Sunday, May 22, 2011

Who’s Playing Hardball Here?

Is there anything more disillusioning that watching Barack Obama trying to play foreign policy hardball? When the president used his Arab Spring speech to propose that Israel’s retreat to the 1967 borders be the baseline of future Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, he clearly figured that Bibi Netanyahu would have to grin and bear it. Obama surely didn’t expect to be sitting stone-faced in the Oval Office before the international press listening to Netanyahu's condescending lecture about the realities of the peace process.

Can you think of a precedent for the leader of a client state dissing an American president in the Oval Office? That doesn’t happen, I presume, because the price a client-state leader has to pay for doing that sort of thing is too high. So what price is Netanyahu going to pay? Let’s ask a couple of Obama’s staunchest supporters.

The best Michael Tomasky can come up with is that Netanyahu’s “tantrum” puts him in line for the sort of public relations headache his defiance over the West Bank settlements gave Obama (my emphasis):
“Right after he took office in 2009, Obama pushed Israel too hard on settlements, thinking that he had more political capital on the issue than he had. He got slapped down, by Netanyahu and AIPAC and members of Congress from both parties. At the same time, Syria was rebuffing administration overtures, and the new president was learning the hard way that the Middle East wasn’t the staff of the Harvard Law Review, and it wouldn’t quite so pliably prostrate itself to his will and aura. But now, is it Obama who’s going to suffer the PR blow? Something tells me that this time, the pressure will mount more on Bibi than Barack. His behavior these last 48 hours has verged on, if not been, petulant. A foreign leader (no less one of a state whose existence depends on the United States) isn’t supposed to talk like that to a president.”
Maybe so.  But it’s worth noting that this Washington Post editorial is a lot harder on Obama than Netanyahu. If I had to bet, I’d put my money on Netanyahu’s upcoming speeches to AIPAC and a joint session of Congress being warmly received. And even if they aren’t, who do you figure has a thicker skin when it comes to adverse PR, Netanyahu or Obama?

Well, Tomasky might not be the best guy to intuit the tactical brilliance behind Obama’s letting himself be lectured in the Oval Office. That’s a job for Andrew Sullivan. Here’s Andrew’s take (my emphasis):
“What strikes me is the visceral and emotional power behind the AIPAC line, displayed in Netanyahu's contemptuous, disgraceful, desperate public dressing down of the American president in the White House. Just observe the tone of Netanyahu's voice, and the Cheney-like determination to impose his will on the world, regardless of anyone else, and certainly without the slightest concern for his ally's wider foreign policy and security needs. It seems clear to me that he believes that an American president, backed by the Quartet, must simply bow toward Israel's own needs, as he perceives them, rather than the other way round. Has Netanyahu ever asked, one wonders, what he could actually do to help Obama, president of Israel's oldest, and strongest ally in an era of enormous social and political change? That, it seems, is not how this alliance works.”
Take a look at the three adjectives that Sullivan applies to Netanyahu’s “public dressing down of an American president" and ask yourself which one doesn’t fit with the other two: “contemptuous,” “disgraceful” and “desperate.” Who looks more desperate to you? A head of an embattled client state trying “to impose his will on the world” and apparently getting away with it; the president of the world's only superpower trying, but visibly failing, to impose his will on the leader of an embattled client state; or one of that president's most devoted supporters, lamenting the fact that the head of the embattled client state isn’t trying hard enough to keep the leader of the world’s only superpower from looking like he's in over his head.

No comments: