Effective Messaging When Bully Pulpits Duel
#TBT To When A Prime Minister of a Close U.S. Ally Gave a Controversial Speech in America
Let’s paint the scene: decades of ethnic and religious strife culminating in tragic violence. Thousands of innocents caught in the crosshairs would lose their lives or be forced to face the perils of refugee status.
The United States was walking a precarious diplomatic tightrope. Failure would result in an incredibly inconvenient political battle for a Democratic American President facing bitter battles at home towards the end of his second term.
Just then, the Prime Minister of a close ally flew to the U.S. to deliver a speech in front of a throng of American journalists. His timely words would knock the White House off of its perch and create animosity between the two world leaders as a result.
The year was 1999, the topic of the speech was Kosovo, and then British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s speech received overwhelming applause, much like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent speech before U.S. Congress.
Excerpts from the two speeches blur the lines between 1999 and 2015 even further:
“This is a just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but on values. We cannot let the evil of ethnic cleansing stand. We must not rest until it is reversed. We have learned twice before in this century that appeasement does not work. If we let an evil dictator range unchallenged, we will have to spill infinitely more blood and treasure to stop him later.” –British Prime Minister Tony Blair, 1999
“If anyone thinks this deal kicks the can down the road, think again. When we get down that road, we’ll face a much more dangerous Iran, a Middle East littered with nuclear bombs and a countdown to a potential nuclear nightmare . . . I’ve come here today to tell you we don’t have to bet the security of the world on the hope that Iran will change for the better. We don’t have to gamble with our future and with our children’s future. We can insist that restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program not be lifted for as long as Iran continues its aggression in the region and in the world. Before lifting those restrictions, the world should demand that Iran do three things. First, stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East . . . Second, stop supporting terrorism around the world. And third, stop threatening to annihilate my country, Israel, the one and only Jewish state.” –Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 2015
The messaging of Blair and Netanyahu are stunningly consistent. So too were the brusque reactions from the White House.
American Presidents do not take fondly to foreign leaders showing up in their country to deliver highly charged political speeches, especially not the type that place added pressure on their administration in a weak time.
But, much like appeasing Milosevic in 1999, hoping that the Mullahs, with an iron-grip control of Iran, will moderate their core beliefs if given more money, power and weapons, is a tough strategy to package. Especially when this strategy, replete with catastrophic risks, contrasts greatly with then-Senator Obama’s campaign speech in 2008 at the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) summit. His solicitation of support was to a crowd that knows all too well the dangers of appeasement, which he likewise invoked:
“The Iranian regime supports violent extremists and challenges us across the region. It pursues a nuclear capability that could spark a dangerous arms race and raise the prospect of a transfer of nuclear know-how to terrorists. Its president denies the Holocaust and threatens to wipe Israel off the map. The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.”
– Senator Barack Obama, 2008
To identify the victor in a communications battle is not easily decipherable in today’s modern media summaries of political trench warfare. Yet, despite the rancor, both Blair and Netanyahu went on to win their next elections, and won them big, but not by suddenly moderating their tone to appease the inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In fact, while President Obama “reassess relations” with Israel, it is highly likely that Netanyahu’s recent tone has emboldened Security Council members like France to take a harder line with Iran in the negotiations.
While it is anathema to the Jewish cause in the west to polarize support in the political right, truthfully, Netanyahu has only bid farewell to constituencies he never had and nearing hero status for those he galvanized.
Bottom line: if you want people to see that the emperor is not wearing any clothes, you have to yell. Loudly.