On a sunny day in May, the leader of an important U.S. ally from an unstable region of the world where critical American interests were at stake, was addressing a joint meeting of Congress presided over by the Speaker of the House and the Vice President.
The foreign leader who reiterated in his address the common interests and values shared by the U.S. and his country in containing the threat posed by global anti-western aggression received a standing ovation and his speech was persistently interrupted by loud applause by legislators, with lawmakers from the two major political parties lavishing him with praise.
Seven years after speaking before the U.S. Congress Ngo Dinh Diem, the President of South Vietnam was assassinated on November 2, 1963, in a military coup sanctioned by the administration of President John Kennedy. And in May 9, 1975, the same body that Diem addressed twelve years earlier, refused to continue supporting the government in Saigon, leading to collapse of South Vietnam.
No one should of course compare Diem’s despotic and corrupt regime to Binyamin Netanyahu’s democratically elected government. And while South Vietnam was an artificial entity and unreliable client state that was entirely dependent on American military and economic largesse for its survival, Israel’s existence as an independent nation-state is based on solid historical and legal foundations and is sustained by a robust economy and a strong military.
Yet one cannot but draw some parallels between the enormous symbolism that was attached to the addresses delivered by Diem and Netanyahu before Congress as the two leaders were asserting their countries’ role in helping the U.S. fight the enemy du jour — communism in 1957, Islamic terrorism in 2011 — while resisting calls for changes in their policies. The authoritarian and Catholic Diem dismissed demands for reforming the political system and integrating the Buddhist majority, while Netanyahu refused to accommodate pressure to soften his position over the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
In fact, unlike Netanyahu who seemed to go out of his way to antagonize President Barack Obama, Diem had enjoyed strong backing from the then occupant of the White House, President Dwight Eisenhower, as well as from Congress, where the respected Democratic Senator Mike Mansfield hailed the “the determination, the courage, the incorruptibility, and the integrity of President Diem” while the Republican Senator Jacob Javits dubbed him “one of the real heroes of the free world.”
Indeed, the grandiose rhetoric displayed by Diem and his American hosts could not by itself transform the strategic realities that started to unravel the relationship between Washington and Saigon during the Kennedy Administration. To put it in simple terms, the interests of the U.S. and South Vietnam ceased to converge, with Diem and his successors failing to adjust Saigon’s policies in response to American demands.
While Israelis should be proud that Netanyahu like Winston Churchill was invited to address Congress, they should also recall that the list of more than 110 foreign leaders and dignitaries that delivered speeches before joint meetings of Congress included in addition to Diem, also the Shah of Iran, President Ferdinand E. Marcos of the Philippines, and military dictators like President Syngman Rhee of South Korea and President Sukarno of Indonesia, who were also welcomed as staunch allies to Washington, only to be dumped by the Americans later on when their interests changed.
But unlike many of the other invitations to foreign leaders to address Congress which were seen at the time as an expression of gratitude for promoting policies that seemed to be in line with U.S. interests and values, the Bibi Spectacle on Capitol Hill was engineered by the Republican leaders as part of an apparent political strategy aimed at embarrassing President Obama and weakening his hands as he tries to revive the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and as he prepares from the 2012 re-election campaign.
In a way, this Republican-Likud produced gimmick recalls another dramatic address before a joint meeting of Congress. After being dismissed for insubordination by then President Harry Truman from his command United Nations Command in the Korean War, General Douglass MacArthur was invited to address Congress in 11 April 1951, with the Republicans hoping that the event could help launch MacArthur into the White House in the coming elections.
That did not happen. And while what became to be known as MacArthur’s Farewell Address is still regarded as a masterful exercise in rhetoric, it had no major political impact on President Truman who told his advisors that the speech was “one hundred percent bullshit.”
We will probably have to wait for a memoir by an Obama aide to discover if he felt the same way about Netanyahu’s speech. But if Obama is re-elected next year don’t be surprised if he treats Netanyahu as a member of the Republican-Likud team — who also happens to be the Prime Minister of Israel.