How big a blunder did Benjamin Netanyahu commit by arranging to slam Barack Obama’s Iran policy in a speech to Congress without informing the White House first? Listen to the recent exchange between Fox News anchors Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith. Iran “is an existential threat,” declared Wallace. “Whatever Netanyahu wants to think and say about that is fine. But for him to come here to ignore the president, to not even let him know he was coming, and to sneak in to come talk before Congress with the president’s opponents to criticize the president’s policy, that’s a different thing.” Smith was even harsher: “It just seems like they think we don’t pay any attention and we’re just a bunch of complete morons, the United States citizens, like we wouldn’t pick up on what’s happening here.”
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To hear Netanyahu criticized so bluntly on Fox, the conservative bastion where Israel is usually above reproach, is remarkable. Even more intriguing is the nature of that criticism. Wallace and Smith aren’t angry at Bibi for being hawkish; Wallace flatly agrees that Iran represents an “existential threat.” They’re angry at him for being insolent. For decades now, Netanyahu has alienated American progressives. With this incident, he’s alienated some American “Jacksonians” too.
In his landmark 1999 book, "Special Providence," Walter Russell Mead divides American foreign policy into four traditions: Jeffersonian, Wilsonian, Hamiltonian and Jacksonian. Jeffersonians see overseas empires as a threat to domestic liberty (think Ron Paul), and thus suspect Israel of dragging the United States into wars that drain our treasury and sap our freedom. Wilsonians champion global human rights (think Samantha Power), and while some in this school champion Israel as a bastion of democracy, others condemn it for mistreating Palestinians. Hamiltonians want to make the world safe for American commerce (think Brent Scowcroft), and some in this camp resent Israel for undermining America’s relations with the oil producers of the Middle East. It is the fourth group, Jacksonians, whom Mead argues anchor Israel’s public support.
They anchor it because Jacksonians are Manicheans: They draw sharp distinctions between the civilized West and its barbaric foes. And they see Israel – because it is a democracy, because many of its people hail from Europe and because it is Jewish (many Jacksonians believe Jewish control of the Holy Land is part of God’s plan) – as the West’s outpost in hostile, Islamic terrain. Jacksonians don’t question Israel’s ruthless response to terrorism because they don’t question America’s ruthless response to terrorism. In Mead’s words, they “strongly believe that as long as Palestinians engage in terrorism, Israel has an unlimited and absolute right of self defense If the terrorists shield themselves behind civilians, that only shows how evil they are – and is an extra reason why you have both the right and the duty to eliminate them no matter what it takes.”
Given America’s ongoing battle with jihadist terror, and the anti-Muslim feeling it has spawned on the Fox News-watching right, Jacksonians are unlikely to criticize Israel on moral grounds anytime soon. But they might criticize it on nationalist grounds. While Jeffersonians focus on defending domestic liberty, Wilsonians focus on supporting liberty overseas and Hamiltonians emphasize free trade, Jacksonians care most about national honor. They may not particularly like president Obama, but they still don’t want to see him disrespected by a foreign power.
The danger for Netanyahu is that Jacksonians come to see him less as America’s ally against a common foe and more like the guy playing us for fools. Ordinary Jacksonians may not know that after his first meeting with Netanyahu, Bill Clinton remarked, “Who the fuck does he think he is? Who’s the fucking superpower here?” They may not know that in a private meeting with settlers in 2001, Netanyahu said, “America is a thing you can move very easily.”
They may not even remember the way Bibi lectured Obama at a White House press conference in 2011 after the president proposed peace talks based on the 1967 lines plus land swaps.
But with this latest incident, the reputation for arrogance and duplicity that Netanyahu has long enjoyed among American elites is seeping out to the public at large. It’s not just Fox’s Shepard Smith who last week objected to Netanyahu treating Americans like “we’re just a bunch of complete morons.” HBO’s Bill Maher, who, while liberal on most issues, has won conservative acclaim in recent months for his critiques of Islam, said after news of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, “We’re getting very close on the Iran issue to allowing Israel to write American policy.” It’s noteworthy that Jim Webb, the former Marine, Reagan administration official and long-shot 2016 presidential candidate who has written at length about Jacksonian culture, was during his time in the senate one of AIPAC’s biggest foes on Iran.
Are most Jacksonians about to turn on Israel? Not likely. But among some, the “Israel as insolent” narrative now competes with the narrative of Israel as the West’s outpost in the Middle East. To avoid fueling it, Bibi is going to have show president Obama a bit more respect. And when you see Obama as Neville Chamberlain and yourself as Winston Churchill, that’s not an easy thing to do.