The longstanding Vandenberg principle that foreign policy stops at the water’s
edge has been eroding in recent years but this week, it was washed out to sea by
three US senators – who plunged into the middle of a diplomatic mission by their
secretary of state to undermine his efforts to negotiate Israeli-Palestinian
John Kerry was in Jerusalem on his 10th trip in less than a year,
trying to keep alive the sputtering peace talks he initiated six months ago. He
praised Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas for their “important... courageous...difficult decisions”
in pursuit of peace.
Netanyahu was in a bad mood, and used the welcoming
ceremony to lash out at Abbas. Israelis have “growing doubt” about his
commitment to peace, Netanyahu said, accusing the Palestinian leader of having
“glorif[ied] the murderers of innocent women and men as heroes.” Abbas’s PA, he
said, “continues its unabated incitement against the State of
The private session with the secretary of state was even more
strained. Netanyahu arrived for their meeting “angry, and made sure his guest
knew it,” reported Barak Ravid in Ha’aretz. “[T]he atmosphere was ugly and
tense,” and it took the prime minister more than an hour to calm down, he
Netanyahu next briefed the three visiting Republican senators –
John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Barrasso of
Wyoming – who emerged from their meeting in full Likud attack mode, sounding
more like spokesmen for the Israeli prime minister than members of the US
They went after their former Senate colleague not only on the
subject of peace talks, but also on Syria (they want direct military
intervention), Iraq (they wish we were still there) and Iran (do whatever
Gone was any semblance of observing the longstanding
tradition of bipartisanship on foreign trips and keeping politics out of
congressional missions overseas.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu has serious,
serious concerns about the plan that has been presented to him – whether it be
the ability of Israel to defend its borders, the viability of a Palestinian
state and their intentions and their actions toward the State of Israel, and
particularly on the overall security – whether it’s boundaries, areas under
Palestinian control,” said McCain.
Foreign policy professionals from
Congress as well as former diplomats and others I spoke to all told me this was
unprecedented and, said one, “sure as hell bad.”
Chris Nelson, a former
congressional foreign affairs staffer and veteran analyst, called this “a truly
stunning betrayal of principle, tradition and practice in legislative
involvement in foreign policy.” The three senators were “deliberately
undercutting” Kerry and “supporting hard-line Israeli elements long opposed to
anything from the Obama administration.”
A former State Department
official told me it was standard procedure to discourage congressional
delegations from being in country at the same time as the secretary of state.
There may be some overlap, as one arrives and the other leaves, but it is highly
unusual for American lawmakers to show up during a diplomatic mission by the
secretary of state and not only criticize American policy, but sound like the
spokesmen for the foreign government.
The Vandenberg principle was first
articulated by Michigan Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg at the start of the
Cold War. He abandoned his longstanding isolationism to back president Harry
Truman and the creation of NATO. It was essential, in his view, that America
show strength and unity, and no politician should go abroad and undercut any
president of any party. It was called a monument of bipartisanship, but that is
something verboten in today’s congress.
The principle has been dying in
recent years, but these three amigos trampled it to death.
McCain and his
colleagues also echoed Netanyahu’s views by calling for tougher new Iran
sanctions, in violation of last November’s Geneva agreement, which included a
sixmonth freeze on such legislation to give the nuclear negotiations a chance to
The former Republican presidential nominee said Obama is not
being tough enough on Iran. He may be right on both counts, but his time and
venue make his motives suspect.
Graham sounded like the spokesman for the
national camp and settler movement, which oppose any territorial concessions or
Palestinian statehood. “Once you withdraw, the ability to go back is almost
impossible,” he warned.
“I really do believe that the idea of withdrawing
has to be considered in light of Gaza.”
They didn’t stop there. McCain
also accused the Obama administration of not doing enough to curb the violence
in Syria, which he said also endangers Israel. He and Graham have urged US
military intervention in that war, something broadly opposed in Congress and
among the American public. They also blamed the Obama administration for the
“tragic” and “predictable” capture of Fallujah, Iraq, by al-Qaida forces. The
pair opposed the US withdrawal from Iraq two years ago.
senators only make Kerry’s job more difficult and peace more
elusive. Their message to Netanyahu is that they will run interference
for him and block anything the administration wants. To Abbas, they’re saying,
we’re Netanyahu’s boys, so you can fuggedaboutit.
Kerry is planning to
return next week. Will Netanyahu’s boys be there, too?