The Great Liberal Freakout over Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Tuesday might subside now that the deed has been done. Perhaps now we can get around to understanding why the Israeli prime minister felt it so necessary to come speak to lawmakers — against the wishes of President Obama — in the first place.
In the president’s line of argument, laden with the kind of false choices he denounces even as he employs them, the only alternative to the deal he’s negotiating with Iran is war. It has been revealing to see how many liberals have taken up this kind of thinking, which they typically berate as the kind unsophisticated, nuance-less, black-or-white worldview of rightwingneoconwingnuts. Like the absence of anti-war protests over Obama’s use of military power, it shows they’re just as partisan on the issue of war as on any other.
The value of Netanyahu’s speech was primarily the way he laid so bare the weakness of Obama’s policy and the partisanship of Obama’s supporters.
After all, one obvious, other alternative to a bad deal is … a good deal. Netanyahu said this explicitly — contra our liberal friends who insist he’s simply beating the drums of war — in his speech, and he gave an idea of what a better deal might look like. First, it wouldn’t include the two “major concessions” Obama seems prepared to make: Allowing Iran to leave its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile programs in place, and putting a sunset date on the relatively toothless impositions the deal would place on Iran. Second, it would include continued economic pressure, via sanctions, to give Iran an incentive to hold up its end of any bargain.
Obama seems to have accepted the only way to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program is through war, and so he’s essentially taken that goal off the table. But it’s easy to see why falling short of that goal would be considered a non-starter for Netanyahu — and should be as well for anyone who believes a nuclear-armed Iran will start an arms race across the Middle East and make war all but inevitable.
In theory, a deal that allows Iran to preserve a civilian nuclear program but places sufficient and verifiable restrictions on it could be a good deal. But it is exceedingly difficult to see how a deal that places little in the way of restrictions and tells Iran when those restrictions will end could possibly qualify.
Announcing in advance the date of our surrender has become a staple of Obama’s foreign policy, from Iraq to Afghanistan, and Netanyahu is absolutely correct to point out how dangerous it is in this case, when the regime in Tehran has been following the same anti-Israeli course for decades. It’s easy for President Obama, with two years left in his term and anticipating eight years of President Hillary, to push dreadful consequences of the deal well past the writing of his (latest) memoirs and first round of post-presidential biographies. The view of time from Tel Aviv looks, understandably, rather different.
And for all the talk about how economic sanctions didn’t work, Obama’s own supporters in Congress have noted the role effective sanctions played in bringing Iran to the table for these very talks. How much more effective, Netanyahu asked, might sanctions be at a time when oil prices have plummeted to the detriment of Iran’s economy? If the only stick is the supposed presence of United Nations inspectors, there is really isn’t a stick at all.
Above all, the notion that it’s a deal or war is rather hard to take at the same time National Security Advisor Susan Rice is insisting a bad deal is worse than no deal. The only ostensible belief that could underpin both of these statements from the administration is that any deal Obama strikes is, by definition, a good deal. It is that kind of thinking which raises the comparisons to Neville Chamberlain.
In short, Netanyahu appears correct to doubt Obama’s determination to do what it takes to strike a genuinely good deal, rather than striking a bad one and declaring it good. That’s why it was also right for him to take his argument directly to American lawmakers and citizens outside the administration.