Two Sundays ago, the New York Times ran an article about Mitt Romney and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two have known each other for about 35 years. They went through Boston Consulting Group's "boot camp" together. They "can almost speak in shorthand." They finish each other's sentences and once accidentally ate from opposite ends of the same long strand of spaghetti. Their lives are an endless geopolitical meet-cute: Romney wants to run the nuclear big-box store of the United States, but he has enough love in his heart that he'd never crush the beautiful Middle Eastern shop around the corner.
It was the sort of Times article that readers consume in growing frustration. It screams at greater speeds toward a hard, on-the-ground reality; then someone pulls the Objective Journalism ripcord, and it floats harmlessly back upward. The story is that Romney's Middle Eastern policy would probably be indivisible from Israel's. But the big, important implication is that Netanyahu has every incentive to campaign indirectly for Romney, too. Meanwhile, the B-17 all this truth dropped out of, The Well, Duh, flies harmlessly away, with a painting of a hot, exasperated lady on its side.
It's not clear whether any of this matters.
Consider: back before the American empire piloted a Rascal bearing its own bloat off into a terminal sunset, we believed that politics ceased at our shores, that whatever domestic gamesmanship we might pursue, our foreign policy interests would not be prey to them. Laborers could still afford to go to baseball games, and Ayn Rand books were only shelved in the fiction section.
The modern story that dispelled that nonpartisan wishful thinking is somewhat predictably Vietnam, though not in the way you think. In 1968, with the expectation of a plum position in the Nixon administration, Henry Kissinger persuaded the south Vietnamese to spike the Paris peace talks with unreasonable demands, promising a better deal under a GOP administration. About a half decade and 20,000 dead Americans later, Kissinger brokered an accord like the one he'd scuppered illegally. But it had already served its purpose: Kissinger destroyed Hubert Humphrey's peace strategy and a huge 1968 campaign plank. Lyndon Johnson refused to publicly condemn Nixon and Kissinger for doing something incredibly fucking illegal (under the Logan Act), lest he be seen to use the office of the president to aggressively campaign for a successor or divulge the shady means with which his evidence had been gathered.
And if that example feels too quaintly historical or insufficiently Middle Easty, there are always the more recent depredations against truth and policy, like announcing Mission Accomplished 40 days after a war's commencement and eight-and-half years before its end—but only one year before an election. We have an established tradition of poisoning overseas affairs to distort DC shadow-puppet theater, so it's hardly unreasonable to read something like this—
In a telling exchange during a debate in December, Mr. Romney criticized Mr. Gingrich for making a disparaging remark about Palestinians, declaring: "Before I made a statement of that nature, I'd get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say: 'Would it help if I say this? What would you like me to do?'"
—and conclude that Mitt Romney isn't the slightest bit hesitant to subcontract American Middle Eastern affairs to a foreign leader, just to grab some votes.
And why should he be? For one thing, the Republican party has been desperate to break the hammerlock the Democrats maintain on Jewish voters. For another, he can only shore up support among those evangelicals who believe a whole Israel is necessary to complete the dispensationalist fantasia of rapture, murder and Churchill Downs raining from the skies. But most importantly, it's not certain whether those two conditions matter, because Romney couldn't even one-up Eric Cantor.
In November, 2010, Cantor, the House GOP Whip, spoke to Netanyahu before his meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He pledged that the GOP-controlled U.S. House of Representatives could be relied upon to serve as a check against the Obama presidency. Cantor told Bibi that congress would protect the interests of a foreign power and act as a block against the branch of government actually intended to handle diplomacy. In Eric Cantor's high school civics class, evidently government was divided into executive, judicial, and Israel.
And even then, God knows if that matters, since Bibi has basically been campaigning against Obama since 2009 anyway. In April, 2009, former intifada prison MP and current Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg sock-puppeted Bibi's pronouncement that either the U.S. or Israel would eliminate Iran's nuclear development. It was a clear ultimatum that admitted neither discussion of Iran's ambitions vis-a-vis nuclear energy nor the means of response. Three years later, nothing has changed. This story never changes.
In case you're feeling any more exercised by the above, ask, too, if it matters. Because one of the strongest thrusts of Netanyahu's three-year public relations campaign against the Obama administration has been against the latter's predictably polite, impotent tutting about illegal Israeli settlements. (For all the whining about Democrats, the last American president to tell Israel to go stuff it was George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton's Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, was a former AIPAC official, and the negotiating group he led was celebrated by Israeli newspaper Maariv as "The Mission of Four Jews.")
Let's play a historical game. Here's a quote with the identifying details removed. You guess when it's from and who it's referring to:
The U.S. administration... was condemning the growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, asking why... Israelis were now living in the occupied territories in... "unofficial" colonies when the Israeli prime minister... supposedly wanted to make peace.... [The U.S. President] was appealing for Israeli "restraint" in expanding settlements because they were "inconsistent with international law and an obstacle to peace."
The period in question was 1978-9, and the president was Jimmy Carter. (For more, see Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation, page 426.) This has been the great asshole move on Obama's part: reiterating a complaint as old as the 35-year Romney-Netanyahu circlejerk by appealing to international agreements to which Israel has been voluntary signatory.
None of this would much matter if Israel were merely the hobby horse of a bunch of intolerant Christian bozos or the sentimental/defensive/religious/ethnic cause of former immigrants and their families rightfully nurturing their dread of racial intolerance. But, even according to the extremely pro-Israeli Bush Department of Defense, our uncritical support of that nation is the primary radicalizing factor among Muslims, outside of our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. (General David Petraeus testified to this and was criticized for his troubles.) Far from the GOP rhetoric of its being our first line of defense against the fires of Muslim terrorism, it is, by GOP admission, our gasoline.
So maybe the above litany doesn't matter, but try reading it through in reverse. A man who routinely demonizes the Obama administration for suggesting that his nation be bound to international agreements over 35 years old also has a nearly 35-year-old relationship with the GOP presidential candidate—who publicly defers to his judgment—and has enjoyed a pledge of fealty from the GOP's top House ideologue. He's also issued an ultimatum to the United States and a Middle East nation about preemptive war.
Maybe those things are important; maybe outsourcing American foreign policy or wedding it to private or legislative interests directly at odds to America's elected diplomatic branch yields poor results. Just don't expect that from a New York Times article. This is not a story about international politics and policy. This is a story about rich people being buddies, about chummy-chum-chums. You wouldn't want to bury that lede in a bunch of geopolitics.
When rhetorical brinksmanship can lead us all to an apocalyptic race war, you should partner up with someone. It's like going to the museum on a field trip in elementary school. When you might start killing millions of brown people, for God's sake: remember the buddy system.
Image by Jim Cooke.
"Mobutu Sese Seko" is founder of the blog Et tu, Mr. Destructo?