The visit by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington this past week and the firestorm that surrounded it pointed, among other things, to a fundamental if largely underpublicized distinction mostly of interest to political scientists but occasionally to wider audiences. That distinction was the difference between politics and public policy, including their interaction and the junction between them. Usually, debate about this distinction does not make much difference to citizen observers of the political process; last week it did.
The distinction is reasonably straightforward; political scientists disagree about some of it in detail, but political scientists disagree about just about everything. Politics is generally concerned with the political process: who is part of it, how people gain access to and control of it, and how they use their access to affect the actual policies of the government on various issues. Policy, on the other hand, deal with so-called outcomes of the process–the decisions that are made by political authority concerning how political issues will be determined, e.g. what will be the American position on global warming, or immigration, or Israel, or whatever.
The two concerns are obviously related to one another. Politics affects, even determines, policy, and vice versa. The heart of the realm of politics is who has political power, and in democratic systems, that means who wins elections. The heart of American politics is who gains control of the electoral process and gets elected and thus who can seek to implement different policy choices. At the same time, the policy positions that elected officials and aspirants espouse are basic data on which aspirants and office holders campaign for sontinuing support.
Both aspects have become intensely controversial. Particularly in the realm of foreign policy, there used to be an unwritten rule that political disagreements should be muted in public so that the country maintained a single, united face toward foreign governments. The basic statement of this philosophy was that “politics ends at the water’s edge.” At the same time, the historical ideal has been one wherein politics was conducted with a certain level of decorum, civility, and restraint, particularly in terms of partisan invective. These conventions have not, of course, always been honored in American history, and they certainly are not today: there is no apparent effort to assume a common face toward the world, and common restraint and good manners are almost archaic concepts.
Policy disagreements have become an inflamed part of the hyper-partisan environment in which politics is played out. This is most clearly evident in the childish, superheated debate about medical care, and it extends to foreign policy as well. Historically, once again, foreign policies (the policies of the U.S. government toward different places and over different issues) were normally debated quietly within policy elites and among decision-makers, who might disagree, sometimes vehemently and fundamentally, about these matters, but generally confined their disagreements to debates among themselves. That is also clearly not the case today.
The Netanyahu visit flap exemplifies the system tun amok. It began with a policy address by President Obama at the State Department in which he enunciated as U.S. policy one of the two basic policy positions that policy advocates who study the region put forward. Substantively, it was a position with which one could disagree, but it was certainly nothing radical or unusual. The fact that Obama made the address on live television just before the arrival of Netanyahu in the country politicized it, however, especially since Netanyahu is the champion of the alternative policy within those same debates. The hinge of that disagreement is whether the pre-1967 West Bank boundary should be the basis for negotiations between Israel and Palestine; Netanyahu voiced his side (also for TV) in his address to Congress. The two men pouted their way through a final press conference and publicly maintained that there was no fundamental difference between them and that they remained respectful friends. Hardly anyone believed that.
This whole circus mashed politics and policy together. Beyond simple policy preference, it is unclear why the president made such a public show of highlighting what had been U.S. policy for three administrations (at least), but the effect was a political more than a policy firestorm. Republicans leaped at the opportunity to attack a president whom they want desperately to defeat in next year’s election (a process that is not going well, to put it mildly). Former Governor Mitt Romney declared the president had thrown Israel “under the bus”, an open pander to sympathetic Jews and their social conservative supporters in the United States, and the Netanyahu speech before Congress–complete with standing ovations–was orchestrated as much to embarass Obama as it was to support the Netanyahu hard line (which he tried, unconvincingly, to argue is actually conciliatory) on peace negotiations. The political debate was not so much about policy as it was about 2012 election-year politics, pure and simple.
Policy, and particularly calm debate about it, of course, was the (intended?) victim of all the politics. Obama insisted the Israelis must offer conciliatory concessions to get talks started again, with the 1967 borders as a starting point. The Israelis (the Netanyahu government, that is) is absolutely opposed to that position, and fied back that it is willing to make many concessions, but it is the Palestinians who refuse to negotiate. Lost in Netanyahu’s profession was an arguable unwillingness to make concessions to which the Palestinians might agree. In all his visit, it seemed to me that the most telling statement he made (in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer) was that a sine qua non for any final agreement establishing a Palestinian state must include provision for a permanent Israeli military presence along the west bank of the Jordan River. Regardless of whether that it is good Israeli security policy, it is an absolute deal breaker in terms of peace negotiations.
The politics and the policy intertwined. The politics replaced a dialogue on policy with an attempt to gain political advantage from the policy disagreement. In the end, both sides slinked away from the political interchange with the sides of the debate intact and no progress made on resolving the policy issue. Politics, as is so often the case, trumped policy–probably to the detriment of both.