Thursday, November 3, 2011

Israel and the US Congress: Funny If It Wasn't So Potentially Catastrophic

Two reports today that ought to give pause to anyone still hoping that the US can salvage some modicum of respect on the international stage.  And in each case, it's our Congress' slavish devotion to Netanyahu's hard-line doctrines and to their constituents' absurd sense of "what the Bible commands" that are setting us all up for potential catastrophe.

From the AP's Matthew Lee comes an analysis highlighting the rudderless quality of Obama's Middle East policies - and it's not so much that Obama has let go the rudder as it is the GOP refusing to let him come with 20 feet of it.  It was bad enough lo those many months ago when Bibi slapped down Barack's demand for a settlement freeze in the West Bank, only to see Congress rush to the support, not of the American president, but the prime minister of Israel.  Now the situation has become completely out of hand.

 Israel acted, announcing that it would accelerate housing construction in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state, and the West Bank. It also at least temporarily halted the transfer of $100 million in taxes that it collects on behalf of the Palestinians. Again, the U.S. response came in words only, with Carney and Nuland speaking from the same script to say that Washington was "deeply disappointed" by the steps.

Now, hamstrung in an uncertain budget and pre-election season by a Congress that refuses to censure Israel and is eager to punish the Palestinians for their U.N. aspirations, the administration is caught in a diplomatically weak and awkward position.

It could threaten to withhold the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid it provides the Palestinian Authority each year if the Palestinians don't stop their U.N. push. But it won't because it doesn't want to destabilize Palestinian institutions or endanger security gains the Palestinians have made and even the Israelis have applauded. In a bizarre twist, the administration has sought help from Israeli officials in lobbying Congress not to cut Palestinian aid, even as Israel itself is withholding tax money the Palestinians need to run their government.

It could try to threaten to withhold some of the roughly $3 billion in assistance that the U.S. provides to Israel each year if the Israelis don't halt housing construction in disputed areas or make some other gesture to the Palestinians. But Congress won't hear of it and such a step is politically unpalatable for a president seeking re-election next year.

The administration could forcefully press Congress to waive the ban on U.S. funding for U.N. agencies that recognize Palestine, arguing that it puts American and Israeli interests at risk. But, fearing a backlash from conservative lawmakers already intent on slashing foreign aid and operations spending, it cannot push the matter too hard. So once again, it is in the odd position of looking to Israel for help, urging Israeli officials to tell U.S. lawmakers that America's presence in U.N. bodies is important, especially because the U.S. is often Israel's sole ally in such forums.

It is beyond pathetic - indeed, one might deem it treasonable - that the American president has been reduced to the position of having to beg Israel's leaders to intervene with his own Congress in order to give the president even a sliver of ability to take actions necessary to safeguard American interests.  And we're talking about the same Israeli leaders who embarrassed Obama and his vice-president over the settlements issue, and who now have authorized the ramping up of settlement construction despite US protests.  And as those settlements go up, over Obama's protests, it's the US - and Obama, the most identifiable symbol of the US abroad - who will be blamed for letting it happen.

And meanwhile, all the talk in Israel now is about the impending airstrike on Iran's nuclear facilities (and, for all we know, Iranian cities, government buildings, mosques - who knows?).  The consequences of such an attack have been laid out for years by sober-minded experts, including higher-ups in the Israeli military.  No matter: Bibi and Barak (the other Barack, the one named Ehud) are beating the war drums.  Yet at a time when diplomacy with Iran - a mechanism for clarifying intentions and averting possible regional war and nuclear disaster - would seem to be most crucial . . . .

There goes Congress again.  Read M. J. Rosenberg's Huffington Post essay on how AIPAC's war with Iran bill has passed the House of Representatives.

The point of the Israeli threats is to get the United States and the world community to increase pressure on Iran with the justification that unless it does, Israel will attack.

Naturally, the United States Congress, which gets its marching orders on Middle East policy from the lobby which, in turn, gets its marching orders from Binyamin Netanyahu, is rushing to do what it is told. (If only Congress addressed joblessness at home with the same alacrity and enthusiasm.)

Accordingly the House Foreign Affairs Committee hurriedly convened this week to consider a new"crippling sanctions" bill that seems less designed to deter an Iran nuclear weapon than to lay the groundwork for war.

The clearest evidence that war is the intention of the bill's supporters comes in Section 601 which should be quoted in full. (It is so incredible that paraphrasing would invite the charge of distorting through selective quotation.)

What Rosenberg goes on to quote ought to be read by every American citizen who cares about America's good name (whatever that might even be anymore):

c) RESTRICTION ON CONTACT. -- No person employed with the United States Government may contact in an official or unofficial capacity any person that -- (1) is an agent, instrumentality, or official of, is affiliated with, or is serving as a representative of the Government of Iran; and (2) presents a threat to the United States or is affiliated with terrorist organizations. (d) WAIVER. -- The President may waive the requirements of subsection (c) if the President determines and so reports to the appropriate congressional committees 15 days prior to the exercise of waiver authority that failure to exercise such waiver authority would pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the vital national security interests of the United States.


If I might channel John McEnroe? . . . .


The president of the US would not be allowed to contact Iran's leadership, even during this period of rising crisis, unless he first came to Congress - hat in hand, as it were - to get its permission?!!  Unless he came before Congressional committees now run by the likes of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen?!!!  Rosenberg lays it out, masterfully:

To call this unprecedented is an understatement. At no time in our history has the White House or State Department been restricted from dealing with representatives of a foreign state, even in war time.

If President Roosevelt wanted to meet with Hitler, he could have and, of course, he did repeatedly meet with Stalin. During the Cold War, U.S. diplomats maintained continuous contacts with the Soviets, a regime that murdered tens of millions and, later, with the Chinese regime which murdered even more. And they did so without needing permission from Congress. (President Nixon was only able to normalize relations with China by means of secret negotiations which, had they been exposed, would have been torpedoed by the Republican right.)

But all the rules of normal statecraft are dropped when it comes to Iran which may, or may not, be working on developing a nuclear capacity. Of course if it is, it is obviously even more critical that the American government officials speak to Iranian counterparts.

But preventing diplomacy is precisely what Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Howard Berman (D-CA), leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee which reported out this bill, seek. They and others who back the measure want another war and the best way to get it is to ban diplomacy (which exists, of course, to prevent war).

Think back, for example, to the Cuban missile crisis. The United States and the monstrous, nuclear armed Soviet regime were on the brink of war over Cuba, a war that might have destroyed the planet.

Neither President Kennedy nor Premier Khrushchev knew how to end the crisis, especially because both were being pushed by their respective militaries not to back down.

Then, at the darkest moment of the crisis, when war seemed inevitable, an ABC correspondent named John Scali secretly met with a Soviet official in New York who described a way to end the crisis that would satisfy his bosses. That meeting was followed by another secret meeting between the president's brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and a Soviet official in Washington. Those meetings led to a plan that ended the crisis and, perhaps, saved the world.

Needless to say, Kennedy did not ask for the permission of the House Foreign Affairs Committee either to conduct secret negotiations or to implement the terms of the deal. In fact, it was decades before the details of the deal were revealed.

It is this latitude to conduct diplomacy that the lobby and its cutouts on Capitol Hill want to take away from the White House. And it's latitude that is especially essential if it is determined that Iran is trying to assemble a nuclear arsenal.

This is so far beyond the realm of politics-as-usual as to be almost Kafkaesque.  American foreign policy is now held in thrall to the power of a lobby that is arguably acting as an agent of a foreign country.  And that lobby is able to hold that power because it has the full-throated support of a well-organized and financed quasi-messianic Christian Right that simply refuses to countenance any rational perspective that suggests that the Biblical "history" just might not be an appropriate basis for the guiding of US foreign policy.

A few decades from now, when it's all come crumbling down and the US is struggling to extricate itself from the rubble, I can only imagine how foolish - or impotent - those who come after us will find us to have been.

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