Several weeks ago I attended a small meeting with a leader in the global policy thinking of a major US ally. This leader — who has long been privy to the views and policy discussions of heads of government and the circles immediately around them – reported that the United States never in current memory has been less relevant to world affairs. In forum after forum, the question that was once the first to be asked – what does the United States think – is now dismissed.
There can be no doubt that President Obama did his global reputation grievous harm when he announced that Syrian use of chemical weapons in its civil war was a “red line” and then ignored that line a year later after Syria crossed it. Soon Russian president Vladimir Putin was testing the rules of the global order in new and frightening ways. Mr. Putin gave as clear a display as anyone could ask that, when it comes to the United States, actions in one region of the world matter in all others. For us, what happens in Vegas never stays in Vegas.
Which brings me to the deal with Iran over nuclear weapons — for far more is at stake here than the president’s reputation. Here is an essential truth of American policy: the unquestionable reliability of the United States as a partner and ultimate security guarantor of Israel is essential to our standing in the world and general global peace.
This does not mean that the U.S. and Israel must always be on the same policy page. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted in his recent address to Congress, American presidents and Israeli prime ministers have often disagreed – sometimes forcefully. To see what Mr. Netanyahu meant, look no farther than the exchanges between President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Menachem Begin over the 1982 Israeli incursion into Lebanon.
But these disagreements have always been tactical and transitory. The constant – the enduring constant since President Harry Truman decided that America would vote for Israeli statehood in the United Nations –- has been that America had Israel’s back.
Even in the depths of Watergate — as he was being sucked up in tornadoes of accusations, revelations, and what he saw as the blowing away of past standards as to what a president could and could not do – President Richard Nixon employed the full range of presidential powers to rescue Israel, authorizing weapons shipments that proved essential to it surviving and prevailing in the Yom Kippur War. Indeed, Nixon raised the bar on the close identity of Israeli and American security, making our commitment to Israeli security comparable to our commitments to Western European, British, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian security – that is, coterminous with America’s own security.
Looking back it is clear that the Cold War had certain rules, rules that in many respects endure to this day. Among them was that the U.S. would be strong, alert and rational guardian of both its own security and that its essential allies. Even the Soviets depended on this assumption and were unnerved when we failed to live by this rule.
Several years ago I talked with the single surviving witness to the ultra-secret one-on-one talks between John J. McCloy and Soviet deputy foreign minister Vasily Kuznetsov that resolved the Cuban missile crisis. The crucial discussions were held on walks in the Greenwich, Connecticut, woods adjoining McCloy’s home. When the deal was finally done, Kuznetsov stopped, thought for a moment, and said he had something very serious to say that he pleaded for the US to remember. America must never let its guard down again. Never.
In other words, in getting careless about security, by violating the rules strength, alertness and reasoned self-interest, the United States had opened the door to Soviet probing. Kuznetsov’s government — the Soviet government — had responded accordingly, as the rules allowed. But in making way for that probing, the United States had created a situation that put everyone at risk.
My point is that in its handling of the negotiations with Iran, the Obama administration has all but shredded the rules of strength, alertness and rational protection of America’s essential security interests and that of its inner circle of allies. We are not talking here about tactical disagreements – as between President Reagan and Prime Minster Begin — but about the essential viability of a core ally.
Whether the Administration acknowledges the implications of its actions or not, the United States is close to crossing a line – if it has not already done so – and every international player is taking note. At stake is not just this or that transient position but the very structure of our global position – and the global order – for the past seven decades. Congresses as well as presidents have framed that role and the plethora of policies and commitments underpinning it.
This is why Congress must have a role in ratifying or rejecting any deal with Iran. At stake is more than presidential policy. At stake are the most fundamental assumptions of America’s global stance