Do we really need the Israeli prime minister to appear before Congress to explain the dangers and pitfalls of certain prospective deals on Iran’s nuclear weapons programs? Would we not know otherwise? Have the U.S. critics of those prospective deals lost their voice? Are they shy about expressing their concerns? Are they inarticulate or incompetent? Do they lack the wherewithal to get their message out?
Not exactly. Every day a new report or analysis warns of the consequences of various concessions that the Obama administration may or may not be making. Some think tanks in Washington devote themselves almost entirely to the subject of Iran’s nuclear program. Congress has held numerous hearings on the subject. Every week, perhaps every day, high-ranking members of the House and Senate, from both parties, lay out the dangers they see. The Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and others publish countless stories on the talks in which experts weigh in to express their doubts. If all the articles, statements and analyses produced in the United States on this subject could be traded for centrifuges, the Iranian nuclear program would be eliminated in a week.
Nor can it be said that we are somehow unaware of Israel’s views on this deal. It is not as if our news media will not report Israeli concerns and complaints. The statements and opinions of the Israeli prime minister, of members of his government and of the military and intelligence services are amply covered in the United States. Israeli officials — including the prime minister — can and do travel to the United States to express their concerns, with or without presidential invitations. They give speeches at the United Nations. They go on Sunday morning television programs and voice their opinions before millions of American viewers. They can even meet with members of Congress in both parties if they choose to.
Given all this, can it really be the case that the American people will not know what to think about any prospective Iran deal until one man, and only one man, gets up to speak in one venue, and only one venue, and does so in the first week of March, and only in that week? That is what those who insist it is vital that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak before a joint meeting of Congress next week would have us believe.
Even the most eloquent speech by Netanyahu will not add more than marginally to what has already been said and heard. But even if the drama of the situation and the prime minister’s eloquence were to highlight the already well-articulated case against a bad deal, the question is: at what price?
For there is a price. I will leave it to the Israeli government and people to worry about what damage the prime minister’s decision could have on U.S.-Israeli relations going forward, and not just under this administration. Those Americans who care most about that relationship will also have to weigh whether the short-term benefits of having Netanyahu speak will outweigh potential long-term costs. Looking back on it from years hence, will the spectacle of an Israeli prime minister coming to Washington to do battle with an American president wear well or poorly?
For the United States, however, there is no doubt that the precedent being set is a bad one. This is not the first time that a U.S. administration and an Israeli prime minister have been at loggerheads. President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, reportedly detested then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and did their best to help him lose his next election. Baker even had a few choice words for the American Jews who tried to come to the Israeli government’s defense. Did anyone at the time think of inviting Shamir to address Congress? The very idea would have been regarded as laughable. Now, we’re supposed to believe that it’s perfectly reasonable.
Is anyone thinking about the future? From now on, whenever the opposition party happens to control Congress — a common enough occurrence — it may call in a foreign leader to speak to a joint meeting of Congress against a president and his policies. Think of how this might have played out in the past. A Democratic-controlled Congress in the 1980s might, for instance, have called the Nobel Prize-winning Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to denounce President Ronald Reagan’s policies in Central America. A Democratic-controlled Congress in 2003 might have called French President Jacques Chirac to oppose President George W. Bush’s impending war in Iraq.
Does that sound implausible? Yes, it was implausible — until now. Now we are sailing into uncharted waters. Those who favor having Netanyahu speak may imagine this is an extraordinary situation requiring extraordinary measures, that one side is so clearly right, the other so clearly wrong. Yet that is often how people feel about the crisis of their time. We can be sure that in the future the urgency will seem just as great. The only difference between then and now is that today, bringing a foreign leader before Congress to challenge a U.S. president’s policies is unprecedented. After next week, it will be just another weapon in our bitter partisan struggle.
Robert Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He writes a monthly foreign affairs column for The Post.