from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Obama, Netanyahu, and Selective Outrage

April 23, 2016

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

More on:

United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Regional Organizations

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress last year about the Iran nuclear deal was viewed by President Obama as an outrageous intervention in what should have been an Americans-only internal decision.

It was true, of course, that Obama did not have the votes in Congress for his deal, which is why he did not submit it as a treaty. And it was true, of course, that Israel’s fate, its security, perhaps its existence, was in its prime minister’s eyes at risk in the nuclear deal.

With that background in mind it has been quite something to see Mr. Obama insert himself into the decision of the British people on whether to leave the EU. Not only did he offer an opinion, as Netanyahu did, and not only did he fly to the UK to offer that opinion, as Bibi flew to Washington, but he did something Netanyahu did not do: he threatened the UK. Proponents of  "Brexit" argue that the UK can after leaving the EU negotiate free trade agreements with the EU and US, so that British trade is not harmed. While in London Obama said the UK would go "to the back of the queue" and was anyway too small for a free trade agreement with the US.

The latter point is silly; we have a free trade agreement with Oman. The "queue" point is an empty threat-- both because Obama is leaving office soon and will not be in charge of that queue, and because it is blindingly obvious that such an agreement would be in the interest of the United States and we would seek one quickly.

But my point here is not about Brexit, it is about the hypocrisy of Obama and his acolytes last year in feigning outrage about Netanyahu’s conduct. We have a Congress whose Speaker invited Netanyahu to speak about an issue of major national security concern to us and even greater import to his country. He spoke, making a straightforward argument. Now Obama goes to the UK to speak about an issue that affects our country far less than Iranian nuclear weapons affect Israel, and he adds threats to his arguments, and that’s supposed to be fine?

Ahh, but there’s a big difference, his defenders will say: Prime Minister Cameron invited him. To which I would answer, that is a fine defense of his visit to London (though not of the tone and content of his remarks). But it is not a defense of his outrage when Netanyahu entered our debate at the invitation of the Speaker of the House. Congress is a separate branch of government, unlike the British Parliament. It is simply unpersuasive to argue that in Washington, the party in power in the White House can ask foreign leaders to weigh in on a domestic debate but the party in power in Congress cannot; and it is fine for our president to intervene in referenda abroad, but for a foreign leader to express views about our own decisions is absolutely out, even when Congress invites him to do so.

What’s sauce for the goose, as the saying goes, is sauce for the gander. Perhaps this kind of foreign leader’s intervention is a bad idea and has little positive impact, and Netanyahu should have stayed home. Perhaps, and if so, Obama should have stayed home too.

 

More on:

United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Regional Organizations

Close