Obama-Netanyahu: Reality Sets In

Every pundit worth his/her appearance fee has weighed in on the Obama-Netanyahu summit (the Washington Institute’s Rob Satloff wrote a good analysis). The TerrorWonk has little to add, only a broader observation. In studying bureaucratic politics one reality that jumps out is that it is very hard for the President of the United States to get his own government to do what he wants. That goes at least double when dealing with other governments.

The reason Presidents can only rarely give orders is due to the combination of shared constitutional powers and the plethora of competing interests in the American political landscape. Now, when dealing with foreign governments they have their own competing interests and institutional limitations. Then there are bi-national and multi-national issues to further complicate the issue. (The classic on this is Richard Neustadt’s case study of the Skybolt affair. We wanted to cancel Skybolt because it was expensive and would never work. But we were building it with the Brits, for whom it was the only way to keep a viable nuclear arm. The alternative was to let the Brits have the Polaris missile – but that might have interfered with European unity efforts – and possibly a nuclear Germany. We ended up giving the Brits the Polaris, European unity efforts still blundered on, and Germany did not go nuclear.)

Obama attempted to dictate to the Israeli government without taking its domestic political pressures into the equation. This had an unfortunately high cost, making the President look foolish and weak on the world stage. Unfortunately, governments don’t tend to accept conditions that will result in falling out of power and Netanyahu was no exception.

But doesn’t the U.S. give Israel several billion a year in aid? Shouldn’t that translate into influence?

True enough, but even substantial aid does not make one government beholden to another. Consider that the United States pays for essentially the entire Afghan government and has 100,000 troops on the ground and still can’t get Hamid Karzai to do what it wants.

For that matter, in pressing for payments from BP Obama has had to be sensitive to domestic British politics – the list goes on. In that sense, Israel is just like every other country in world. Approaching it any other way will be a huge cost in political capital at home and abroad.

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