You know that a TV show has hit a bad stretch when the producers bring in a controversial guest star to boost ratings. A reality show about a two-year-old beauty pageant star is tanking in the ratings? Bring in Sarah Palin to serve as her life coach. Saturday Night Live on a long spiral downward? Invite Anthony Wiener to host — or better yet, Kim Jong Eun.
If Congress were a TV show, it would have been yanked off the air years ago. In the political ratings war, President Obama’s popularity has rebounded in the last month to 50 percent. Congress remains barely above single digits.
In general, Congress could care less about its dismal popularity. After all, in the last election, voters returned over 95 percent of incumbents to office. Although they’re not at risk of being replaced by a more entertaining reality show, Congress is worried about the popularity of certain key initiatives. On those issues, hardliners are desperate to undercut the president in any way they can. And that explains Speaker of the House John Boehner’s unprecedented response to the president’s recent State of the Union address.
Last week, the president laid out the foreign policy agenda for his last two years in office in an hour-long speech to Congress and the nation. This time around, however, the congressional opposition didn’t content itself merely with a rebuttal from Iowa Republican Joni Ernst.
Boehner immediately called in the heavy guns. He invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address both houses of Congress in March. The expected topic of the speech: Iran. Obama wants a deal with Iran on its nuclear program. Congressional hardliners — and Netanyahu — want to apply more sanctions on the principle of no pain, no gain.
Netanyahu’s appearance has a side benefit for him: Israel is heading into an election season, and the prime minister’s appearance could give him the extra bounce he needs.
The invitation might seem routine. Netanyahu has already addressed Congress on several occasions. But according to protocol, the leaders of both parties consult over invitations to foreign leaders, and the White House is kept in the loop as well. Not this time. In retaliation, neither the president nor the secretary of state plans to meet Netanyahu when he’s here.
Boehner’s Nuclear Option
If you’re going to defy protocol and encroach on the mandate of the president as commander-of-chief, why stop at Netanyahu? There are plenty of other controversial guest stars that Boehner and company could bring in to bat for their confrontational agenda. Here’s what to expect if congressional hawks decide to follow through with their nuclear option and get all up in the president’s face on foreign policy over the next two years.
Cuba: The president shocked the foreign policy establishment with the recently negotiated détente with Cuba. Although Washington and Havana are currently restarting diplomatic relations after a half-century pause, the U.S. trade embargo is still in place and Congress insists on its prerogative to maintain a cold war against the island nation.
Boehner’s move: The obvious person to invite to address Congress on the dangers of Communism in America’s backyard would be Augusto Pinochet, but the former Chilean dictator has been dead for nearly a decade. Why should that stop congressional hardliners? Pinochet, though dead, has been on the move lately. When Obama made his historic announcement, the dictator no doubt rolled over in his grave. Since he’s already in motion, why not roll him all the way up to DC?
If propping Pinochet up on the dais for symbolic value doesn’t appeal, Boehner will have to call up someone else from the bench. But rabid anti-Communists have become thin on the ground in Latin America. One of the few left who can fit the bill is former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt. Okay, he’s on trial for genocide and is in poor health. But if Boehner wants to resurrect the Cold War in Latin America without resurrecting Pinochet, he’ll need to fly in the old Guatemalan general before he’s behind bars or six feet under.
North Korea: The Obama administration has been in a holding pattern in its approach to North Korea for the last several years. In response to the latest Sony hacking scandal, the administration tacked on some more sanctions (even though, as I write in Spyware vs. Spyware, the United States was the first to hack into North Korea’s computers a couple years ago). Pyongyang has offered to cooperate in a joint investigation and suspend nuclear tests if the United States calls off its annual military drill. Radio silence from the Obama administration.
Boehner’s move: Congressional hawks have been all excited about putting North Korea back on the terrorism list. But why stop there? Why doesn’t Boehner invite someone to address Congress who wants to go all out for regime change in Pyongyang — someone like Dave Skylark. The fact that he’s a fictional character — the daffy, unctuous, puppy-loving TV host in the film The Interview — shouldn’t be a problem. Stephen Colbert once testified in character before Congress.
If James Franco doesn’t want to reprise Dave Skylark in front of Congress or develop a bromance with Boehner, the Republican leadership could go with Park Sang-hak. The North Korean defector wants to drop 100,000 copies of The Interview over his homeland to encourage regime collapse. The fact that even North Koreans who dislike their leader are appalled at the film’s depiction of their fellow citizens as either automata or bumbling idiots has not dissuaded Park from his grand plan..
Russia: Relations with Russia are not exactly upbeat at the moment. Moscow recently cancelled cooperation with the United States on nuclear security, one of the great achievements of the post-Cold War era. And the Obama administration continues to maintain sanctions on Russia, which, with the worldwide drop in oil prices, are beginning to affect the Russian economy. Just this week, Standard and Poors downgraded Russian debt to the status of junk bonds. In response to the latest shelling of Mariupol by Russian-backed separatists, President Obama has promised to consider all responses short of military action.
Boehner’s move: The Republican leadership has been hammering the president for not throwing his full weight behind the Ukrainian government in its fight against the separatists in eastern Ukraine. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and others seem way too nostalgic for the old days when Washington and Moscow went head-to-head in proxy wars in the Third World. This time around, however, the battlefield is smack between Russia and Europe, and the EU has a lot of challenges to deal with at the moment without having to address a world war on its borders.
To push for heightened conflict with Moscow, Boehner could invite Andriy Biletsky, the leader of the paramilitary known as the Azov Battalion, which is fighting the separatists in the Donbas region. Biletsky has a fondness for national socialism, and the Battalion has attractedwhite supremacists from inside and even outside country. The Ukrainian government is, despite the claims of Moscow and others, not fascist. And Russia has its own politically influential contingent of fascists as well. But if Boehner wants to enrage Moscow and rewind U.S.-Russian relations to the early 1980s, then Biletsky is the man.
Extremists of a Feather
What do all these potential congressional speakers have in common? Netanyahu is an elected leader, Rios Montt a disgraced dictator, Park Sang-hak a civil society activist, and Andriy Biletsky a neo-fascist fighter. They wouldn’t necessarily get along very well at a speakers’ table. But they all represent the ugliest facet of American foreign policy, the bedfellows we generally don’t want to wake up next to after an evening of binge propagandizing.
But bedfellows they are.
The Obama administration has expressed opposition to Netanyahu’s illegal settlement policy in the West Bank, but the Israeli leader remains the closest U.S. ally in the region. The U.S. government backed Rios Montt when he was in charge of Guatemala. Park Sang-hak is supported by the U.S.-based Human Rights Foundation, and Washington has directed funding to regime-change enthusiasts through the National Endowment for Democracy. The United States doesn’t attach any strings to the non-lethal assistance to Ukraine that would prevent its use by paramilitaries, and the Senate has already passed a bill to provide a range of weapons including anti-tank and anti-armor munitions that would inevitably find their way to battalions on the front line.
The efforts by congressional hardliners to push President Obama in a more militant direction — and this includes Democrats like Robert Menendez, who has co-sponsored both the latest Iran sanctions and the lethal aid to Ukraine — are not in sync with the American public. Polls indicate that Americans overwhelmingly support détente with Cuba and an agreement with Iran. The public is also war-weary and doesn’t want to risk a clash with Russia or North Korea.
And that’s why, despite his inbred exceptionalism, Boehner is contracting out to a foreigner to undercut presidential policy. It’s the congressional equivalent of a Hail Mary pass. Let’s hope that this out-sourcing stops at Bibi, and we won’t have to endure other controversial guest appearances in Congress.
World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, January 28, 2015