With the Republican primaries a year away and no clear GOP candidate yet for the 2016 presidential race, the de facto leader of the American right is Benjamin Netanyahu. His résumé is one that any internationally minded American politician from either party would envy: The 65-year-old statesman attended Cheltenham High School in Philadelphia (as did his late war hero brother Yoni, and Hall of Fame baseball slugger Reggie Jackson) and then graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After a stint as a management consultant in Boston, he took a high-level position at the United Nations before entering politics full time.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu galvanized a joint meeting of Congress with his much-anticipated speech criticizing the Obama White House’s Iran deal. Although the circumstances were worthy of Churchill, the speech itself was quintessentially American—generous, clear, concise, at times sharply critical, and full of literary references to American writers like Ernest Hemingway. It was hardly a coincidence that Netanyahu quoted Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken,” since it was intended, in a subtle reference to Kennedy’s 1960 inaugural (which Frost graced with an occasional poem), to insert Netanyahu into the tradition of great American statesmen. At the end, he even embraced one of the country’s most famous memoirists and political activists, Elie Wiesel.
Yes, you can’t get much more American than the current prime minister of Israel—and that’s precisely his problem. If it’s common wisdom that the Israeli electorate gets unhappy when its prime minister alienates Washington, the real issue isn’t that Bibi has put distance between Israel and the United States. Rather, it’s that the Israeli politician who knows the Americans better than anyone else was supposed to deliver his sometime-countrymen and get the biggest kid on the block to take on the Iranian nuclear program. There’s no way he could have imagined that the people with whom he grew up, attended school and college, and worked, had a change of heart—not about Israel, but about America’s own place in the world.
Netanyahu thanked the president for all the help, public and classified, that he’s given Israel the last six years—but the Israeli premier also owes the White House thanks for helping to create the media buzz around the speech. After all, had it not been for the administration’s relentless campaign against Netanyahu—from John Kerry, Susan Rice, and through the New York Times as well as other allies in the media—an address scheduled for a weekday morning when most Americans are at work was unlikely to generate much attention outside of scattered cable news coverage. The White House turned Bibi’s speech into Super Bowl Sunday, and he played a great game, delivering one of the most memorable speeches of recent years—or at least since President Barack Obama was in top form.
The thing is, it probably doesn’t matter. To be sure, Netanyahu thrilled the Republican majority crowd but, to allude to another great American author, F. Scott Fitzgerald—what’s the second act? To date, the White House has been happy to circumvent congressional opposition and, unless Democrats are willing to turn against Obama’s key second term initiative, it’s hard to see how Bibi’s speech gathers enough momentum to stop what he accurately described as a bad deal. The perverse irony is that the only thing that may block the agreement is the prideful intransigence that may prevent Tehran from putting its John Hancock alongside the Great Satan’s.
It wasn’t supposed to be this hard to get the Americans on board. As one former high-ranking Israeli official explained to me after I asked why Iran’s nuclear facilities presented more of a challenge than Osirak and Al Kibar, the difference wasn’t the size of the Iranian program, but rather that the Persian Gulf is an area of vital American interest. Why would the United States allow a dragon to nest in its backyard?
Indeed, the Persian Gulf is the lifeblood of post-WWII America. Our access to Gulf oil and our willingness to protect our precious supply against all comers made possible the America in which Netanyahu grew up. In foreign affairs, it fed our military and kept global trade on an even keel. At home, the U.S. economy blossomed thanks to cheap oil: It let Americans build houses in what were now accessible suburbs thanks to the interstate highway system. (Think of all those road movies, and the sense of freedom a teenager feels for the first time when he holds the keys of a car.)
No, it wouldn’t be very hard to convince the Americans that they had a vital interest in taking care of business in the Persian Gulf. It certainly wouldn’t be as hard as Churchill’s job of prodding Roosevelt and a Depression-shattered America into committing hundreds of thousands of men to a land war in Europe while closing down production of cars and other emblematic consumer goods in order to turn American industry into a war machine. Taking on the Iranians would be much simpler. But no matter how well Netanyahu plays Churchill on TV, the problem is that Obama is not Roosevelt.
Rudy Giuliani recently made headlines when he said that Obama doesn’t love America, a formulation that unsurprisingly won him much praise from the far right. It’s an absurd charge, of course—or rather, it’s wrong by omission. Obama loves America very much, but it’s the Small America he loves, not Big America.
Like Netanyahu, Obama had a foreign father and grew up offshore, before spending part of his formative early adult years in New York City—where, unlike Bibi, he gravitated toward a leftish milieu. There’s no doubt the president sees the world through a leftist perspective, but it’s also important to understand his worldview in terms of his upbringing outside major American urban areas.
If you’re Netanyahu, your experience as an Israeli tells you that Big America is a very good thing—political and diplomatic support across the board and of course American arms and military aid that helps you protect your country from lunatics intent on slaughtering you. However, if you grew up during the Cold War in one of those distant new countries in Asia and Africa where America played one side and then the other, and where U.S. diplomacy and U.S. weapons were destined to be used by one part of the country or community against the other side, then you’d have to be a sociopath to love Big America.
What Obama loves is the promise that America extends to the world, regardless of color or creed—you’re welcome here, dream big, you can make it, our arms are open, we’ll help you. This is why the Affordable Care Act was so important to the president, to make good on that promise and provide the dreamers with a safety net. It’s also why the Iran deal is so important to Obama. He understands that it means the end of Big America—which, as he sees it, is an albatross around our necks, and hardly a blessing to the rest of the world.
The clash between Bibi and Obama is only partly about personality. Both are supremely confident in their own intellectual abilities, which makes it impossible for them to like each other, for now. Still, it is possible to imagine the movie in which sometime in the future they meet like two old gunslingers and, after enough whiskey, once the boasting was done, would arrive at a place of mutual interest and respect, and maybe schedule a round of golf.
The real problem is that they have fundamentally different ideas about the one thing they have in common: America. Bibi may not understand or appreciate small America, but what Obama doesn’t understand is that Big America makes Small America possible.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).