Why Would He Do This?

Yesterday Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the Congress in February, which he accepted.  While on the surface this may seem relatively innocuous, it would not be the first time that he addressed Congress, in reality this invitation is an “in your face” move by Speaker Boehner and a direct challenge to President Obama. While technically not required, as the Speaker pointed out he can invite anyone he pleases to speak to Congress, it is highly unusual as the Speaker gave no advanced notice to the Obama Administration.  Diplomatically, historically and in keeping with protocol, not to mention good manners, the Speaker should have coordinated the invitation with the administration.  It is customary that a head of state invite, or at least tacitly agree to, another head of state coming to the United States on official business.  And oh yeah. According to the Constitution, the Executive Branch is responsible for foreign affairs.  This does not, of course, mean that the Congress does not have a role to play in oversight of foreign affairs.  Indeed they do have a role and an important one at that. The Senate is tasked with the duty to “advise and consent” to Ambassadorial appointments, treaties and other functions related to foreign affairs.  The House does not have that role, but they do control the money and that is the primary way that they influence such matters.

Equally rude was the revelation that Prime Minister Netanyahu did not inform the Obama Administration about the invitation either.  It could be because the Israelis did not want to get in the middle of an American political dispute.  It could be because the Prime Minister is himself in the middle of a contentious re-election campaign and an appearance before the U.S. Congress can only help him in his bid.  It could be because the Israelis, and Prime Minister Netanyahu in particular, could care less about any American policies, they are only interested in protecting their own interests.

Why is this a big deal?  Besides the theatrics and political gamesmanship, behind Speaker Boehner’s move is the ongoing negotiation with Iran about its nuclear weapons ambitions.  Many Republicans, and some Democrats, (and certainly Prime Minister Netanyahu) believe that President Obama is about to make a “bad” deal with the Iranians that will give them the ability to produce nuclear weapons on short notice.  Those that oppose any deal, or at least the deal currently under negotiation, with the Iranians want to impose more and more severe sanctions now on the Iranians and keep them on until they, in essence, capitulate and remove any nuclear capability whatsoever.  The current negotiations would allow the Iranians to keep peaceful nuclear reactors for generating electricity and for research, but with significant restrictions and under a severe inspection regime.  There are currently sanctions in place with Iran which, coupled with the dramatic drop in the price of oil, have a significant impact on their economy and brought some in their government around to the possibility of agreeing to the constraints on their nuclear program.

To be sure, there are Iranian hard-liners in influential positions in their government that oppose any deal.  The current negotiations are not a sure thing.  President Obama clearly states that there is “probably less than a 50-50 chance” of the negotiations succeeding.  He is willing to put more sanctions in place if the negotiations fail, but strongly opposes any further efforts now as he argues that the chance of success will fall from 50-50 to zero.  It will also have an impact on negotiations with other nations as the move would be perceived as the United States (and other nations, more on that shortly) reneging on their good faith negotiations.

These are not unilateral negotiations.  Negotiating partners (sometimes referred to as the P5+1) include the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China working to get Iranian concessions on their nuclear program.  In a press conference during his visit to the United States last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron said  that he told U.S. senators that “it is the opinion of the U.K. that further sanctions at this point won’t actually help to bring the talks to a successful conclusion.”  In today’s Washington Post the foreign ministers of France, Britain, Germany and the European Union wrote an opinion piece directed at the United States Congress delineating the progress made to date in gaining International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to Iranian reactors and other progress in providing oversight, and subsequent limitations, on the Iranian ability to produce a nuclear weapon.  They ask that diplomacy be continued to allow further progress and specifically make the point that:

“new sanctions at this moment might also fracture the international coalition that has made sanctions so effective so far.  Rather than strengthening our negotiating position, new sanctions legislation at this point would set us back.”

Given such overwhelming international support and concern, it baffles me why members of Congress would actively work to undermine our negotiating position.  Several have advocated military action to prevent Iran from developing its nuclear capabilities, a view shared not coincidentally by Prime Minister Netanyahu.  President Obama did not take military action off the table, stating only that it should, rightly in my opinion, be the “last resort” when no other option remains.  We are not there and probably will not be there for some time.

I do not mean to impugn the good intentions or character of members of the House and Senate that truly believe that Iran poses an imminent threat to the United States and its allies.  However, I do not believe that all of those that advocate increased sanctions on Iran do so out of that belief.  I think that Speaker Boehner’s move to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu, who will undoubtedly advocate for increased sanctions, if not military action, against Iran is motivated by domestic politics to embarrass the president and to imply that the president is not concerned about the well-being of Israel.

Speaker Boehner is playing with fire.  Perhaps he is trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy by pushing harsh sanctions on Iran, causing them to withdraw from the negotiations, and thus providing the opportunity to spout an “I told you so” about the president being naive, weak, a poor leader or all of the above.  The usual talking points.

Again,  the best analysis is that there is a 50-50 chance that the negotiations will succeed.  The best analysis, including from our closest allies, is that harsher sanctions will doom the process and sink that chance of success to zero.  The process has only a few more months to play itself out.  Why must the Congress act now?  Harsher sanctions may indeed be in order if the Iranians withdraw, or dissemble, or otherwise bargain in bad faith.  But we are not there yet.  This is a serious issue and there are serious arguments that can, and are, made on each side of it.  In the end, our national security is only our business and no one else’s, we need to do what is right for our own national interests.  Got it.  Let the debate begin.  But this spiteful move is not what one would expect from the Speaker of the House.

So why would he do this?  To use a domestic political ploy to embarrass a sitting president of another party by playing with serious international problems.  Speaker Boehner, you’ve made your point.  You won’t be ignored.  Now let’s get serious.

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