Following Benjamin Netanyahu’s magnificent speech to a Joint Session of the United States Congress, President Obama dismissed it as “theater” and “nothing new.” He did so without bothering to watch but having read the text. The President’s use of the term “theater” was pejorative, meaning it was a good show lacking substance. Yet like all great political orators and, yes, like his hero Churchill, Netanyahu offered a great theatrical performance in the best sense of that term. It was indeed great theater to see the Prime Minister of Israel move seamlessly from the details of nuclear arms negotiations with Iran to references to the Book of Ester and an assertion that “the days are over” in which the Jewish people must depend on others for their defense. Delivered with passionate intelligence, that statement brought the house down or rather up, to another rousing standing ovation.
The President was also correct that, in a sense, there was nothing new about what the Prime Minister said. Or rather, there was nothing new if you were the President of the United States, his Secretary of State, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or an analyst at one of the Washington or had followed the analyses of various scholars, journalists and associates of Washington think tanks such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracy or the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who have focused attention on the details of the Iran negotiations. For these several hundred people, what Netanyahu had to say was not wholly new because they had read or heard him or American critics of the administration’s policy towards Iran make similar points since Obama came into office. As I have written in this blog, the probing interventions of Senator Robert Menendez, the detailed analysis of the erosion of the Western and American negotiating position by Mark Dubowitz, and Michael Doran’s recent examination of the conflict between Obama’s declared policy of prevention and his actual efforts at détente have all offered very good reasons to be skeptical that Obama is really determined to do all that is necessary to prevent Iran from getting the bomb.
A larger number of citizens are aware of Eli Wiesel’s passionate cri de coeur about the prospect of a second Holocaust. For this very small group of people — let us say, perhaps as many as 10,000 American citizens — Benjamin Netanyahu said many things they had heard before.
Yet even for this small group, among whom I count myself, Netanyahu’s speech was the very first time that a political figure with the full attention of the American public laid out the political and moral arguments as to why the Islamic Republic of Iran must not get the bomb. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama have not delivered a similar address. So even for the expert 10,000 American citizens, even for most of the members of the United States Congress, by bringing together the political, strategic and moral arguments as to why Iran must not get the bomb, what Benjamin Netanyahu did on March 3, 2015 was wholly and completely new. But for the overwhelming majority of the American public, whose focus on foreign affairs is episodic and whose knowledge of the rest of the world is probably less well founded on reliable sources than was that of our parents and grandparents, most of whom avidly read newspapers, what Netanyahu had to say last week was totally new.
If they had been listening to President Obama or Secretary Kerry they would not know…
…that the United States had abandoned its demand that Iran dismantle its nuclear infrastructure;
…that whereas at one time it had sought to limit the number of centrifuges to none or mere hundreds, it was now accepting the idea that thousands, tens of thousands and, over time, 190 thousand centrifuges, would be in place in Iran;
…that it ceased to insist that Iran change its behavior in the region as a sponsor of terror and as a power that was using proxies such as Hezbollah to expand its influence;
…and that it was contemplating a deal with Iran whose “sunset clause” would end the entire arrangement in a decade or so, after which Iran was free to do what it pleased.
The vast majority of the Congress and the American public would not know that the United States had been making concessions to Iran from which it had gained only promises to slow uranium enrichment temporarily, that is, promises that can be easily revoked in the future. Meanwhile Iran has gained precious time to negotiate its way to the bomb, a strategy well described as Ayatollah Khamenei’s “strategic genius” in an astute piece by Ray Takeyh.
They would not know these things because the person with the largest platform to inform them about foreign affairs, the President himself, did not tell them. So for most of the Congress and most of the American public, what Prime Minister Netanyahu had to say was totally new. They — we — had never heard the full argument stated so well, so completely and so powerfully in a place as prominent as it was this past Tuesday.
To a historian, the President’s flippant comment that there was “nothing new” in the Netanyahu speech was a source of particular irritation. We know that much of what passes itself off as new and different has happened before in different forms in the past. In 1979, as I was writing my doctoral dissertation about the response to technology by anti-democratic right-wing ideologues in Weimar Germany as well as by members of the Nazi Party and regime, I noticed that Ayatollah Khomenei used the then very modern technology of tape cassettes to send messages urging Iran to adopt medieval versions of Islam.
Observers of Nazism such as Thomas Mann had noticed a similar blend of fascination with modern technology combined with a profound rejection of the liberal, individualist, democratic and pluralist traditions of Western modernity. What Mann called “the old new world of revolutionary reaction” I labeled reactionary modernism, the simultaneous embrace of modern technology and rejection of the liberal traditions of the American, British and French revolutions.
In 2002, in an essay on “What is old and what is new in the terrorism of Islamic fundamentalism”, I wrote that flying planes into the World Trade Center was another act of reactionary modernism. On Tuesday, Benjamin Netanyahu said “We must always remember — I’ll say it one more time — the greatest dangers facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons.” Netanyahu understands what Thomas Mann understood and described as reactionary modernism some 35 years ago.
Thus to say that the Prime Minister has said nothing new was the least important thing to be said. The vastly more important point is not whether or not an assertion is new but whether or not it is true. If it is true, then, as has been the case so often in the past, that is all the more reason for a truth to be repeated again and again, because in this case as in so many others, the truth about Iran is extremely disturbing. It is a truth that many people, including people in positions of political responsibility, do not want to say in public.
Netanyahu came to Washington to declare what he believes to be the truth, and the repeated standing ovations and cheers from members of both political parties indicated that most of them concurred that he was speaking truths that had not been said so well and so clearly before in this city of millions of words and thousands of talkers. While most of them had never heard the term reactionary modernism, they understood instinctively that the marriage of advanced technology with anti-modernist fanaticism is one of the defining themes — and one of the greatest perils — of our times.
We intellectual and cultural historians know what Netanyahu knows and expressed so eloquently this past week. We know that in many places and in many times people who attain the leadership of whole countries hold beliefs that are absurd, irrational, dangerous and evil. The political leaders who are trained as lawyers and foreign policy experts who have been educated in the social sciences that have too often been dismissive of the causal importance of cultural and ideological factors in politics have a far harder time grasping the causal importance of the ideologies such as militant Islam. Too many American foreign policy experts have a very difficult time taking ideological motivations of adversaries with the seriousness they merit. Too many are tone deaf regarding the causal importance of the ideas of others. The lure of the deal, the belief that everyone has their price and that “interests” always trump ideology, are ingrained in the training of many lawyers who are subsequently become involved in making foreign policy.
Obama, both a lawyer and product of the elite academy, shares some of those inclinations. The reality of fanaticism and irrationality in Iran and, as I have written in this blog, regarding radical Islam, is difficult for parts of our foreign policy elite to address. Netanyahu had the courage and intelligence to describe it, explain its impact on Iranian policy, and call for resolute unity among allies in the face of a common threat.
Politics can be theater for cynics and deal makers, but there are moments when a man or woman of conviction who looks into the face of evil and calls it by its name makes all the difference. If Iran is prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, historians will look back on this week as the one in which the momentum of the past six years towards a deal that paved the way to Iran’s bomb was slowed a bit and when the United States Congress, as a result of its reflection on what is good for the United States of America as well as our allies, insisted that a much better deal was both possible and essential.