Bibi vs. Frost

There is a lot to say about Israeli Prime Minster’s Benjamin Netanyahu’ speech to Congress today. I could object to his use of worst case scenarios and overstatements of Iranian power. Instead I’m taking issue with his treatment of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. My point, besides being pedantic, is that Frost’s realist sensibility makes him a poor reference for Bibi.

Netanyahu tells us that we face a crossroads. One path is the deal being negotiated, which may contain the Iranian nuclear program temporarily but will “lead to a nuclear-armed Iran whose unbridled aggression will inevitably lead to war.” Or we can do the difficult thing and hold out for a better deal, which “would prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, a nuclearized Middle East and the horrific consequences of both to all of humanity.”

To help us navigate the crossroads, Netanyahu references Robert Frost:

You don’t have to read Robert Frost to know. You have to live life to know that the difficult path is usually the one less traveled, but it will make all the difference for the future of my country, the security of the Middle East and the peace of the world, the peace, we all desire. 

One problem here is that Netanyahu’s evaluation of the options suggests that his preference is far less difficult. The path that obviously avoids inevitable war and horrific consequences is sure to be the more popular, easier one.

Another issue is that the poem doesn’t address difficulty. A harder road may be less popular, but the poem doesn’t say so. The traveler can’t see far down the roads, so he can’t know which is more difficult. 

The biggest issue with Netanyahu’s reading of the poem is typical of those that only read the end:  “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”

That bit alone gives you the standard “be unconventional,” conclusion. But the speaker earlier says that he actually can’t tell what’s less traveled. Prior travelers have worn the two roads “really about the same.” But later (ages and ages hence) he’ll tell us (with a sigh) that bravely taking the road less traveled made all the difference. The sighing and stuttering and imprecision (was it a good difference?) are theatrics. A stab in the dark becomes a pat lesson about decision-making.

That authorial wink suggests that Frost would not see this poem, even correctly read, as a guide on whether to take a year off before enrolling at Vassar, let alone international politics. Still, he’d probably agree that its treatment of choice is at odds with Netanyahu’s.

The choice in the poem is uncertain and final. The traveler can’t know what will work out better, because he can’t see too far ahead. He wants to go both ways but cannot get back to the choosing point. So he has to pick irreversibly and sacrifice something. Frost here is with Auden: “Look if you like, but you will have to leap.” Not all choices are like that, but the easy ones aren’t much worth talking about.

This is a realist sentiment. The tragedy that realists describe is that politics, especially the international kind, requires choice between competing goods amid uncertainty. Risks are on both sides. Someone always insists otherwise—that one way reconciles values, maximizing liberty, humanitarianism and U.S. security and every other good thing. It is pleasant to believe that, as it removes tragedy from choice. Netanyahu’s rhetoric is like that. If you believe it, in doing his bidding, we ultimately sacrifice nothing. Then there’s really no choice at all. If there’s a lesson in The Road Not Taken, it’s to be wary of such advice.