As a duel national born in a country fond of trumpeting its special relationship with the United States, I’m familiar with the ways foreign leaders can often embarrass themselves (and those they represent) by going too far in their expressions of affection for Uncle Sam. During his brief tenure as British prime minister, Gordon Brown for instance was no less gushing than his predecessors in saying how much he admired the United States. It didn’t do him much good though when it came to improving his access to the White House.
The one exception in special relationships, as James Fallows notes, is that between the United States and Israel and in this case the starry-eyed lover is the one that on all other occasions maintains the dignity of a great power.
In the diplomatic tone from which Fallows never strays, he referred to the “oddity” of the AIPAC appearances by U.S. politicians.
Of course politicians aspiring to any office, including the presidency, plead for support from any number of groups. Even sitting presidents, with all their augustness and power, do something similar, especially at re-election time. Barack Obama would be crazy not to remind everyone in Michigan how he pushed for the auto-bailout bill — or not to tell an AARP convention or a university crowd, respectively, about what he has done on Social Security and student-loan programs. I have seen Bill Clinton in front of black organizations, arguing that he had been their dependable tribune.
What I found odd about the AIPAC performance is that an American president was expected to make similar pleas about his reliability in support of another country’s government. Let’s imagine that Barack Obama’s next big speech is to the National Council of La Raza. We would expect him to remind the crowd what he has done on immigration and affirmative-action issues, and to contrast that with the Republicans. We would not expect him to say that he has stood with the government of Mexico “every single time.” Before a Korean-American group, we would expect him to talk about what he has done for peace on the Korean peninsula, for trade agreements, against the North Korean threat, and so on. We would never hear him say that his policies have been indistinguishable from the Republic of Korea’s. So on down a list of foreign states.
My premise is that sovereign nations are sometimes bound by formal alliances (as the US is with its NATO partners, but is not with Israel), and other times by values, ethnicity, heritage, interests, and ideals (a combination of which usually binds the U.S. to Israel, and to many other states). But their interests are not identical — a point that is obvious, and that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself made in his latest AIPAC speech. Therefore to me it seems undignified to put an American president in a setting where he is expected to proclaim “every single time” adherence to the interests and policies of another state.