Friday, March 06, 2015

Bibi Deserves Our Thanks

Ever since Bibi’s speech before the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, I’ve been inundated with e-mails.  Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about the speech, and those opinions are about as passionate and polarized as it gets.  I never realized before just how many people I knew who were experts” on Iran.

I, for one, do not claim such expertise.  I’m certainly familiar with the revolution that brought down the shah, the hostage crisis that brought down Carter’s presidency, the decades of support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, the Holocaust denial, and the threats to Israel from certain prominent Iranian leaders.  But I’ve never been to Iran, I know few Iranians who want to talk about the politics of their nation, and I have been exposed to few objective voices who want to present to me a nuanced view about what makes Iran tick.  So I’m the kind of guy who frankly is happy to learn more about Iran and to listen to different perspectives about what kind of Iranian peace deal is warranted.  

With that perspective in mind, you’ll forgive me if I actually looked forward to Bibi’s speech.   I knew that he comes from a country that has been threatened by Iran in just about every way that a country can be threatened.  I wanted to hear his argument for why it is valid to compare appeasing Iran to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s.   

Frankly, I enjoyed the speech.  I especially liked the rhetoric, much as I once appreciated the rhetoric in Obama’s speeches when he first ran for President.  Soaring rhetoric has its place – it speaks to the heart as much as, if not more than, the head.  And when I heard Bibi’s speech, and recognized that we’re considering lifting economic sanctions on Iran despite the fact that it has not noticeably turned a new leaf, I found myself emotionally stirred – if not to action, then at least to showing more concern about the topic.

The speech raised several important questions.  Has Iran somehow become more benign during the past several years?  If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, would this lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East or otherwise increase the power of vassal states and terrorist groups that Iran supports?  What are the nations who are now negotiating with Iran doing to ensure that they get the very best deal possible with Iran?  Who really has the leverage here, Iran or the countries with which it is negotiating?  And is it true that a weak deal is worse than no deal at all, given the loss of nerve among certain other countries in maintaining the sanctions?   

Some of these questions may sound rhetorical, but I am wondering about them in earnest.   I applaud Netanyahu’s speech because it helped put these questions on the front burner for me, and because I know for a fact that I am not alone.  That doesn’t mean I’ve concluded that Netanyahu has all the right answers, or that Obama has all the wrong ones, but I don’t believe that the President has truly sold his vision on Iran to the American public.  Or if he has, I must have been sleeping – because I clearly missed that sales job.

With all that as background, I must admit that I have been truly appalled by the reactions to the speech of the leaders of my Democratic Party.   I would say I was “shocked,” but that would be incorrect – these leaders reacted very predictably, and much as their Republican counterparts reacted whenever someone dared question the rationale for invading Iraq during the lead up to that war.  American statesmen are often at their worst when their political party is in power and is about to embark on a foreign policy initiative.  They operate on a “just trust us” basis and treat dissenters like they are practically un-American.   

What was so appalling about the Democratic reaction to the speech?  First of all, the unanimity of the reaction rubbed me the wrong way.   What happened to the Democratic Party of Will Rogers, who famously said “I am not a member of any organized political party.  I am a Democrat.”   I want my party’s leaders to think for themselves.  But so far, I’ve heard none of them thanking Bibi for stimulating a needed public discourse.  

Second, I can’t believe the meme that Bibi somehow insulted our intelligence by making the appeal that he did.   Nobody has taken the time to inform the American public about this stuff, so how can someone insult our intelligence by making a coherent argument on a difficult topic?  Spare me the BS, folks; this speech may have insulted the omniscient ones among us, but it sure didn’t insult me.  In fact, I find the irony quite delicious that the same party that only one generation ago based a successful political campaign on the slogan, “It’s the Economy, Stupid,” is now telling us that when a world leader treats us like we don’t all have PhDs in geopolitics, he’s insulting our intelligence.  Talk about nonsense.

Third, I am ticked off by the idea that Bibi presented “nothing new.”  This is from the same party whose leader successfully campaigned on “hope and change.”  So it’s OK for Barack Obama to wax eloquent about generalities and overarching philosophies, but Israel’s leader doesn’t dare do that?  What was new in that speech was that, when the world is on the verge of making it much easier for Iran to develop its nuclear capabilities, America heard a lengthy, powerful argument for why we need to be tough as nails in negotiating with Iran.   Come to think of it, even if Bibi had said nothing more than “I just want to point out that the same guy who is negotiating with Iran is the guy who has been negotiating with the Republicans on tax policy for six years and getting virtually nowhere” – that alone would have brought something valuable to the table.  

Fourth, I am dismayed that Democrats are lambasting the speech because it is turning support-for-Israel into a partisan issue here in America.  Folks, there is nothing inherent in that speech that needs to create any wedge between Israel and her American allies.  If the Democrats don’t want to support Israel going further, it’s because they’ve been looking for an excuse to stop supporting Israel and Bibi has given them one.  Fine – let those Democrats vote their conscience.  As Bibi implied, Israel can stand tall without the support of a few phony “Israel lovers” in Congress.  And frankly, as someone who freely criticizes Israel when I think she deserves to be criticized, it doesn’t scare me in the least that people in America may feel freer to do the same going forward.  I believe in free speech – even though I’m a Democrat.

Yes, I think we can all agree that Netanyahu and his ambassador didn’t handle the invitation from Boehner with aplomb.  Score one for the Democrats and against the Republicans on that front.  But I for one am glad that this speech was delivered, and that it was delivered where it was delivered.  Had the speech been delivered at an AIPAC meeting, say, the press would have hardly covered it.  

Personally, I believe that Congressional leaders should have the right to invite whoever they choose to give speeches about foreign policy issues; it’s not like the President can’t give speeches or press conferences whenever it suits him (or her).   We here on Main Street are typically kept in the dark when it comes to these matters – everything is top secret, right?  No matter who is President, we get one-sided spin and far more rhetoric than reason, and yet somehow we are supposed to have opinions as to whether to wage a war or enter into a treaty.   The only way to rip apart this perpetual veil of ignorance is to let prominent people give major speeches, and then have the press develop the arguments on both sides.

Finally, you’ll note that I have spared you the obligatory Bibi-bashing in this blogpost.  I frequently engage in that bashing myself, but not this Shabbat.  Unlike when he speaks on the Palestinian issue, Bibi speaks for virtually all Israelis when he speaks about the Iranians.  So this controversy isn’t so much about what Bibi said, but what the Israelis think.  Unlike some of those who perfunctorily call themselves “pro-Israel,” I actually care about what the Israelis think.  

Let the debating begin.

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