Boehner & Bibi's blunder: The problem is much bigger than not giving Obama a "heads up"

The problem with Boehner's invitation to the Israeli PM wasn't merely that he forgot to notify the White House

Published February 18, 2015 3:51PM (EST)

  (AP/Gali Tibbon)
(AP/Gali Tibbon)

The poll numbers are in and look at that, the American public has a problem with John Boehner's controversial invitation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress. "Majority of Americans oppose Netanyahu invite," blares the headline on CNN, which commissioned the poll. So what was the question? "Do you approve of John Boehner inviting Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress?" Not quite.

A large majority of Americans believe that Republican congressional leaders should not have invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress without consulting the White House, according to a new CNN/ORC survey.

The nationwide poll, released Tuesday, shows 63% of Americans say it was a bad move for congressional leadership to extend the invitation without giving President Barack Obama a heads up that it was coming. Only 33% say it was the right thing to do.

Without "consulting the White House," or without "giving President Obama a heads up that it was coming"? These terms are not interchangeable. Which one is it? Here is the exact wording of the question: "Do you think Congressional leaders did the right thing or the wrong thing by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress without first notifying the president that they would do so?"

This is a tiddlywinks way of approaching the real problem with the invitation, focusing on bad dinner-table manners without delving into the more serious subtext. It's Wolf Blitzer-esque in its superficiality. Fittingly, the CNN article is accompanied by a brief clip of Wolf Blitzer talking about it, in the same tenor that he might talk about Kanye West's treatment of Beck at the Grammys -- that this begins and ends as a story about a social faux-pas.

Who cares whether Boehner gave the White House a "heads up" or not? There's a big difference between a "heads up" or "notification," on the one hand, and a "consultation" on the other. A "heads up" or "notification" implies that Boehner had already made up his mind to extend the invitation. If he had already decided to send the invitation, it's not important whether he called president with deets or sent a telegram or carrier pigeon down Pennsylvania Avenue. He certainly should have "consulted" with the White House before extending the invitation. The White House would have told him not to do it, though, which is why he didn't consult with them.

The invitation was a big deal not because of the lack of the "heads up," but because it was an explicit effort to sabotage the Obama administration's foreign policy. Benjamin Netanyahu and a whole hell of a lot of influential Republican foreign policy people do not want any nuclear deal with Iran. They do not trust Iran to adhere to any agreement that restricts them from obtaining nuclear weapons. Thus they consider diplomatic talks with Iran contrary to Western interests. They want to blow up the talks, and then they want to blow up Iran.

Benjamin Netanyahu will come to Congress with the express purpose of lobbying lawmakers to oppose diplomatic engagement with Iran, i.e., to oppose the top foreign policy priority of our sitting head of state. He, and his mostly-but-not-entirely Republican allies, want Congress to approve additional sanctions on Iran right now with a veto-proof majority. That's because passing that new round of sanctions would likely end the negotiations, and we could get on with the business of bombing Iran. This is the goal of the speech. (Also: to make Netanyahu look really cool and persuasive on the international stage right before he's up for reelection.) Here is how an Israeli foreign minister in Netanyahu's government recently put it:

Nonetheless, Hanegbi indicated that Netanyahu would still make the March 3 speech, which also comes two weeks before Israeli elections. He said that the speech could still help secure the two-thirds vote needed to override President Obama's promised veto on any new sanctions on Iran.

"The Republicans know, as the president has already made clear, that he will veto this legislation. So in order to pass legislation that overcomes the veto, two-thirds are required in the Senate," Hanegbi said. "So if the prime minister can persuade another one or two or another three or four, this could have weight."

You've got to love the total lack of discretion when it comes to the Netanyahu government. There's no coded language; none of the typical "we'd just like to come to discuss the global outlook with our dear allies" boilerplate. This guy's saying, Oh, we're definitely doing this to whip some votes for a veto-proof majority on sanctions. Netanyahu will probably throw envelopes of cash at fence-sitting lawmakers during the speech. Love the candor. It makes my job a whole lot easier when, instead of trying to divine someone's motives, we have his people running to the press saying THIS IS OUR MOTIVE.

The invitation was an aggressive move by the people who want to bomb Iran right now against the people who think we should exhaust all diplomatic options. Let's talk about it like that. Focusing on whether or not Boehner told the White House that he was going to try to screw them over before trying to screw them over is a sideshow.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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