. And he is prepared to act accordingly — alone, if necessary.

– Tzvi Kahn is a senior policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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