Editor’s Note – Lost in the anticipation of the “Iran Deal” completion which came today, John Boehner was interviewed in a wide ranging manner about his visit to Israel published yesterday and we recommend it highly for perspective.
JERUSALEM — John Boehner thinks the “world is on fire.” And America isn’t doing nearly enough to stamp it out.
The House speaker’s decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before Congress last month sparked criticism that Boehner was inappropriately injecting himself into foreign affairs and antagonizing President Barack Obama. But just hours after a friendly return visit with Netanyahu on Wednesday, Boehner made clear in an interview with POLITICO here he’s not backing down and will remain firmly engaged in the nation’s foreign policy.
“I wouldn’t have believed that I would be involved in as much foreign policy as I am today,” Boehner said in his hotel near Jerusalem’s Old City. “And it certainly isn’t by choice. It’s just that the world is on fire. And I don’t think enough Americans or enough people in the administration understand how serious the problems that we’re facing in the world are.”
Indeed, with the Middle East in a constant state of upheaval, and the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu at a low point, Boehner has emerged as an unlikely power center in U.S. foreign policy.
Sitting in his hotel suite on a chilly, gray day — after a lunch with Netanyahu in the prime minister’s office complex — the Republican leader said a six-country journey mostly across the Middle East has left him more worried than before. He said his theory that the U.S. doesn’t have a coherent foreign policy has been borne out. He’s concerned about the U.S.-led talks with Iran and has been most surprised by “the boldness of the Iranians” in exerting their influence throughout the region. The “trouble they’re causing,” he said, “raised my eyebrows.”
It’s quite a shift for Boehner, the nation’s top elected Republican, who is second in line to the presidency. He came to power envisioning shrinking government and slashing budgets, but foreign policy has emerged as a central element of his legacy. Boehner hasn’t opposed the White House at every turn on foreign policy — in several instances, he publicly aligned himself with Obama, but at other times he’s vocally challenged the president.
Indeed, instead of shying from the criticism he received after inviting Netanyahu to address Congress, Boehner offered a blistering critique of how the U.S. is dealing with growing uncertainty in the Middle East.
“We’ve got some big, serious problems, and there’s no overarching strategy to deal with it. You’ve heard me say this for two years. I am even more convinced of it today,” Boehner said. He added, “Here’s the essence of what I’ve learned on this trip: The problem is growing faster than what we and our allies are doing to try to stop it.”
Boehner did say that, one way or another, Congress will move to change U.S. policy toward Iran. If there’s no deal, he said, Congress would pass a bill imposing new sanctions. If there is a deal, he said he would have to review it, but he is “sure we’ll have a reaction.” As he watches the talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, Boehner said he thinks the Obama administration is too eager to cut a deal.
“What bothers me is it looks like the administration is so hungry for a deal just to have a deal so they can say they have a deal,” Boehner said. “The rest of the world wants something real out of this.”
Boehner said he expects to meet with Obama when he returns to America to discuss, among other topics, foreign policy.
“When you look at what we’re doing, we’re involved with some allies trying to hold Iraq together,” he said, describing the message he plans to deliver to the White House. “We’re involved with some of our allies in trying to deal with ISIL. And we’re in these talks with the people who describe us as Satan, like we’re going to come to some agreement with the Iranians, while they’re spreading terror all over the Middle East.
“We’ve got allies who are doing a little of this and a little of that. But when I talk about overarching strategy, what I’m talking about is a large plan that involves intelligence, it involves the military, it ought to involve Islamic leaders, there ought to be a communications operation — there are lots of components of this that need to happen and be coordinated with our allies if we’re going to tackle this problem.”
Boehner’s allies think he’s underappreciated when it comes to his savvy on foreign policy and his support of many of Obama’s initiatives on the global stage. People close to him say that despite the criticism from Democrats that he’s undermining the president, he still adheres to the belief that there is one commander in chief and he should be the one to set the nation’s foreign policy.
Indeed, they say, he stood up for the White House’s use of certain controversial surveillance techniques when they came under fire. He worked behind the scenes to ensure congressional approval of Obama’s plan to train and arm Syrian rebels. He supported some of Obama’s policies in Afghanistan and sent a memo to his colleagues laying out — with caveats — why he thought it was a good idea. He has, however, rejected Obama’s timeline for withdrawal. And he said Wednesday that he was pleased to hear that the Obama administration would lift the arms ban in Egypt — he said he has been “pushing” the administration to reconsider that policy.
But Boehner said he believes that Congress has a robust role in foreign policy that needs to be respected. When he is briefed, he wants to hear from Obama himself — not an aide. He has pressed the administration to provide detailed briefings — not just perfunctory phone calls — prior to a change in policy. He said in the interview that the White House’s outreach has been “adequate,” without elaborating, adding that he hasn’t heard much about the Iran talks.
While Boehner’s prime interest in Congress has been in cutting the budget and reducing taxes, he has long harbored a willingness to take action on foreign policy. On Obama’s inauguration day in 2009, White House adviser Greg Craig told a group of congressional leaders that the president planned to close Guantánamo Bay without the consent of Congress. With Democrats in control of the House, Boehner used the appropriations process to ensure that never happened. (Craig did not reply to an email seeking comment.)
In 2011, he gave what turned out to be a prescient speech about emerging problems in Russia. He had his staffers watch the movie “Miracle” at a staff retreat to remind them of the country’s spirit when the U.S. men’s hockey toppled the Russians in the 1980 Olympics.
Now, over the next few months, Boehner will have an opportunity to continue to have an outsized impact on foreign policy. The Obama administration is seeking a resolution explicitly authorizing military force against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In meetings and conversations, Boehner personally pushed Obama to send a proposal to Capitol Hill, but he is now skeptical it will come together.
“If I see a strategy that I think can work, then you can write an [Authorization for Use of Military Force] that supports it,” he said. “But when the president asks for less authority than he has today, you begin to scratch your head. And, secondly, I think they’re looking at this entire problem with blinders on. They need to take a broader view of a bigger strategy to deal with these growing problems.”
With parts of Iraq falling to ISIL, Boehner said he told Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that allowing Iranian soldiers to help patrol Tikrit was an “embarrassment to our country.” He said the U.S. should consider repurposing troops to help the Iraqi army fight more efficiently.
“We have nearly 4,000 troops there today,” Boehner said. “And they are mostly advising and training. But I think, frankly, if we had some of those people out in the field helping to direct, it would help the Iraqi forces in a big way. So those are boots on the ground, but we’re not talking about sending 100,000 people in there.”
While most people are fixated on a rift between America and Israel, Boehner used his time here to downplay it. He strode to a podium with Netanyahu here, and, in brief remarks, Boehner said “while we may have political disagreements from time to time,” the two nations share a strong bond.
During his visit, Boehner traveled with the Israeli Defense Forces to see the “terror tunnels” near Gaza. He ate lunch with Netanyahu and met with the U.S. Ambassador Daniel Shapiro and the staff at the American consulate in Jerusalem. He also spent time with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon in the brand new Waldorf Astoria, located around the corner from the U.S. Consulate.
Boehner dismissed tensions between Obama and Netanyahu as a “little political spat.” The speaker said he doesn’t expect Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama “to get any worse.” Instead, “I do expect it will get better,” the Ohio Republican said.
“No one should look at big problems between Israel and America. There are big problems between Bibi and our president,” Boehner said. He did say Obama’s administration was trying to “impose a peace process on the prime minister of Israel when he has no partner to sit down and talk to.”
“At the end of the day, we need them and they need us,” Boehner said of Israel. “And OK, so you got two people who may not be in love with each other, but the fact is we’re great allies and there’s a lot going on in the world and we need each other.”