The Spitefulness of Little Men

Despite Benjamin Netanyahu’s protestations to the contrary, his speech before the joint session of Congress contained an element of obvious defiance to president Obama.  After all, Obama all but forbade him to give the speech and still he gave it.  Yet Netanyahu was the hardly the first western leader to exhibit insubordination.  The old reliables have been falling away for some time.  As the New York Times put it, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel “split” with Obama over the question of arming the Ukraine.


The pointed exchanges laid bare the divisions within the West’s ranks and did not provide a sense of how the United States and its European allies hoped to fashion a common strategy that might persuade President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to honor an agreement negotiated in Minsk, Belarus, in September.

Prior to that readers may remember how the British House of Commons refused to authorize participation in Obama’s military strike on Syria — actually refused to follow him into combat — in August 2013 by a vote of 285 to 272.  The Washington Post noted it marked the first time since the Suez Crisis “that a British opposition party has rejected a government motion for military intervention.”  The Daily Beast pointed out that “it was the first time a British prime minister had lost a vote on waging war since 1782, when parliament effectively called an end to the War of Independence and conceded that the American rebellion had succeeded.”

It’s no fluke. Recently in Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, the man who might be its next Prime Minister started tongues wagging when he suggested that he might pivot to China.  Turnbull said that “an Australian government needs to be careful not to allow a doe-eyed fascination with the leader of the free world to distract from the reality that our national interest requires us to truly (and not just rhetorically) maintain both an ally in Washington and a good friend in Beijing.”

And finally, Turnbull recognises that all this means Australia has to rethink its place in Asia from the ground up. We cannot assume, he has said, that “the strategic and diplomatic posture that served us in the past can and will serve us unchanged in the future; or that it doesn’t matter if our strategic and economic messages to our region are somewhat contradictory”.


These words, uttered by a credible candidate for the prime ministership of one of America’s longest-standing allies are astonishing as the Pope musing about the possibility of converting to Islam. But why should Turnbull not consider these options? He knows the cavalry won’t come, any more than it wil for Ukraine, or the Syrian rebels or anyone else who relies on the “leader of the free world”.

In the universe outside the Beltway nations feel actual fear — of China, Russia or Iran  — as the case may be.  Germany, France, the UK, Japan and Australia need to survive and require more than dramatic poses from the lectern. In the absence of something more substantial they tend to make their own arrangements; if need be they conclude a separate peace.

It’s almost as if there were two parallel universes.  The real one in which the rest of the world lives and the fantasy land bounded by the Beltway and the media capitals. Perhaps American allies of long standing are starting to suspect that there is no president in the White House. To be sure there is someone who calls himself ‘president’ and never ceases to remind the public at large of his awesome magnificence.  Yet in actuality there is little concrete evidence of his majesty’s existence. For example after trumpeting an impending assault on Mosul, the Associated Press for example notes that the “US [is] on [the] sidelines of key Iraqi battle against IS”.

Glaringly absent are the U.S.-led coalition forces whose air campaign since last summer has nearly halted the Islamic State rampage across Iraq. Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said this week that the U.S. is not providing air power in the Tikrit operation “simply because the Iraqis haven’t requested us to.” …

However, more of a concern for the U.S.-led coalition is Iran’s prominent role in the fight against the Islamic State militants. Iran has long been influential in Iraq, but never so much so as over the past year, when the Iraqi military collapsed in the face of the Sunni extremists’ onslaught. Iraqi officials have noted Iran’s quick response to their urgent requests for weapons and frontline assistance even as they accuse the coalition of falling short on commitments on the ground.


People notice these things.  They remember that only a few years ago the US had proconsular power in Iraq. Now it doesn’t even get the time of day. The fact the man in charge operations against ISIS in the region appears to be Qassem Suleimani, chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, must make even the ordinary man start to have his doubts.

And it’s not just Iraq, but elsewhere. A few years ago the US counted Egypt as its staunch ally. In 2011 Hillary Clinton trumpeted the liberation of Libya. Now Egypt is estranged from America and  the consulate in Benghazi charred ruin with its ambassador dead. Only a few months ago the Obama administration touted Yemen as its counterinsurgency model.  Yet Yemen, according to  Captain Robert A. Newson, a  (SEAL) officer who spent time there, was “a fantasy”. “This ‘CT concept’,” he wrote ” – the solution that some people champion where the main or whole effort is drone strikes and special operations raids – is a fantasy. It may be cheaper and safer, but without broader efforts it is like mowing the grass in the jungle.”  Today the American embassy in Sana’a has been abandoned to an Iranian-backed militia.

When Netanyahu enumerated these well-known setbacks Nancy Pelosi declared herself “near tears” at the “insult”. Yet even the president could not dispute the facts. All the president could say was there was “nothing new” in the speech. And in that Obama is undoubtedly right. Readers will note that there was hardly a major point in Netanyahu’s speech that was not anticipated in yesterday’s Belmont Club post (and the comments).  But that did not require genius because it’s all so obvious. What’s really astonishing is that none of the undisputed facts seemed to matter to the administration.


Iran’s goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon, its revolutionary guards on the Golan Heights are clutching Israel with three tentacles of terror. Backed by Iran, Assad is slaughtering Syrians. Backed by Iran, Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq. Backed by Iran, Houthis are seizing control of Yemen, threatening the strategic straits at the mouth of the Red Sea. Along with the Straits of Hormuz, that would give Iran a second choke-point on the world’s oil supply.

Just last week, near Hormuz, Iran carried out a military exercise blowing up a mock U.S. aircraft carrier. That’s just last week, while they’re having nuclear talks with the United States. But unfortunately, for the last 36 years, Iran’s attacks against the United States have been anything but mock. And the targets have been all too real.

Iran took dozens of Americans hostage in Tehran, murdered hundreds of American soldiers, Marines, in Beirut, and was responsible for killing and maiming thousands of American service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan.

How long can you watch your fighter take it on the chin before you grudgingly admit that he’s a bum? In their own way the media admit the case. When the Beltway press says that America is “still” the most important country on the planet; when talk show hosts re-assure us that the United States is “still” the indispensable country, the “still” betrays the game; it is an adjective used to describe an asset that is wasting away. Nobody who is ascendant assures his listeners that he can “still” pay for his hamburger. But people in long decline use the word frequently and the press has been using it all too often. President Obama is the president of the “still”. Still boasting, still failing and still hoping to land his knockout deal.


Chris Matthews reacted to the prime minister’s speech by accusing Netanyahu of trying to “wrest power from Obama”. Matthews said:

“This man from a foreign government walked into the United States legislative chamber and tried to take over U.S. foreign policy. He said, ‘You should trust me, not your president on this. I am the man you should trust. I’m your true leader on this question of U.S. geopolitics. To protect yourself, you must listen to me and not to this president.'”

Would that it were so. Like most mainstream commmentators Matthews still thinks Obama sits in the center of the old universe, the one that is vanishing. From that accustomed vantage Matthews sees everyone as coveting the power of the King from which the cornucopia flows. Matthews cannot see that things have changed. Quite perceptibly the periphery of American influence — even its core — is falling away.  And it will keep crumbling away for as long as reason is subordinated to the vanity of political leaders.

Netanyahu didn’t come there to get something from Obama because he knows the president will give him nothing.  And besides the cupboard, truth be told, is probably bare. He came for old time’s sake; with a sadness in his heart that Nancy Pelosi couldn’t even begin to imagine; with the kind of grief that comes from seeing something once beautiful and powerful now broken down and grubbing at the level of the petty, malicious, lying politicians who dominate it. He came to warn anyone who would listen to wake up, though his words were doubtless wasted on the sleeping.

It would be asking too much for the administration’s supporters to agree with Netanyahu. But perhaps it might be permissible to request that they remember what he said, so that in the coming months, as the disasters unfold and things go ever more wrong, they might cast their minds back and ask: “could he have been right?”


Ernest Hemingway observed that people who have always had money never believe they’ll run out. In the Sun Also Rises two of his characters describe the experience of going bust.

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

Like Detroit. And that’s the way it will be for Nancy Pelosi and the whole gang. They’ll be kings of the world until suddenly they’re not.

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