The Netanyahu and Obama Speeches: Prime Minister Gaga vs. A Son of the Empire

After the bizarre public display of affection for Bibi Netanyahu yesterday on Capitol Hill, today’s much more subdued response to President Obama’s address at Westminster stood in stark contrast. Perhaps it was just that one audience was British and the other was a wildly indiscriminate mob of transparently pandering jack-in-the-boxes. Perhaps one audience was listening ...

PETER MACDIARMID/AFP/Getty Images)
PETER MACDIARMID/AFP/Getty Images)
PETER MACDIARMID/AFP/Getty Images)

After the bizarre public display of affection for Bibi Netanyahu yesterday on Capitol Hill, today's much more subdued response to President Obama's address at Westminster stood in stark contrast. Perhaps it was just that one audience was British and the other was a wildly indiscriminate mob of transparently pandering jack-in-the-boxes. Perhaps one audience was listening and the other was not. 

The U.S. Congress whooped and hollered and leapt to their feet so often for Netanyahu that you expected at any moment they would surge forward and turn the well of the House into a mosh pit. And despite that and the fact that the theme song for the event could easily have been "Bad Romance," these not-so-little monsters were actually not going wild for a pop star but for a politician so out-of-touch with the moment and the views of even the majority in his own country that he might well be known as Prime Minister Gaga.

Of course, much like audiences at most rock concerts I have ever been to, no one came for the lyrics. It was clear the members of the Congress from both sides of the aisle had arrived so intent on demonstrating their support for Bibi that they weren't actually listening to a word he was saying. Because if they were, they would have realized they were effectively cheering for the death of any prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. And that, presumably, might have muted their response.

After the bizarre public display of affection for Bibi Netanyahu yesterday on Capitol Hill, today’s much more subdued response to President Obama’s address at Westminster stood in stark contrast. Perhaps it was just that one audience was British and the other was a wildly indiscriminate mob of transparently pandering jack-in-the-boxes. Perhaps one audience was listening and the other was not. 

The U.S. Congress whooped and hollered and leapt to their feet so often for Netanyahu that you expected at any moment they would surge forward and turn the well of the House into a mosh pit. And despite that and the fact that the theme song for the event could easily have been "Bad Romance," these not-so-little monsters were actually not going wild for a pop star but for a politician so out-of-touch with the moment and the views of even the majority in his own country that he might well be known as Prime Minister Gaga.

Of course, much like audiences at most rock concerts I have ever been to, no one came for the lyrics. It was clear the members of the Congress from both sides of the aisle had arrived so intent on demonstrating their support for Bibi that they weren’t actually listening to a word he was saying. Because if they were, they would have realized they were effectively cheering for the death of any prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. And that, presumably, might have muted their response.

While one hopes the prime minister enjoyed himself, he would be wise not to either read too much into the reaction or look for it to have any lasting consequence. Because yesterday’s display of kabuki political theater was not about him … or even about Israel.

The speech was about Obama. It was arranged by Republicans for purely domestic political reasons and when Republicans cheered it was to say to evangelical Christian and Jewish supporters of Israel, "See, we love you the most." And when Democrats stood up, it was to say, "The president didn’t mean any harm with that remark about the 1967 borders." Their applause couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with America’s long-term interests in a peaceful, sustainable, two-state solution or they would have been sitting on their hands the whole time.

Because Netanyahu continues to mistake intransigence for strength in a situation in which old formulations actually put Israel at much greater risk.

Interestingly, the most notable display of enthusiasm in the U.S. president’s speech before Parliament was actually about Obama too. It was not for his carefully crafted and occasionally torturously nuanced themes celebrating the U.S.-British relationship, our shared virtues or our common international agenda. In fact, after a long period of stony (attentive? stoic?) silence, it was the mention of the fact that the president was the grandson of a Kenyan cook in the British army that produced one of the few outbursts of palpable enthusiasm. 

Once again, the narrative of Barack Obama’s life was more important than the substance of what he was saying or doing as president. Like Bibi, he was lucky in that.  Because frankly, the speech itself — especially the bit about Libya in which he unsuccessfully tried to hold it up as an example of how the U.S. and Britain would not stand idly by and let a tyrant kill his own people-didn’t really hold up to much scrutiny. Whenever he said Libya, what you heard was "Syria" or "Bahrain" or any of the far more abundant circumstances when both Washington and London seem completely happy to look the other way. The rest of the speech was full of the kind of ersatz Churchillian constructions and flourishes about policies that lacked enough clarity, urgency or lift to warrant or forgive the attempted evocation of Britain’s great wartime PM. 

Not that Obama’s speech was bad. It wasn’t. It was a solid effort that achieved its purpose. It just wasn’t newsworthy or special in any way except again, the personal narrative, because this grandson of a Kenyan cook in the British army was also the first U.S. president to address the British parliament at Westminster. Which is not a small story. In fact, it’s quite a moving one. But in the grand scheme of things perhaps the best thing about the speech was neither its content or its context but the fact that the members of parliament present actually appeared to be listening to what the president was saying.  That is a lesson the mother of all parliaments ought to pass on to her offspring on this side of the Atlantic.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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