Mar 9th 2015

An Ugly Week in Washington

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

If "l'affaire Netanyahu" weren't bad enough, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell added insult to injury when he announced that early next week he will move for a vote on a bill requiring the White House to secure Congressional review and approval of any agreement concluded between the P5+1 negotiators and Iran.

McConnell's surprise move may have made AIPAC (the pro-Israel lobby) and Netanyahu happy, but in acting unilaterally he may have driven a nail in the coffin of bi-partisan cooperation on Iran. In just one week, not only did Republicans try to embarrass the President by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress, they also broke the deal they made with their Democratic colleagues to delay consideration of the "Congressional review" bill until after the March 23th deadline for this phase of the P5+1 negotiations with Iran. Shortly after McConnell announced his intentions, key Democratic Senators who were among the original co-sponsors of the bill denounced his move as partisan, raising doubts that it would get the votes it needs to be debated on the Senate floor.

The way the GOP has handled this entire week has been both sordid and shameful. It was mortifying to see hundreds of US law-makers bobbing up and down in rapturous applause at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's not too gentle coaxing. Since the speech contained no new insights and was a mix of hokey platitudes, shop-worn diatribes, and shameless appeals to the "Constitution, Moses, and the holocaust"—the Republican applause were not so much prompted by the brilliance of Netanyahu's words as they were intended as repeated jabs at President Obama. And the smirk on Netanyahu's face as he waved at the cheering crowd appeared to be saying—"keep up the applause guys, because this scene is playing well back home".  

As if to accent this unseemly misuse of Congress as a hammer used to clobber the President and as a prop in a Netanyahu reelection video, there was the disturbing sight of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson sitting self-satisfied in the first row of the House Gallery. The scene reminded me of those Hollywood "fat cats" who buy the ridiculously expensive front-row seats at Los Angeles Lakers basketball games—but with a twist. The Hollywood types just buy the seats for the season. Adelson, on the other hand, had the look of the guy who not only paid for the seat, but owns the team and arranged for the game to be played. After all, he did pour over $100 million into the effort to defeat Obama in 2012 and many millions more to support the GOP takeover of the Senate in 2014. And since he also has a piece of Netanyahu and his erstwhile Ambassador, Ron Dermer, Adelson can be excused for looking like the "Father of the Bride" at the wedding he arranged and for which he paid.

It doesn't matter whether one trusts Iran's intentions or respects President Obama's leadership, what the Republicans and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did was wrong, on so many levels. In the eyes of the world, it wasn't the president who was hurt—it was the prestige of the United States of America that took a severe hit. In June of 2011, I was in the Middle East during Netanyahu's last address before a joint session of Congress. He used that occasion to reject President Obama's effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and received 29 standing ovations for his efforts. On that trip, I was repeatedly asked by Arab friends and officials "how could your Congress invite a foreign leader to insult your president and then cheer him on?" This recent appearance, being more of the same, establishes the pattern—Netanyahu uses Congress to sabotage the president, and Congress uses Netanyahu to insult the president.

Watching all this play out establishes so clearly why Arab public opinion of the US is so low. With apologies to George Bush—it's not because "they hate our values of freedom and democracy". Rather, it's because we behave so stupidly and slavishly toward all things related to Israel. The entire affair also made clear why the American public has such a miserable view of Congress. The silly fawning over the Prime Minister and the "frat party" behavior in the chamber of the "most important legislative body in the world" demonstrated so little self-respect that the 9% approval rating the American public gives to Congress seemed a bit too generous. 

Ignored by Congress and the media, alike, was the fact that Netanyahu's insults and condescension, while directed at the president, also took aim at the other members of the P5+1. Republicans may want to hurt President Obama, but when they strike out at a "deal" that has not yet been completed and say they don't trust the president, the GOP is also insulting America's major European allies like the UK, France, and Germany who are members of the P5+1 and who are also involved in the negotiating process with Iran. Israel may be wearing out its welcome in Europe, but that's no reason for Congress to want to join Israel's increasing isolation by jeopardizing relations with our trans-Atlantic partners. 

Sordid, shameful, embarrassing, demeaning, and damaging—all in all, a pretty ugly week.

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