Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), in Washington, D.C., March 6, 2012.
"Tough Poses in a Political Theater"
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
March 12, 2012
Author: Juliette Kayyem, Lecturer in Public Policy
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
APPLAUSE IS in order. The Kabuki theater is over. Last week's annual meeting of the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, garnered tremendous attention because of the group's influence, access to power, and lobbying efforts. The plot was Iranian nuclear ambitions. The dialogue was filled with war. There was even a romantic subplot as each suitor promised his undying support for Israel.
But it was just theater, and the actors — President Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, the would-be presidents, the rest of the attendees — were all sophisticated enough to have known it as they repeated lines that meant very little. The only remarkable aspect of the whole act is that anyone still believed it has consequence. Progress in foreign affairs is less a stylized performance for an exclusive audience and more often improv wrapped in Greek tragedy.
Managing the interactions among nations on questions of war and peace requires tremendous agility. Decisions are often made with imperfect information; success can be as simple as averting sheer chaos. Figuring out how to handle Iran is not the same as playacting. Yet the week-long AIPAC conference looked like high school debating trials.
In the real world, high-level talks with Iran have been revived, the Europeans continue to form an impressive coalition supporting greater sanctions, the United Nations prepared a fresh series of inspections, and the global effort to protect Israel stood at the forefront of America's foreign policy agenda. Contrary to Netanyahu's claim that skepticism about military action against Iran is reminiscent of Nazi-era appeasement, the need for some sort of action to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions is widely accepted.
But determining how to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear-weapons capability won't happen on a convention organizer's calendar. It is easy to forget that for the last several years discussions at AIPAC of war between Iran and Israel have been perpetually imminent. There will be another conference next year and for many years to follow.
And yet, still, the exact language or subtle messaging of each politician at the podium was analyzed as if somehow, if we all listened more closely, the right course would be revealed.
The whole series of events, of course, resulted in few meaningful changes to Iranian policy. Netanyahu's speech was bombastic, but familiar-sounding in every respect. The Republican presidential contenders made very tough-sounding assertions about the Iranian threat and Israel's right to respond to it, without actually calling for an immediate military strike.
Obama tried to avoid some of the playacting and buy some time, so his most revealing comments were made outside the convention halls. His pre-conference interview with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic included meaningful assertions that he understood and sympathized with Israel's concerns. Later, at a Super Tuesday press availability, he effectively mocked the Republican presidential field's bluster about war.
And yet the AIPAC conference was still the mainstage event, creating the false impression that the group's saber-rattling approach to the Iranian threat is endorsed by all. But most Americans are hardly prepared to go to war right now. If there is ever going to be a public debate about what Obama termed "the military component," all the stakeholders — including the American public — deserve a ticket. The Jewish community in America is much more diverse in its opinions than AIPAC's vociferous leaders would suggest.
The same is true in Israel. Though Netanyahu pounds Obama on his lack of specific plans, the prime minister has hardly been forthcoming about his own. He seems more comfortable asserting Israel's right to strike at Iran than in actually explaining why such a strike would eliminate the long-term threat.
None of this is unexpected and I suspect there are many AIPAC members who find the swooning somewhat unbearable. They know, just as surely as all the key players know, that the dilemma about Iran was never going to be resolved at a convention center in Washington.
Ironically, Newt Gingrich may have signaled the right approach in taking a bit of a snooze during his time at the conference. He knows to nap now because the real work will come later.
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