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Tony Badran

Salman’s absence, Netanyahu’s shadow

Obama can't spin the Camp David Summit

(AFP Photo, edited by NOW)

If you’re keeping score in the contest between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, then chalk up a win for the Israeli prime minister this week. President Obama is convening his summit with representatives of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states at Camp David today. But the affair was already a flop the minute Saudi Arabia’s King Salman decided not to participate. On the face of it, Salman's actions would seem to be entirely unrelated to the drama between Obama and Netanyahu, but appearances are deceiving. 

 

Obama had sought to achieve two goals with this gathering, one explicit and one unstated. The stated objective is to reassure Gulf Arab allies that the Iran deal will not diminish the United States’ commitment to their security. In this Obama has failed, and from the very beginning he knew that his chances of success were very limited. The undeclared objective was always Obama's top priority. His strategic goal is to influence Congress, not the Gulf States.

 

The president is focused like a laser on completing the nuclear deal with Iran. For this, he needs to fend off any challenge from Capitol Hill, which is poised to approve legislation that requires him to submit the deal for Congressional review. A vote of disapproval is a certainty, but the only way the opponents of the deal can actually stop it is by mustering a veto-proof majority—two-thirds of both houses. Thus, in order to move ahead with the deal as planned, Obama needs to convince only 34 Democratic senators to refrain from rejecting it. 

 

Netanyahu’s vocal and persuasive opposition has complicated this task. Here is America’s number one regional ally saying this deal is a bad one, and that it poses a mortal danger to Israel's security. The White House devised a two-step counterattack. Step One is to tarnish Netanyahu’s brand. The White House and its friends in the media depict Netanyahu as a bigot with respect to the Palestinians and a warmonger with respect to Iran. He is ruling over a right-wing coalition that clings to power by the narrowest of margins. His opinions are, in short, unrepresentative and unrespectable.

 

Step Two of the counterattack is to tarnish Congressional opponents of the deal with the brush of Netanyahu’s “extremism.” Remember, Obama only needs 34 votes, so he is playing for the loyalty of the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party—the progressives, for whom being tied to a hawkish bigot is the worst association imaginable.      

 

This counterattack is the essential context for understanding the dialogue with the Gulf Arabs. Obama needed only two simple things from the summit. First, he sought to look the part of the concerned ally, so as to insulate himself from the criticism that his Iran deal sells out America’s allies. Second, he intended to secure a public statement of support—however mild—for his nuclear diplomacy. Even tepid support would allow him to argue that Netanyahu represents only a small group of unreasonable and reckless hardliners who are pushing the US to war.

 

The problem, of course, is that Obama has no good answer to the Arab concerns that Iran is on the march across the Middle East. He has no intention of actually giving the Gulf allies what they really want; namely, a clear American commitment to counter Iran; a “containment statement and arrangement” as one senior Gulf official put it

 

In the weeks prior to the summit, however, Obama made clear that adopting such a posture toward Iran was not in the cards, and certainly not what the summit was about. To shift the focus of the dialogue, the White House seized on Arab demands for iron-clad security assurances to turn the meeting into a discussion about whether a treaty with the GCC was workable. A formal pact, the White House began arguing, was “not realistic.” Why? Because, as administration officials explained to the press, a treaty would upset Israel. 

 

Obama would have been delighted if the summit had generated stories about how Arab-Israeli discord was preventing a more effective response to the Iranian challenge. But what he wanted most of all was for the Saudi king to come to Washington and remain quiet and respectful, thus allowing the White House to spin his silence as support for the Iran deal. 

 

But the president overplayed his hand. On the eve of the summit, the White House leaked to the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat the supposed draft of the final statement of the summit. The draft included a conspicuous line that the participants agree that “reaching a comprehensive and verifiable agreement with Iran on its nuclear program is a common interest for the Gulf Cooperation Council states and the United States.” This leak angered the Saudis. As one unnamed Arab diplomat put it last week, “This summit can’t just be a big photo-op to pretend everybody’s on the same page on Iran.”  

 

In order to prevent that from happening, King Salman abruptly notified the White House that he would not be attending the summit. Salman’s absence hangs heavily over today's proceedings. So too does Netanyahu’s shadow. Every sober observer now knows that the Arab leaders are just as dismayed by Obama's Iran diplomacy as Netanyahu is.

 

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

 

(AFP Photo, edited by NOW)

As one Arab diplomat put it last week, ‘This summit can’t just be a big photo-op to pretend everybody’s on the same page on Iran.’”