Turmoil across the Middle East casts new doubt on the old “realist” belief that U.S. interests are best served by warming to oil regimes while freezing out the Jewish state.
Could this be Israel’s moment in U.S. foreign policy?
As President Barack Obama embarks on a long-delayed visit to Jerusalem, observers have contorted themselves to explain why, after four years of studied avoidance, he would now suddenly head for the Holy Land.
Much has changed, however. Between Obama’s first inauguration and his second, the Middle East underwent a series of convulsions so profound as to beggar comparison with anything that has happened since decolonization in the mid-twentieth century. This upheaval, called the “Arab Spring” by optimists dreaming of an anti-authoritarian storm front leaving democratic May flowers in its wake, may in fact more closely resemble a bone-rattling tempest – a near’easter that might not end for a very long time, bringing neither freedom nor peace to a region never quite sure whether such Western luxuries are not themselves a devil in disguise.
Such developments should require a recalibration of the overall American foreign policy assessment. But how? And to where?
President Obama has been widely described as a Kissinger-style pragmatist, a “realist” for whom foreign relations must be undertaken according to the cool calculus of national interest rather than esoteric matters of the spirit, like morality, shared values, or sentimental attachments.
The new reality, however, poses a problem for realists. If in the past, they intuitively looked to the Arab states’ oil and diplomatic power as the most reliable sources of political and economic benefit for the United States, today these have become, very simply, much less reliable. And they have become as such precisely at a time when Israel, the darling of the dreamers, has stopped being quite the beleaguered underdog, emerging instead as a remarkably stable regime, a parliamentary democracy of the first order, with the most advanced military force in the region and arguably the sturdiest engine of economic growth in the entire developed world. Nor do these trends appear likely to reverse themselves: Tumultuous energy markets, buffeted by new bounties of natural gas and the prospect of shale oil or alternative fuels from around the world, do not bode well for the stability of the governments of the Gulf, already harassed by Iranian subversion; while Israel’s fiscal and monetary discipline have unleashed a torrent of creative potential that shows no signs of easing.
For foreign-policy realists, in other words, the Middle East appears to be crashing down around them. Opposition to Israel, grounded for so long in a “sober” look at American interests, today looks increasingly inebriated. Daily it becomes harder to avoid the fact that of all the regimes of the Middle East, Israel is the only one left standing: the only one that can be relied upon even to exist a decade from now, much less to maintain both the will and the means to protect American interests. This is a dramatic turn from how things looked not so long ago – and it may soon change the way foreign policy is conducted in Washington and other capitals across the world.
For more than half a century, the debate over American Middle East policy has been described as a clash between two ways of thinking. One side, which has sometimes been called “idealist,” has claimed that foreign policy should be determined principally out of a commitment to international actors who share similar ideals or institutions with the United States; or out of a moral commitment to support America’s friends, or to the “good guy” in a given conflict, or to the goal of spreading the goodness that America brings to the world. A vocal subset of this camp, known as “neoconservatives,” has argued for maximal support for Israel, as the sole democracy fighting authoritarian regimes, the liberal state fighting terrorists, a beacon of good. Political leaders heralded by this approach have included Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, George Shultz, and George W. Bush.
The other camp, that of the “realists,” has argued that such sentiments have no place in setting foreign policy and are dangerous to its proper conduct. Since foreign policy is meant to serve only the interests of the United States and its citizens, it must subordinate itself everywhere to a crisp and fairly narrow assessment of those interests; and that in a Middle East where oil reigns supreme – indeed, where the flow of oil is the only thing that makes the region of interest – support for Israel is little more than a needless provocation of a whole part of the world upon which America depends. Instead of favoring Israel, supporters of this approach turn instead to what the Cato Institute’s Leon Hadar called its “rival twin,” Saudi Arabia, along with the other emirates of the Persian Gulf. Their heroes include Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and George H.W. Bush.
This dichotomy of Israel vs. Saudi Arabia is an oversimplification, of course. Over the long course of the Cold War, the two poles of sentimental attachment to Israel and oil-driven support for the Arabs were often obscured by other aims, like stopping the spread of Communism, cleansing the stains of colonialism, establishing the rule of international law, and contending with Nasserism and pan-Arab nationalism and, after the late 1970s, the rise of Islamism. Nor did the actors always play their assigned roles: Kissinger and Nixon saw Israel as an important outpost in the fight against Soviet expansion, while Schultz and Reagan gave official recognition to the PLO against Israel’s objections. For this reason, George Kennan, the father of foreign-policy realism, rejected simplistic descriptions of foreign affairs, setting the tone for successive U.S. administrations by describing a vicious, violent world in which the cardinal sin was naïveté, followed closely behind by moral or ideological distraction. He dismissed the United Nations as fostering a dangerous illusion of the comity of states and the supremacy of sovereignty; he distrusted romantic ideologies of any color; and he didn’t care much for Zionism either, saying it was grounded in “extreme objectives” that worked “to the detriment of overall U.S. security objectives.”
But despite this, the two conceptual poles of “Israel is our embattled friend” vs. “Oil is our biggest strategic interest abroad” have tugged at the American debate at every level for at least a generation. Since the end of the Cold War, and especially since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, realists opposed to America’s strong ties to Israel have become increasingly vocal in calling for change, seizing on every failed or misguided policy as proof that they were right all along. Even if Israel was crucial in helping stem and even reverse Soviet expansion in the Middle East in the late 1960s and 1970s, they argue, that function is no longer of significant strategic value. “As the Cold War receded into history,” write John J. Mearsheimer and Steven M. Walt in The Israel Lobby, “Israel’s declining strategic value became hard to miss.” Without the larger struggle against Communism, support for Israel does little other than undermine support for America across the Arab world; while the excessive, ideologically driven flag-waving for the Jewish state has led America into a series of blunders in the Middle East, most notably the Iraq war. “Backing Israel may have yielded strategic benefits in the past, but the benefits have declined sharply in recent years,” they conclude, “while the economic and diplomatic costs have increased. Instead of being a strategic asset, in fact, Israel has become a strategic liability for the United States.”
Can Walt and Mearsheimer still call Israel “a strategic liability for the United States”?
This conclusion is buttressed by a second claim. Alongside the Israel-as-provocation argument, never far behind, is the claim that Israel’s failure to reach a peace accord with the Palestinians continues to be the principal millstone around the U.S.’s neck in the Middle East, and the central factor turning Israel from an asset into a liability. If Israel were not so intransigent regarding the Palestinians, the argument goes, opponents to the U.S. across the region would temper their tone, and American hegemony would be far easier to achieve without spilling American soldiers’ blood. In an interview with David Ignatius, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft put it this way:
We [Americans] are now seen not as impartial but as supporting one side. The Arabs have largely lost faith in us because of that, and because of Iraq. If the peace process is driven to a successful conclusion, I think we will change the Arabs’ attitude. They will behave more as they did in 1990, when Kuwait was invaded and they joined us in restoring the situation. I think they’ll be prepared to play a role in Iraq that they’re not prepared to play now. And it will restore balance with Iran.
The conclusion to be drawn, according to many realists, is that the U.S. should put significant pressure on Israel to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. This, however, requires restoring America’s role as an honest broker, which in turn requires creating what President Obama once reportedly referred to as “daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem. Or as Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as National Security Advisor under President Jimmy Carter, put it recently, “I don’t think there’s an implicit obligation for the United States to follow like a stupid mule whatever the Israelis do.”
With all the hyperventilation that characterizes the American public debate, with its cable channels and talk-radio and Twitter feeds, we should welcome a bit of reason and clear-headedness into foreign policy. Instead, however, things have gone very much the other way. In recent years the debate over the Middle East has taken on tones that go beyond the professional and into profound mutual recrimination between the two camps. Instead of viewing it as a well-intentioned disagreement, realists have often spoken of a vast “Israel lobby” in which American interests are subordinated to Israeli ones, supported by sentimental American Jews whose loyalty is in doubt, or evangelicals whose sobriety is in doubt. Supporters of Israel, on the other hand, have frequently seen anti-Semitism lurking behind efforts to keep American foreign policy on what they see as the wrong side of the moral equation. The case for supporting Israel, they contend, is so obvious that any opposition to it must stem from nefarious origins.
But all this rancor has enabled people on both sides to avoid the difficult questions raised by the massive destabilization of the Arab world in the last few years. For to be a realist carries a dual burden: Not just advocating for an unsentimental, business-like approach to foreign policy in the face of so very much passion, but also continuously to weigh and re-weigh that balance of interests, letting the conclusions fall where they may – even if they are uncomfortable, even if they involve changing one’s mind with the change in climate, just as a wise investor will sometimes say “buy” and sometimes say “sell.” So while it is understandable that realist scholars and diplomats might have resisted support for Israel when it was grounded in ideology, moral claims, or religious faith, there must nonetheless come a time when events on the ground force a revision in what a dry calculus of interest yields.
From the perspective of America’s long-term interests, the Middle East has simply come undone, and is begging for a new approach.
Just consider how far things have gone. Egypt, the greatest recipient of American aid in the Arab world, has been overthrown and is in upheaval. Turkey, the keystone of NATO’s Middle East posture, has begun what looks like a slouch toward neo-Ottoman authoritarianism, jailing journalists and crushing opposition. Syria is in a brutal civil war that may not end soon, Libya has overthrown Muammar Gaddafi and is quite unhinged, Lebanon has effectively come under Hezbollah’s control, Tunisia just had its liberal opposition leader assassinated, and Mali has dragged French troops to war against al-Qaeda affiliates. Yemen has endless al-Qaeda problems; Iraq is witnessing a deterioration despite all those years and lives lost. Bahrain, the UAE, and Qatar are looking over their shoulders across the Gulf at Iran, and dealing with angry local Shi’ites. Jordan feels increasing pressure from within, with Islamist demonstrators becoming more brazen and well-organized than ever. And Saudi Arabia, the lynchpin of American oil interests, is facing its most difficult financial and political crisis in a generation. All this, while Iran continues to pursue a nuclear weapon that could radically shift the balance of power in the Persian Gulf and beyond – just when the United States needs stability there more than ever before.
This scenario sounded unbelievably far-fetched just a few years ago. Even after the “Arab Spring” began, most observers assumed that with the passage of time, at least some of the states in turmoil would reach a kind of resolution – either through the restoration of the old regime, the creation of a new Islamist one, or democratization. Instead, not a single country in question has persuasively stabilized. Certainly, not every one of these will end up being overrun by angry mobs and replaced with anarchy or Islamists. In some cases, the United States will offer the necessary support to restore order and protect oil fields and military assets. In others, stability will return on its own, and not necessarily under the rule of anti-American Islamists.
However, it is fair to say that at no point since the Cold War have American interests in the Middle East been so thoroughly destabilized and threatened, in so many different places, at the same time. The time has come to recognize the severity of the circumstance–and its implications for American foreign policy.
In international affairs, of course, it is always hard to know which horse to bet on. One must have a profound understanding of utterly alien cultures to allow fruitful predictions of the stability of regimes, and that understanding is, usually, not easily attained. Direct intervention to support friendly regimes often fans the flames of opposition, while neglecting them breeds resentment and opens the door for alternative patrons, like China or Russia.
At no point since the Cold War have American interests in the Middle East been so thoroughly destabilized, in so many different places, at the same time.
At the same time, if we accept the realist approach, we must also concede that the most prized asset an ally can afford over the long term is stability. If foreign affairs are like investments, with victory going to the coolest calculator rather than the steamy dreamer, then the management of national interests should be seen not unlike planning for one’s retirement. Fluctuating markets may be fun for speculators but not for anyone attempting to steer a ship through rough waters. If Persian Gulf oil is the most reliable source of national energy so long as the Emirs are kept happy and safe, then America should keep them happy and safe; but if it cannot do so, as in the 1970s, then America should look for alternate sources of energy, whether through oil or natural gas or alternative fuels, and should build a vast reserve to prevent shocks from recurring. And in fact, this has precisely been American policy through successive administrations, bringing America to a greater position of energy independence than at any point in the last half-century.
If this reasoning is correct, however, then the Arab Spring presents realists with a far more troubling, even seismic, shift in the long-term calculus of American interests in the region than meets the eye. With the months turning into years, it is increasingly difficult to consider Arab instability as a momentary hitch. With Iran constantly wiggling its fingers into the puddings of Iraq, the Gulf States, Egypt, across Africa, even to Latin America, it is increasingly difficult to regard “Israel/Palestine” as the true source of the region’s instability, or as the principal threat to long-term American interests. In the battle between Zionist romantics and Palestinian romantics, nothing has captured the imagination of so many in such contradictory directions; but in the chill of realpolitik, these are almost meaningless to the flow of oil, especially when compared with Iran’s destabilizing efforts. Certainly Israel’s existence makes it harder for some Arab leaders to publicly embrace American hegemony. But Israel’s existence has long ceased to be a matter of debate outside certain radical circles; and despite the Arab rulers’ discomfort, oil to the West has continued flowing. And so, just as the U.S. can no longer rely solely on Gulf oil and must prepare alternatives such as natural gas, even at the risk of further undermining global oil prices, so too must Israel be reconsidered as a possible stable long-term alternative to Saudi Arabia as the cornerstone of Middle East pragmatism, a crucial hedging of diplomatic bets, even if it sometimes disturbs the Arab leaders.
The realists, at the end of the day, can no longer afford to ignore Israel’s value.
How may that value be measured? With every passing year, Israel has emerged as an increasingly imposing edifice of strategic, economic, and political growth in the region, and as stable an ally as the U.S. could reasonably hope for. Without underplaying the enormity of the Iranian nuclear threat, Israel’s conventional military edge has advanced considerably with the emergence of cyberwarfare, drones, satellite-based intelligence, and missile defense. We do not know every trick in the Israeli playbook, but suffice to say that in every cutting-edge field of warfare, the Israelis are among the key players, while the Saudis are not. And with the deepening of ties with India, Israel has become one of the top military exporters on earth.
This fact alone – that all things being equal, Israel could theoretically vanquish the combined armed forces of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and the Emirates and still get back in time for tea – should be enough to give realists pause in assessing American interests in the region. No less formidable, however, has been Israel’s economy, which weathered the global financial crises better than perhaps any other developed country. Since 2004, Israel’s GDP has grown between 4 and 6 percent every year but one – in 2009, when it bucked the global recession and registered a modest, yet positive, 0.85 percent growth – whereas the growth rates of oil countries have depended mostly on the rapidly changing price of a single commodity, a factor that not only calls into question their long-term stability but also should raise eyebrows among realists for another reason: These countries’ greatest boom years will always mean higher energy costs for American businesses and consumers and a direct strain on the American economy. The oil barons’ success, in other words, always comes with a direct, measurable price to the American economy, meaning the U.S. has entered an alliance that is much less win-win, much more zero-sum, than should be considered ideal.
Israel’s economic prowess, on the other hand, is real, diverse and entrepreneurial, and contributes directly to global economic well-being. No longer the poor kid on the block, Israel’s per capita real GDP (purchasing power parity) is now 26th in the world, its absolute GDP 42nd. Its currency is sufficiently reliable as to include it among the world’s 17 internationally traded currencies (the only Middle Eastern country to do so) and in recent years it joined the OECD as well. According to the UN’s Human Development Index, which measures a combination of life expectancy, education, and income, Israel is ranked 17th in the world – ahead of not only the entire Middle East, but also Great Britain, Belgium, Austria, and France. Thanks to responsible fiscal policies of successive governments and monetary policies of successive Central Bank chairmen, Israel has dropped its debt-to-GDP ratio at a time when everyone else raised theirs, raised its international credit ratings while everyone else’s were being cut, and kept both inflation and unemployment comparatively low while encouraging constant growth.
The result of this economic boom, rarely discussed in a foreign-policy context, has been an increase in Israel’s overall diplomatic profile as well, at least in places that count. While Israel supporters often speak of the country’s isolation, pointing to unfavorable votes in the UN General Assembly or the UN Human Rights Council, a realist looking for reasons to support the Jewish state might notice that European leaders have been far more explicitly supportive of Israel in the last decade than, say, a generation ago when the UN declared Zionism to be racism and the Arab boycott was having its way in countless international forums. In countries like the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany, voters have brought to power leaders that have no qualms about expressing vibrant support for Israel, even if they do not always agree with its policies. In Eastern Europe, support for Israel is high. In the U.S., the two main parties vie to show which is more “pro-Israel,” while Canada has become Israel’s most steadfast supporter in the international arena. This is not meant to overstate the immense challenges Israel faces in the diplomatic tussle, but just to highlight how much stronger its presentation is today than it was not so long ago.
And as a vibrant democratic culture, a creative culture, Israel has simply become a much more important and influential country than at any point in the past. Israel is not without its political scandals, and the last year has presented its fair share, including the indictment of a sitting foreign minister and the revelation of a spy scandal that threatens to shake up the entire Mossad. And yet, as in any functional democracy–and unlike the authoritarian regimes around it – Israel appears to emerge from each scandal just a little stronger, more open, more dynamic, and more capable of facing the punishing challenges of life in the Middle East. From a cultural standpoint, Israel has moved into the position of an exporter, with its homegrown television creators, filmmakers, chefs, architects, jazz musicians, vintners, supermodels, and fashion designers taking up a place of honor around the world. Certainly it is a country with more to offer its people, and more reason for them to give their best, than anywhere else in the region.
Again, to draw a parallel in business terms, Israel today may be seen as a smoothly growing mid-sized company in a future-oriented market – like Google a decade ago, perhaps – while Saudi Arabia and the Emirates look more like a large, profitable airline: one that makes money today but, for reasons entirely outside of its control, could find itself collapsing under conditions that are not so difficult to imagine, such as political turmoil or a big swing in oil prices. This does not suggest that Israel’s position will remain perfectly stable, or provide a promise that there will be no more major wars involving Israel. But it does suggest that in an increasingly turbulent region, the U.S. ought to be placing its bets as safely as possible.
The present assessment, grounded as it is in a realistic approach to foreign affairs, will likely raise a string of objections. Realists will immediately point out that Israel’s successes are the result of billions of dollars in American financial support, and therefore cannot be taken too seriously in the scheme of vital American interests. Israel, it is said over and over again, wouldn’t exist without American aid. So why should America treat it as a global force?
While the argument may resonate emotionally with anyone looking to resist the calls to support Israel, it makes very little business sense. First, because if Israel has leaned on American foreign aid, it is still better than what the oil barons have done, which is to survive entirely on the strength of a vast American military deployment in and around the Persian Gulf, which may not be budgeted under the same line item as foreign aid, but has cost the U.S. many billions of dollars while putting its soldiers in the direct line of fire, including two hot wars in the last two decades. Second, because one does not abandon an investment just because it has begun paying off: If Israel has been launched into the role of successful, growing power because of American money, this would argue for continuing to make sure that investment grows as much as possible and brings long-term dividends to its investors, rather than withering on the vine by cutting off support.
But most importantly, the argument falls flat when we look at how small American aid to Israel has actually become over time. For it is not enough to look at a number in isolation; to say anything sensible about “a lot” or “a little,” we must measure it as a portion of the overall budget and of a nation’s economy. In 1985, the year U.S. aid to Israel reached its current overall size, Americans gave Israel $3.4 billion in aid, which was 0.35 percent of the federal budget, and 0.08 percent of the nation’s GDP. In 2011, the number was still just over $3 billion–but now represented just 0.08 percent of the budget, and 0.02 percent of GDP. In other words, the financial burden on Americans has been reduced by three-quarters. At the same time, the degree to which American aid was actually “propping up” Israel had dropped even more dramatically. In 1985, Israel’s budget and GDP stood at $15 billion and $24.1 billion, respectively, and American aid accounted for 22.7 and 14.1 percent, respectively. By 2011, with Israel’s budget at $75 billion and its GDP at $243 billion, the percentages had plummeted to 4 and 1.25 percent, respectively. In other words: Israel’s actual dependence on American aid has also dropped – by more than four-fifths.
None of this suggests that Israel need not feel gratitude toward the U.S. for many years of vital support, or that the U.S. does not have a right to demand something in return for its money. What it does suggest, however, is that any interest-calculus arguments based on claims that Americans are shouldering an immense economic burden to artificially keep Israel’s heart beating have begun moving asymptotically closer to nonsense.
Other objections to the present argument will be made on moral grounds – an uncomfortable position for self-described realists for whom moral judgments are supposed to be left out of the foreign policy calculus. Israel indeed continues to manage the affairs of West Bank Palestinians through a military occupation, one that involves too much violence and sadly has no end in sight despite the fact that most Israelis now support a two-state solution. Yet it is difficult to know how exactly that fact can be factored into a realistic assessment of American foreign policy. For however unpleasant it may be to Americans’ moral sensibilities, nothing the Israelis have ever done is even a wisp of garlic when set against the brutality of Hosni Mubarak, or the barbaric Saudi regime, or the Turks who still deny their genocide of the Armenians and incarcerate journalists who “insult Turkishness.” In judging foreign countries for the purpose of policymaking, one must choose: either you can pick your friends on a moral grounds, in which case Israel wins hands down; or you can’t, and the occupation’s moral questionability is irrelevant to American foreign policy.
It is true that the United States cannot force the Arab governments or populations to love Israel, and that support for Israel will always come at a price. But history has proven that the U.S. may render Arab objections functionally meaningless when it acts clearly and consistently in accordance with its own interests and conveys this to Arab leaders. The most obvious example was the Arab boycott: In the 1970s, the Arab League launched a boycott against any company doing business with Israel. The U.S. responded by making it illegal for U.S. companies to honor the boycott. This was not just out of kindness to Israel, but mainly out of concern for the freedom, rights, and profitability of American businesses, and the economic implications of such a precedent. Once it became clear that their strategy would not work, the boycott failed, and today countless major corporations freely do business with both Israel and the Arab world.
In other words, so long as Arab regimes believe that the U.S. is acting according to pressure from the “Israel lobby,” they will counter that pressure with pressure of their own. But the moment support from Israel derives from an administration’s conviction as to the actual interests of the United States, the picture changes dramatically.
The biggest trouble with calculating a balance of interest, as the realists must surely realize, is that interest is far less quantifiable than they would like to believe. How does one weigh propping up an economy based entirely on a single commodity, but which gives large short-term benefit, as opposed to supporting a diverse and innovative society based on shared values? How can one weigh possible outcomes, when they involve such imponderables as “leadership”? How much may one discount a cost-benefit analysis for long-term regime instability resulting from fluctuations in that commodity’s market, or the contagious effects of popular revolution, or simple hatred taught in schools? And how does one weigh the damage done to foreign interests if the U.S. is perceived as being disloyal to its friends? How easy will it be to convince, for example, the leaders of Bahrain that the U.S. will protect them from Iranian bullying if they become convinced that the Americans will not even stand behind Israel? These factors, impossible to quantify, must be somehow weighed in if you believe that foreign policy must be conducted on a set of scales.
More importantly, such an approach to foreign policy must, if it is to be genuine, include the possibility of a tipping point – a moment at which the balance of interests, viewed without sentimental attachment or ideological investment, moves the scales the other way, to favor a stable, creative, powerful liberal democratic regime, one that has weathered endless strategic and economic travails, one that is not constantly tossed about by the winds of oil prices or fanatic rebellion.
When taken on balance, the case for a vibrant, explicit alliance between the United States and Israel has never been stronger. Whereas once it may have seemed sensible to rely exclusively on the Arab world to promote American interests, today the calculus has begun to shift toward the conclusion that the more strongly and publicly the U.S. makes its support for Israel known, the easier it will be for Gulf states to put trust in the American commitment to supporting them in the face of Iran; the more forces of liberalization in Syria and Libya will take heart that the U.S. could support them as well; and the more opponents and violent enemies will see the U.S., Israel, and other democratic governments as part of a single, indomitable column of free, creative, and strong nations.
All of this, of course, puts the realists before an uncomfortable dilemma: Either they will remain true to their realism, and see that the scales have moved; or they will continue criticizing American support for Israel regardless of what changes on the ground, and risk accusations that there never really were any scales to begin with, and their dislike for the Jewish state was grounded in more irrational, baser things.
We look forward to hearing from them, either way. With President Obama’s visit to Israel, we may already have.
Banner Photo: TheTower/Aviram Valdman