Bibi's Blustery Blunder

03/03/2015 05:15 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015
Tom Williams via Getty Images

On March 5, 1946, almost 69 years ago to the day, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave his famous "Iron Curtain" speech before an audience of thousands in Fulton, Missouri. Churchill was in Fulton at the invitation of Westminster College, where he spoke. He traveled there aboard a train, accompanied by President Harry Truman. In his speech, Churchill declared that "an Iron Curtain has descended across the [European] Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of central and eastern Europe... all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere."

At the time of his speech, the world was less than a year removed from the horrors of total war which had gripped Europe. The United States was engaged in difficult diplomatic maneuvering with the Soviet Union over the shape of post-war Europe. George Kennan, a renowned American diplomat then stationed at the United States Embassy in Moscow, had just written his famous "long telegram" which served as the foundation of a developing policy of containment of Soviet power and influence by the United States and its allies.

There were concerns among hardliners in Washington, DC, London and elsewhere (Churchill foremost among them) that the United States might, in the aftermath of a successful campaign against one existential threat (Nazi Germany) lose focus on the existence of another (Soviet Russia). Churchill's speech was intended to provide some "stiffener" to the spine of American politicians who, in his opinion, might be inclined to avoid confrontation with the Soviets in the short term, with long term consequences. There was, at the time, a risk of America returning to its pre-war policies of isolationism. Churchill opposed such a stance, and vociferously spoke out about the real consequences of such. His was a non-partisan, apolitical message which cut across party lines, and it was well received by his American audience.

On March 3, 2015, the serving Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke before a joint session of the United States Congress about the existential threat to Israel and the world -- including the United States -- by what he termed Iran's nuclear weapons program. Netanyahu was at the nation's capital at the invitation of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ohio Republican John Boehner. Netanyahu, in a breech of protocol, had failed to consult the President of the United States, Barak Obama, about his visit. His appearance before the assembled elected political might of the United States Congress came little more than a week removed from a closely contested election in Israel where Netanyahu's continued tenure as Prime Minister is anything but assured.

Netanyahu claims that his speech, which attacked a looming deal being negotiated by the United States, Russia, China, France, Great Britain and Germany with Iran over its nuclear program, was a wake-up call about a bad deal that would empower an out-of-control theocratic state sponsor of terrorism with a break-out capability to produce nuclear weapons. Netanyahu and his supporters claim he has a case. That may well be. But one cannot escape the highly politicized environment, both here in the United States and back in Israel, which surrounded his appearance before the United States Congress. The level of acrimony that exists between the White House and Netanyahu because of this speech is unprecedented in the history of these two nations. Winston Churchill left Fulton, Missouri in the company of President Harry Truman, arm in arm. Netanyahu leaves Washington, DC having received the cold shoulder from President Barak Obama, and the subject of acrimonious commentary from a White House that feels betrayed by an Israeli politician -- not leader -- who has hijacked American national security objectives for his own political use.

The merit of Prime Minister Netanyahu's case against Iran -- or lack thereof -- is not the focus of this piece. The concept of being lectured on the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East by the largest proliferator of nuclear weapons in the Middle East is a bit disconcerting. Israeli politicians have been declaring the imminent danger of Iran's ability to acquire nuclear weapons capability "in less than a year's time" since before 2001. At some point in time the world must wake up to the distinct possibility that Netanyahu, like his predecessors, is merely crying "wolf." While I am loath to give Iran the benefit of the doubt when it comes to its nuclear ambitions, I do believe that the nations negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran take that task seriously, and that the reality of any threat posed by Iran's nuclear program is much more sober than the near-frantic hyperbole contained in the Israeli Prime Minister's speech before Congress.

What is of interest here is the concept of process, especially as it applies to the foreign policy of a sovereign United States. According to the Constitution of the United States, the power to conduct foreign policy rests squarely with the executive branch of the government -- the President. This is done with the advice and consent of the United States Senate. The role of the House of Representatives is limited to that of the power of the purse -- allocating funds to pay for the execution of this policy. For the Speaker of the House to invite a foreign leader to appear before the Congress of the United States for the purpose of giving a speech which seeks to undermine the Constitutional prerogative of the President of the United States to conduct foreign policy represents about as big of a departure from the roles envisioned by our founding fathers as one can imagine. And to allow an Israeli politician to use the venue of the United States Congress as a platform for political grandstanding in support of his re-election bid is equally demeaning to Americans and Israelis alike.

While some 50 Democratic members of Congress boycotted Netanyahu's speech, the majority did not. In retrospect, they may wish they had. Not since the time of Leonid Brezhnev's presentations before the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has one witnessed such a Pavlovian response to pointless politicized speech as occurred on the floor of the United States Congress, with American politicians being ushered to their feet with every carefully crafted sound bite uttered by the Israeli Prime Minister -- American politicians whose loyalty to the State of Israel would, by their actions, seem to trump their loyalty to the system of checks and balances that are the bedrock of American democracy.

It is not that I don't agree with much of what Netanyahu said -- I do. There was also much with which I disagreed. This is fodder for another debate on the merits of his argument. But it wasn't his place to say it before the United States Congress in the manner he did -- at the behest of a political opponent of the President, in opposition to American foreign policy objectives, in support of a domestic Israeli political campaign. The public relations value of the imagery presented by a sea of awe-struck American politicians surging to their feet at the beckoning of Bibi Netanyahu has considerable political value in Israeli politics, something any American politician who has undergone a tight election should understand.

As President Obama observed after Netanyahu's speech, there was "nothing new" in what the Israeli Prime Minister had to say. Rather than put at risk the relationship between Israel and the American President by inopportunely accepting what was obviously a politically motivated invitation from the House Speaker, the Israeli Prime Minister could have just as easily found an appropriate forum -- his version of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri -- to make his case. He could have done so at a time that was far less sensitive to both Israeli political sensibilities and American sovereign concerns. Who knows -- his words could have gone down in history as the modern-day equivalent of Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech. Instead, his speech will be forever viewed as a blustery blunder, an unwise foray into the festering sea that defines domestic American politics today, designed to interfere with the sovereign right of the American people to pursue an independent foreign policy, while reinforcing his own bid for continued political relevance in Israel.

The deal that is being negotiated between Iran and the world over its nuclear program will succeed or fail on its own merits, Bibi's American sojourn notwithstanding. The consequences of failure are grave, both in terms of accepting a deal that fails to check any potential for an Iranian nuclear weapons program, or failing to close a deal due to misplaced fear and undue pressure brought to bear by outside parties. Either one pushes the West and Iran to the brink of conflict at a time when the Middle East is already burdened with ongoing sectarian strife and regional unrest.

Netanyahu's warnings aside, Iran simply does not pose the kind of existential threat to international peace and security that a Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia did. We do not live under the same reality faced by the world in March, 1946, when Churchill gave his famous speech. As Americans, we would do well to keep our own counsel with regard to our own sovereign interests regarding Iran and its nuclear program, and not let political bickering between the House Speaker and the President, or an Israeli domestic election, determine the path we eventually choose to take.