Usually, swipes at foreign leaders made anonymously by U.S. diplomats don’t create too much of a stir. After all, even when (as is often the case), they’re deliberate leaks aimed at sending official messages unofficially, they’re anonymous. So who knows how high ranking and therefore authoritative the muck throwers are? Above all, anyone who does speak for attribution can easily deny that they represent government policy, or even the views of anyone who really counts.
But an exception seems to be the shots against Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from Obama administration policymakers reported recently by Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg. Even their target felt compelled to respond.
I have no idea whether this dust-up will rage on, much less whether it reveals or portends anything genuinely new in U.S.-Israel relations. What I do know is that, if the complaints do reflect what a critical mass of the president’s top advisors really think, there are several big, important ironies at work here. The three biggest:
The first and most obvious: Aides to a president widely slammed for timidity abroad are calling another government head “chickensh–”? Granted, their critique focuses on Netanyahu’s alleged unwillingness to make peace with the Palestinians (and Sunni Arab states) for fear of antagonizing hardline Israeli voters. In fact, the Obama officials reportedly specified that the Israeli leader’s supposed fear of “launching wars” is a “good thing.” But you’d think that folks in an administration arguably guilty of politically inspired difference-splitting in conducting an underwhelming military campaign in Libya, and of waiting for months even before approving modest airstrikes against ISIS terrorists would demonstrate just a little self-awareness.
Second, and perhaps less obvious, it’s likely that many of the same aides attacking Netanyahu, or at least their colleagues, have been the same officials eagerly spreading the word to the press that the president’s foreign policy should be praised for avoiding “stupid sh–.” As I’ve written, although they, and the president, have taken heat for touting such prudence as a major diplomatic guiding principle, for a nation as inherently strong, secure, and wealthy as the United States, it’s as good a lodestar as any and better than most.
Third, and perhaps least obvious of all, these Obama snipers appear completely unaware that Netanyahu’s caution arguably, and quite sensibly, could reflect his judgment that Israel’s position, too, is secure enough to justify standpat-ism.
At first glance, it may seem ludicrous to compare the geopolitical situations of the two allies. America of course is a huge, indeed continent-sized country located literally oceans away from its leading prospective enemies and boasting immense natural wealth. Israel seems to be the opposite in all these ways.
At the same time, though it is, as the phrase goes, “surrounded by enemies,” Israel has probably never been more secure militarily. As I’ve pointed out previously, with each passing year, the Palestinians’ strategic position keeps weakening. They remain painfully far from being able to change the military status quo unilaterally, and as long as the ISIS is still a threat, the rest of the Arab world looks less likely than ever to ride to their rescue, or even help them in any remotely meaningful way.
The emergence of an ISIS state in a large chunk of current Iraqi and Syrian territory would hardly be welcomed by the Israelis, but this development would surely be strongly resisted by the ostensibly moderate Sunni countries – making them even less inclined to pressure Israel. Indeed, according to many reports, ISIS’ emergence – and Washington’s tardy response – is generating covert cooperation between the Jewish state and Sunni regimes. And although ISIS’ anger seems focused at least for now in an operational sense on the Sunni countries and the West, not on Israel, does anyone really believe that even dramatic Israeli-Palestinian peace progress would affect the jihadis’ agenda?
There’s no doubt that Israel is very afraid of the possibility of Iran going nuclear. But nothing its Obama administration critics apparently want it to do vis-a-vis the Palestinians and the Sunni countries would help on that score. In fact, in an additional irony, not only does Iran seem to have prompted tacit Israeli-Sunni detente, but U.S. Efforts to derail Iran’s nuclear drive are motivated in part by its own fear that “chickensh–” Netanyahu will attack Tehran’s nuclear sites if diplomacy fails.
So it turns out that the most encouraging action the Obama foreign policy team could take would be to start leaking to reporters that the Netanyahu “chickensh–” charges were really meant as a compliment – and that they’re going to start seriously examining all the ways in which their own “stupid sh–” point could smarten up America’s own diplomacy.