Tuesday, March 03, 2015

After Bibi: Maybe the solution to the Boehner Problem is to consider whether we really, absolutely need a House speaker


Plus some thoughtier thoughts than Bibi's on Iran

Okay, I admit I fell crazy mad in love with this "manufactured" image when our colleague Gaius Publius shared it in his pre-speech post yesterday, and I would likely have taken advantage of any remotely contrivable opportunity to recycle it. But that doesn't mean that, post-speech, it isn't still the defining image of Prime Minister Bibi's Iran policy.

by Ken

So, at last, Prime Minister Bibi has spoken. Sure, it's a national disgrace, but haven't our right-wing brethren been working their chubby butts off to ensure that the U.S. is never anything but a national disgrace? At least we Americans can congratulate ourselves on our civic-mindedness in playing our part in the Israeli election process, even at the price of further muddling the already-difficult question of how to deal with Iran. (Now at least we have an easy first step: Pay no attention to anything Bibi said.)

Technically, this Borowitz Report from yesterday -- and so, of course, in advance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's campaign speech address before a joint session of Congress today -- is "satire."

“Even as the President threatens us with provocative acts, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s support for us has been unwavering,” Boehner said. “He understands what many of us have long known: that peace with this enemy can only be achieved through total victory.”

Netanyahu had equally high praise for Boehner, saying that “no one has been more steadfast and dedicated in the struggle against your President.”

“This foe is not to be trusted or appeased,” Netanyahu said. “Your resolute refusal to find any common ground with him whatsoever has earned my undying respect.”

As the press conference drew to a conclusion, Boehner appeared to fight back tears as he called Netanyahu “a brother in arms” in the ongoing hostilities with Obama.

“A wise man once said that my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” Boehner said, choking up. “You, sir, are my best friend in the world.”


It doesn't seem likely that "Sunny John" Boehner actually said publicly of Bibi: "Even as the President threatens us with provocative acts, Prime Minister Netanyahu's support for us has been unwavering. He understands what many of us have long known: that peace with this enemy can only be achieved through total victory." And it doesn't seem likely that Bibi actually said publicly of Sunny John that "no one has been more steadfast and dedicated in the struggle against your President."

But does anyone disbelieve that Boehner 'n' Bibi were thinking it?

It's hard to know how Sunny John thought this stunt he cooked up with right-wing political operative Ron Dermer would play out. It could be that Dermer (who, you'll recall, was a GOP player before he decamped to Israel and worked his way up to become "Bibi's brain" and his new country's ambassador to the U.S.) was merely playing him for a hapless schmuck, which certainly would have been an apt call on Dermer's part. But if Sunny John thought this political stroke was going to solidify his shaky leadership, well, that doesn't seem to be in the cards.

The other day, in a WaPo op-ed pondering the effective breakdown of House Speaker "Sunny John" Boehner's, er, leadership as reflected in his inability to get House Republicans to support his 20-day extension of DHS funding on Friday, followed by his resort to accepting Democratic support to pass the 7-day extension ("Boehner's defeat was actually really unusual. Here's why"), University of Virginia Prof. Jeffery Jenkins noted that calls for Sunny John to step down are increasing, obviously from his increasingly out-of-control far-rightward flank.

"His only saving grace," Professor Jenkins wrote, "is that there is no obvious alternative."
No one from his leadership team enjoys any more support or presumably wants the position, and no one on the conservative flank of the GOP can win widespread support in the caucus.

But if conservative GOP anger is great enough, could another path emerge? Could an ends-against-the-middle coalition form to declare the Speaker’s chair vacant? Would conservative Republicans join with Democrats on someone – anyone – other than Boehner? Stay tuned.
I don't know if it's the triumph of irony or of something still nuttier, but where Professor Jenkins sees th unmaking of Sunny John's speakership in his failure to uphold the "Hastert rule," to a lot us it has seemed that the defining characteristic of Sunny John's disastrous run as House speaker has been precisely his near-inviolate adherence to that "rule." (Which we have to continue to put in quotes because the "Hastert rule" was never actually a rule. And for cripes' sake, doesn't anyone tremble -- either that or laugh hysterically -- at the irony, or the whatever, of engraving in political stone any teaching from that sleazy crook "Planet Denny" Hastert?)

It's a clean bill, no mention of President Obama's executive orders on immigration, something members of his caucus had been swearing they'd never accept. And they didn't. Sunny John accomplished this legislative feat by totally disgregarding the "Hastert rule." In fact, he brought only 75 GOP ayes to the 257-167 vote.

D.C. pols appear stunned. Howie will have more to say about this tomorrow.
In case it isn't clear, given the realities of what the House Republican caucus has degenerated too, it's not at all obvious that anyone could have managed that pack of lamebrains and thugs more successfully than Sunny John has. Then again, it's not at all obvious that anyone could have done a worse job of it.

Which has me thinking about that scenario sketched for us by Professor Jenkins, of "an ends-against-the-middle coalition" coalescing "to declare the Speaker's chair vacant." Of course he's thinking of this as a step toward some coalition of R's and D's electing some mutually acceptable replacement. Whereas I'm just thinking of having the speaker's chair vacant. The way it is, more or less, at present.

I know we really should have a speaker of the House. The Constitution says so. But do we really need one? After all, it's not as if the current House majority has any stake in, you know, getting stuff done. And if they don't care, why should we?

Maybe the House R's could persuade one of their number to reinvent himself (or herself, in the event that there actually are any female House R's) as Sippy the Clown and install him in the chair. Would anyone know the difference?


This morning, in anticipation of Bibi's campaign speech to Congress, Bernard Avishai, an adjunct professor of business at the Hebrew University who's now a visiting professor of government at Dartmouth College, engaged in some informated speculation on newyorker.com ("Netanyahu's Speech") as to what the Beebster would have to say. I've highlighted a paragraph I find especially useful on the subject of Iran -- in the unlikely event that anyone is interested in having a serious, as opposed to kneejerkish, discussion of the subject. I need hardly add that this view is not that of Bibi, or of Ron Dermer, or of Sunny John (if he actually has a view on Iran), or of AIPAC or "Holy Joe" Lieberman or "Chucky the Hammer" Krauthammer.
[B]ecause both American political parties are so deeply concerned about the security of [Israel], Netanyahu has a permanent incentive—as does AIPAC, for that matter—to present Israel’s policies as necessary to fend off urgent existential threats. Netanyahu will claim that any Iranian nuclear capacity is proof of genocidal intentions toward Israel—we have heard the same argument about the Palestinian claim to “a right of return”—so why would supporters of Israel accept the reciprocal approach that may emerge from negotiations? This gambit should not work this time. Clearly, Netanyahu is representing one side of a policy debate, with supporters and detractors in both the United States and Israel, where American lives and regional interests are also at stake, and where the Obama Administration has taken a very different position.

The big threat that Netanyahu will raise is that of Islamist extremism. The Middle East is rife with armed insurgent groups that have proven themselves capable of horrific acts of violence. Sunni groups have been backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States allied with the U.S.; Shiite groups have been backed by Iran, and tacitly by Russia, the chief military sponsor of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. These extremists are united in their hatred for Israel and the West, not necessarily in that order. More immediately, however, they are waging war against each another, more or less along sectarian lines. These rifts may create openings for American diplomacy; it is hard to see, for example, how the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) could ever be defeated without Iran’s coöperation. Netanyahu, unlike Obama, refuses to admit this, presenting these groups as a single military front that the West must beat back.

For Netanyahu, in other words, Iran should be seen as the most powerful example of this extremism. He speaks, reasonably enough, of Iran’s past sponsorship of terrorist acts, its bloody suppression of the popular uprising that followed the election of 2009, and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call to “wipe Israel off the map.” But Netanyahu also wants his audiences to understand a point that his own former chief of staff denies: that Iran’s ruling clerics are fundamentally irrational and share a self-sacrificial mindset with terrorists.

It is more reasonable to see Iran’s clerics, like the Saudis, as a brutal, pragmatic, authoritarian theocracy with a tenuous hold on power. The regime is likely to go through serious upheavals in the coming years. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is seventy-six years old. The Guardian Council, which elected him, is filled with both reformers and reactionaries. The powerful and rich Revolutionary Guard could conceivably carry out a coup. A rising generation, which was shaped by the protests and repressions after the elections of 2009, could once again take to the streets. Iran, in other words, is less a terrorist state than a turbulent one, and its continued isolation poses far greater dangers to the international community than a process that draws it closer to the rest of the world—with monitors on the ground, regular diplomatic exchanges, and greater economic integration.

Most vexing in this context is Netanyahu’s conception of how economic pressures might influence the regime. In his view, stiffening sanctions would put stress on the Iranian middle and educated classes; notionally, these groups would, in turn, force embattled and xenophobic clerics to change their priorities. Yet Netanyahu derides this logic—that economic forces matter—when it is used to envision the moderating influence of a deal. Obama has reason to believe, but cannot say, that relaxing sanctions will bring the middle class into the global economy—exposing élites to foreign travel, and to scientifically trained entrepreneurs and scholars. This opening to the international community might well create new national interests for the regime to protect, and perhaps ultimately transform it.

The countries currently engaged in negotiations with Iran—not only the U.S. but also China, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, even Russia—are a formidable diplomatic bloc, which has reason to deny Iran the capacity to make nuclear weapons, if only to prevent a regional nuclear-arms race. This group has proven its ability to maintain Iran’s economic isolation and force its comparative impoverishment. Netanyahu has been speaking about the negotiations as if they were being conducted by people who, lacking the Jewish people’s sense of dread, engage in wishful thinking—and who are entertaining the relaxation of sanctions before Iran’s nuclear capacity is taken down more or less completely.

Netanyahu is appalled, he says, that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are willing to formally approve Iran as a threshold state, with the scientific and infrastructural capacity to assemble a nuclear weapon. In fact, Iran has been a threshold state for some time, and when Netanyahu focusses on this issue he elides the achievement that appears likely to come out of the ongoing negotiations; reportedly, to increase to at least a year the time that Iran would need to assemble a bomb. A year, as President Obama told Reuters last night, would be enough time for the U.S. and its allies to react, first by imposing economic sanctions and finally by taking military action.

This, for Netanyahu, amounts to appeasement. To be clear, what he really seems to want is war. Netanyahu speaks of “dismantling” Iran’s nuclear infrastructure: demolishing all its nuclear installations and disbanding its scientific groups and programs. He has come to Congress to ask that it increase sanctions until, presumably, Iran accedes to this. But he cannot really think that Iran would completely abandon its nuclear program. Instead, sanctions would not only preëmpt continued negotiations with the great powers, and the humiliation of Iranian reformers, but guarantee a “break-out,” with Iran going for a bomb.

If this happened, the international community (read, the U.S.) presumably would abandon diplomatic efforts and attack Iran, with the very high risk that this would entrench the regime and create an escalating war with Iran and its proxies in the Persian Gulf. American and perhaps NATO forces would almost certainly be drawn into the conflict. The great powers are entertaining military action as a last resort, and, unlike Israel, they have the military means to intervene at the eleventh hour. Why would they even consider making the last resort the first?

Ultimately, Netanyahu wants Americans to believe that Iranian leaders are so fanatical in their hatred for Israel that, once armed with a nuclear weapon, they would use it unexpectedly against Tel Aviv. Even if the threat is merely hypothetical—incinerating Tel Aviv would, after all, irradiate the Palestinians for whose sake a bomb would be dropped—no Israeli government can ignore it. That’s why the Israelis have been working for years on a “second-strike capacity,” with the means to retaliate against all Iranian cities. It is an open secret that Israel is in possession of at least a hundred nuclear warheads of its own, and has deployed submarines (acquired from Germany), bombers, and missiles. To believe Netanyahu, you must believe that Iranian leaders are out to secure a nuclear-suicide vest. It is easier to believe that they are trying to secure what Israel has, a hedge against invasion.
Note that The New Yorker's own John Cassidy yesterday offered, in a post called "What Netanyahu Won't Say to Congress," what John explains in a later-added explanatory introduction is "my own version of a speech [Bibi] could theoretically deliver, but most certainly won't," which he suggests "would be a more effective, and, ultimately, a more productive, address than the one Netanyahu is expected to deliver." Of course it includes wacko stuff like:
The government of Israel wants to live in peace with its neighbors. It recognizes the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians living in territories occupied by our military forces to have a land of their own, and it is eager to reach a permanent settlement on the basis of the 1967 borders, but taking into account the enormous demographic and physical changes that Israel has experienced in the past fifty years.
To prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Middle East, bold initiatives are needed, so let me suggest one. If other countries in the region agree to give up their nuclear ambitions in a manner that is complete, persuasive, and verifiable; if, in addition, they publicly accept Israel’s right to exist and denounce their prior ambitions to destroy it; then Israel, which is currently one of just four U.N. member countries that has never signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, will be prepared to do its part.
Sure, John, sure! You didn't by chance write this in Washington, did you? You know, where pot is legal now?


The Washington Post's Anne Gearan has account, in "For Hillary and Bibi, a long and sometimes fraught relationship," of a 45-minute phone conversation between the two, in which Bib Hillary [UPDATE: thanks, John P!] is said (by whom? it's hard to see how the inside information could have come from anywhere except Hillary's camp) to have talked for 43 of those minutes, leaving Bibi in the highly unfamiliar and highly unpleasant position of listening. She didn't go into the protocol of The Speech, but apparently somebody wants us to know that she delivered tough love unto him.

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At 10:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One question: are the existing sanctions on Iran a result of legislative or executive action?

Note: the last paragraph has Bibi both talking AND listening for 43 of 45 minutes of his phone conversation with the Generalissima.

John Puma

At 8:36 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks for the catch in the last paragraph, John! It was of course Hillary doing the talking for those 43 minutes, and poor Bibi put in the possibly unprecedented position of listening for same. In the earlier reference I obviously forgot who the subject of the sentence was by the time I got that far into it! This comes of making just one more addition to a post-that-refuses-to-end.

As for your question about the Iran sanctions, as Wikipedia explains, both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan did some targeted executive-order sanctioning, but the sanctions as we know them are legislative:

In 1979, after the U.S. permitted the exiled Shah of Iran to enter the United States for medical treatment, a group of radical students took action in Tehran by seizing the American Embassy and taking hostage the people inside.[1] The United States responded and President Carter issued Executive Order 12170 in November 1979 freezing about $12 billion in Iranian assets, including bank deposits, gold and other properties. Some assets — Iranian officials say $10 billion, U.S. officials say much less — still remain frozen pending resolution of legal claims arising from the revolution.

After the invasion of Iran by Iraq, the United States increased sanctions against Iran. In 1984, sanctions were approved that prohibit weapons sales and all U.S. assistance to Iran. The United States also opposed all loans to Iran from international financial institutions. In October 1987, President Ronald Reagan issued Executive Order 12613 prohibiting the importation and exportation of any goods or services from Iran.

The Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) that is the basis of the current sanctions against Iran is a revised version of the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) that was signed on 5 August 1996 (H.R. 3107, P.L. 104-172).[2] The act was renamed in 2006 when the sanctions against Libya were terminated.[2]

On 31 July 2013, members of the United States House of Representatives voted 400 to 20 on 31 July 2013 in favor of toughened sanctions.[3]


At 3:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ken.

I'll have to read that Wiki article, as my new question is: have their been sanctions on Iran continuously since 1979?

I'm anxious to see how many "progressive" Dems, who objected to and/or boycotted Bibi's appearance, will vote against any further proposed Iran sanctions.

John Puma


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