President Obama's open-mic slip the other day -- in which he responded to President Sarkozy's bitching about Benjamin Netanyahu by saying, in essence, that Netanyahu is a pain in the ass -- falls in the category of truths that journalists like to repeat -- and should repeat -- but nevertheless make the world a more difficult place, once that particular truth is unleashed.
The open-mic incident reminded me of Adm. Mike Mullen's blunt comments about the Pakistani military leadership, which Marc Ambinder and I write about in this month's Atlantic cover story. Of course, Mullen's frustration with Gen. Ashfaq Keyani, the chief of Pakistan's army staff, and the country's most powerful leader, grew from Keyani's alleged involvement in the murder of a Pakistani journalist, while Obama's frustration with Netanyahu grows from the latter's general political obstreperousness. Not the same category of complaint, certainly, but the principle remains the same: It might be emotionally satisfying for American leaders to call out foreign leaders for their sins, but it certainly doesn't help American efforts to keep the lid on explosive problems (and both Israel and Pakistan pose nuclear challenges).
Here's what I wrote today in my Bloomberg View column about the Obama-Netanyahu relationship:
OK, so now we know for sure that President Barack Obama more or less detests the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama made this plain when he was overheard on an open microphone getting catty about Netanyahu with the French president, Nikolas Sarkozy.
It was Sarkozy who first brought the harsh on Netanyahu, calling him a liar. But Obama chose not to demur. He said instead, "You're fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you."
One mistake here is that the two violated a sacrosanct rule of microphone-wearing, which is: Always assume your mic is broadcasting your lowest-decibel mutterings directly to your most dire enemies. But the incident also revealed two mistaken interpretations of Middle East politics that could have grim consequences as the conflict over Iran's nuclear program moves to a boil.
The first misinterpretation is one often committed by Obama's conservative critics, who argue that the president's feelings toward Netanyahu reflect his feelings toward Israel. Here's Elliott Abrams, a Middle East expert in the George W. Bush administration: "If this were only a matter of personal relations between Obama and Netanyahu, it could be left at that. But it is far more consequential, for by that comment -- and especially as it was made in private and can be interpreted as his actual view -- President Obama has joined the chorus of assaults on the Jewish State."
Of course, if a verbal assault on Netanyahu is the equivalent of a verbal assault on the Jewish state, then three- quarters of Israel's politicians are guilty of assaulting the Jewish state. And it should be noted that Obama has also been critical of Sarkozy for supporting a Palestinian attempt to gain recognition as a member of UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural body. Obama is the most vociferous non-Israeli critic of the Palestinian ploy to gain UN recognition of their state without the bother of actually negotiating a state into existence with Israel.
Which leads to the second misinterpretation. It's true that Netanyahu is an often ornery and disagreeable man -- witness the condescending public lecture he gave Obama in the Oval Office earlier this year. But it's also true that he has on occasion bent to Obama's will, for instance by freezing West Bank settlement growth for longer periods than other prime ministers and by signaling that he's open to dismantling some illegal outposts, which Obama and Sarkozy both wanted him to do.
So Obama's ostensibly private commentary about Netanyahu -- and the misguided reactions to it -- came at a particularly inauspicious moment. The bond between Israel and the U.S. is going to be tested soon in a way that has no precedent in their 63-year relationship.
Netanyahu, and his most important adviser, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, appear to have decided that they must order an attack on Iran's nuclear program soon, unless the U.S. decides to act on its own. Netanyahu seems to believe that Obama wouldn't order such an attack, and the president's bitter comment about Netanyahu can't help but reinforce the message that the prime minister shouldn't count on the U.S.
An Israeli attack could cause a rupture between Washington and Jerusalem. A strike could still be averted if sanctions miraculously move Iran off its current path, or if sabotage efforts are accelerated (the recent explosion at an Iranian missile depot that killed 17 members of the Revolutionary Guards is suspected to be Israel's doing). But if an attack does occur, the Iranian response could include targeting U.S. military personnel and equipment in the Middle East -- a catastrophe for everyone involved.
A pillar of Israeli national-security policy since the Six- Day War is: Never get on the bad side of the U.S., which is Israel's main benefactor, weapons supplier and diplomatic protector. And yet Netanyahu and Barak appear to be willing to risk this relationship in order to set back the Iranian nuclear program. They have apparently refused so far to guarantee that they will provide a warning to Washington if they decide to order an air attack on Iran.
"No surprises" has been the rule governing U.S.-Israel relations for some time, and this is where the personality clash between the two leaders has real salience. If Netanyahu is under the impression that he can't please Obama no matter what he does, then he will be less inclined to listen to the president's cautionary words -- or to give the president warning of an impending attack.
"The Israelis might agree that the U.S. could do a better job in a military strike on Iran's nuclear sites, but my concern is that the personal relations between the two leaders could lead Israel to make decisions that are suboptimal and premature," David Makovsky, an expert on Israeli political leadership at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me. "There needs to be a baseline of confidence in this situation."
Israeli prime ministers and American presidents of wildly contrasting styles and policies have, in the past, achieved great things together. Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter, who forged the Israel-Egypt peace treaty with Anwar Sadat, make Netanyahu and Obama look like Cheech and Chong. But now, when the lives of so many people -- American soldiers, Israeli civilians and innocent Iranians -- hang in the balance, it's desperately important for the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister to build between them a minimum level of trust. Open mics don't help.