Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed Congress today, in the absence of 50 or so Democratic members. They boycotted the speech because it is unprecedented for the House Speaker to invite a foreign leader to the podium to attack an American president. Despite some honeyed words at the start, that's precisely what Netanyahu did. Plus, the address offers yet more troubling evidence that the Republican Party has yet to kick the neocon habit that has brought the US nothing but grief. Space precludes a full analysis, as does the fact that I have a day job, but let's look at three major rhetorical/ethical problems.
First, Netanyahu consistently and deceitfully moves between questions of fact, value, and policy. In public argument, we distinguish between the kinds of issues we're debating because, otherwise, our arguments fly past one another and solutions don't meet the needs we've identified. Questions of fact deal with reality: Is Elvis dead? Questions of value deal with morals: Is abortion ethical? Questions of policy deal with choices: Should we cut taxes to spur the economy? A serious problem results when speakers jump without distinction between them and it's an ethical problem when they assure audiences that they're addressing one while relying on another.
Netanyahu is nastily slick. Sometimes, he claims as fact that which is not fact; he asserts that anyone can Google what's in an agreement that has yet to be made. On one level, everyone knows the details of a secret negotiation are not likely to be public and, if they are, they're likely to be biased leaks and wrong. On a second level, we know he knows that, so he's falsely implying special knowledge of the negotiations (from briefings) and assuring us of an authority he does not in fact possess. He's lying.
More often, he poses a question of policy--Is this a good deal?--and answers it as a question of value--Iran is evil, so all deals with it are bad deals. This is dishonest on both an ethical and a practical level. Ethically, Netanyahu consistently lies to the audience about the nature of his claim--he's the hard headed realist making a practical judgment. He's not. He argues that Iran is so evil that any agreement would be bad. That is a values, not a policy argument. He tries to make it one with the implied link that one cannot make a policy agreement with irrational actors; they will not or cannot keep it. But, in doing so, he presents as a consensus the judgment that Iran is irrational when that is simply not the belief of most Israeli and American experts. They think Iran will abide by agreements. Jonathan Chait notes, "That’s why the Bush administration’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate said Iran is “guided by a cost-benefit approach.” It’s why Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in 2012 that “we are of the opinion that Iran is a rational actor.” It’s why Benny Gantz, then head of the Israel Defense Forces, declared the same year that “the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.” It’s why Meir Dagan, the longtime head of Israel’s intelligence agency, called the Iranian regime “rational” in an interview with 60 Minutes. And it’s why Ron Burgess, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress that “the agency assesses Iran is unlikely to initiate or provoke a conflict.” Netanyahu wishes to transform a question of policy--How can we best forestall an Iranian nuclear weapon?--into a question of value--How can we best signal our moral repugnance at the Iranian regime?
Second, that leads to a serious plan meet need problem. We assume the plans offered in speeches meet the need identified. President Obama thinks a negotiated agreement, if we can get one, is the best way to forestall an Iranian nuke. Netanyahu thinks....what? Moral disapproval? A "better deal"? He pulls a trick popular among politicians and others forever--he sets conditions he knows the other party will not accept. He then points the finger and claims the failure is their fault. That's all well and good, but, to coin a phrase, failure is not an option. The status quo will result in an Iranian bomb, a fact that is distinctly absent from Netanyahu's speech. So, if Netanyahu believes that the Iranians are so evil (more evil than the Soviets?) that no agreement is possible, then his alternative is....? It can only be war. And even a military strike, by all estimates, will set back the Iranian bomb for less time than what's rumored to be a ten year deal. This is a strategically and ethically bankrupt speech.
That makes it quite attractive to contemporary American neoconservatives. Matt Yglesias best characterized neocons with his "Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics." The Green Lantern corps is a fictional intergalactic peacekeeping force in DC comics. Each member gets a green power ring that can, basically, do anything. It is limited only by the willpower and imagination of the wearer. Yglesias writes,
"A lot of people seem to think that American military might is like one of these power rings. They seem to think that, roughly speaking, we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower. What's more, this theory can't be empirically demonstrated to be wrong. Things that you or I might take as demonstrating the limited utility of military power to accomplish certain kinds of things are, instead, taken as evidence of lack of will. Thus we see that problems in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't reasons to avoid new military ventures, but reasons why we must embark upon them."
The Republican/Netanyahu solution is clear. Contrary to everything the military has said, we can simply destroy Iran's nuclear infrastructure and we can do it with no consequences. All we need is the willpower. Just like Iraq the first time. And the second time. Now the third time.
This is based, as Netanyahu's speech implies, but does not argue, on an analogy to 1938. If only the democracies had stood up to Hitler at Munich, then all would have been well. They simply lacked any Churchillian backbone. They appeased.
Really? Well, how would that have worked? Would Hitler have backed down, as he did in the face of war on September 1, 1939 (sarcasm)? Were the Allies ready for war in 38? Would they have done any better than they did in 39 and 40? If Hitler had "backed down," would he have stayed in power? How would that have worked? Needless to say, the limits of historical analogy never occur to these people.
For the neocon, it's always 1938 in Munich and s/he is always Churchill. Although the right always accuses the left of identity politics, this is their form of it. By being "tough and clear," with no "moral ambiguity," you show what kind of a man you are. You are, in fact, quite manly and those others--those women, those diplomats, that president--is not. Identity, willpower, a Green Ring, that's the key to success, according to this speech. It's not. As is always true, as Reinhold Niebuhr should have taught these people, success results from difficult, annoying, endless work. From moral compromises that are unsatisfactory but better than the alternatives. It's called life.