Why Bibi's Speech Didn't Work
Last week’s spectacle of a representative of another nation challenging an American president’s foreign policy on the House floor may have been unprecedented, but only because of the location. Our first president, George Washington, was temporarily upstaged in 1793 by the French Ambassador Edmond-Charles Genet without him setting foot in Philadelphia’s Congress Hall.
The 30-year-old firebrand blustered into America, flouting Washington’s just-announced proclamation of neutrality between France and Great Britain. He held public rallies. He encouraged armed uprisings against British-held territory. Most provocatively, he used American ports to turn captured British commercial ships into armed French vessels, an overt violation of Washington’s neutrality policy that risked dragging America into the war.
The petulant Genet soon overplayed his hand, privately threatening to go over Washington’s head and rally the American people to reject neutrality. Washington’s allies soon leaked word of Genet’s disrespect for the president to the press, horrifying the public and laying the groundwork for the Washington administration to demand the recall of the ambassador.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu did Genet one better; he actually went over Obama’s head. Did it work?
Conservative critics of the emerging deal argue it did, citing two polls taken after the speech. A Fox News survey finds 84 percent opposition to the deal, but the wording is absurdly loaded, describing an agreement that would “allow Iran to get nuclear weapons 10 years from now.” That is contrary to how Obama characterizes the proposal to relax uranium enrichment restrictions, but not inspections, after 10 years: “the best way to ensure that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon.”
The Rasmussen Poll wording is relatively better, if still incomplete: “a 10-year freeze on Iran's nuclear development program in exchange for lifting some sanctions.” That poll picks up a slight lean against such a deal -- 39 percent opposed, 35 percent in favor and many undecided. (A plurality of 45 percent also agreed with the statement that the “deal will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”) Also of note, Rasmussen polled “likely voters,” which probably left out some unlikely young and minority voters, whose views are still pertinent. Overall, the Rasmussen poll’s low numbers on both sides of the equation suggests public opinion has yet to solidify.
For Netanyahu, shaping American public opinion is only a means to an end: persuading enough Democrats in Congress to break with Obama and join Republicans in a veto-proof majority that can thwart any deal. In the Senate, that means winning over 13 Democrats if Republicans are fully unified (14 if Republicans lose the dovish Rand Paul).
Netanyahu, in his congressional address, told Americans that they did not have to wait for the “very bad deal” to be finalized before registering opposition. Yet Senate Democrats did not agree.
When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moved to exploit momentum from the speech, and put a bill on the floor taking away Obama’s authority under current law to waive Iran sanctions, Democrats who had previously signaled support backed off. We still have to let Obama finish negotiating, they protested. Facing a filibuster, McConnell pulled the bill. Therefore, in the short run, Netanyahu’s speech was a failure.
What remains up in the air is how the speech will resonate with the voting public, and how many congressional Democrats will be willing to break with the president if a deal is actually reached.
For Democrats to abandon Obama on what will be presented as the capstone of his foreign policy legacy, public opinion will have to be squarely with Netanyahu, not just nationally but in the senators’ respective states, with at least some division within the Democratic base. The fact that these Democratic senators have not done so yet, despite their flirtations, shows how dicey such a move is for them.
That may be because February poll data suggests a clear anti-deal dynamic has not yet materialized. The Program for Public Consultation found 61 percent support (including 61 percent among Republicans) for a pact in which “Iran would accept intrusive inspections of their program, while the U.S. would accept Iran enriching to the low level necessary for nuclear energy.” The Economist/YouGov poll found 63 percent support (again, with identical support among Republicans) for “an international agreement which requires Iran to temporarily freeze parts of its nuclear program and participate in international negotiations to limit its nuclear program permanently in exchange for a temporary easing of economic sanctions.”
The differing results from different poll wording suggests a conflicted electorate, one that does not trust Iran but prefers a deal to military conflict. This suggests that public opinion will be up for grabs once the details of any deal are known.
But widespread aversion to war severely hamstrings Netanyahu’s pitch. Consider that in 2007, Sen. John McCain thought it clever to sing “that old Beach Boys song, ‘Bomb Iran’” while campaigning for president. Eight years later, Netanyahu was forced to stress that it was “not true” that rejecting Obama’s preferred deal means “war.”
That concession gives Obama an opening once the public opinion battle is fully joined. He will argue that his deal is sure to avert war, while rejecting it will likely lead to one. Netanyahu and his allies in the Senate will gamely respond -- as Bibi did in the speech -- that they can reject a deal and simply demand a better one.
But what if Iran, unconstrained by the current temporary deal, then cranks up its centrifuges full steam? The hawkish answer, before the speech, was that military force would be warranted. To admit that after the deal is done would surrender the debate to Obama -- especially among Democratic voters whose views matter greatly to the Senate Democrats who hold the fulcrum of power.
So not only has Netanyahu failed to move the Senate before a deal was struck, he failed to set the table to win the argument after a deal is struck.
When George Washington announced his neutrality policy, he set a precedent that, despite the Congress’ constitutional power to declare war and the Senate’s role in ratifying treaties, the executive branch retained the authority to unilaterally set foreign policy objectives. While the branches still tussle over these gray areas, there have been more than 18,500 executive agreements in our foreign policy history. Over the centuries, the public has grown quite comfortable with presidents dictating foreign policy, and it requires extraordinary circumstances for Congress to get away with seizing that power for itself.
Genet failed to derail that precedent from being set. Netanyahu is unlikely to overcome it.