My new op-ed on President Obama’s deal to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons briefly made a point that’s crucial to the domestic U.S. politics that will help determine the agreement’s fate in Congress: on what it means for Israel’s security. Given this central political reality and my own strong “pro-Israel” views, it’s time to spell out what I mean.
First, some truth in advertising. If you’re familiar with my writings, you know that I believe that the core debate over Israel’s security, relationship with the Palestinian Arabs, and future, isn’t close to a fair fight on the merits. Dominating the “pro-Israel” side are pragmatic, morally clear-eyed adults. Dominating their critics’ ranks is a wide variety of psychologically juvenile critics who range from simple naifs determined to wish away the Hobbesian realities of international affairs to guilt-ridden liberals and others farther left who instinctively assume that all unsuccessful peoples – including the Palestinians – mainly have someone else to blame for their plight.
And in a tragic irony, I’ve argued, the Palestinians’ self-styled champions and even many self-styled impartial arbiters– including many U.S. Presidents and foreign governments – have actually prolonged their misery by encouraging them to seek utterly unrealistic goals.
This isn’t to say that I don’t consider valid any criticisms of individual Israeli policies and leaders. And of course, many have come from within Israel itself. It is to say that I believe that the vast bulk of Israel’s critics support positions whose adoption would not ultimately permit that country to survive as a Jewish state.
For such reasons, I suspect that I surprised many readers of my Iran article with the argument that Congress should approve it because it strengthens American security on net (if modestly) – especially if a Yes vote is accompanied by measures that reduce U.S. vulnerability to threats emanating from the Middle East. More important, I probably surprised them further by contending that, having marginalized the Middle East, American support for Israel is likely to increase and become even more reliable because the United States could pursue these policies as a matter of choice rather than strategic necessity.
But the sooner current American supporters of Israel assimilate this notion, the better for them and for the Jewish state. For Iran deal or not, the Middle East is certain to recede as a U.S. foreign policy priority. As a result, from a purely self-interested standpoint, Israel’s security will recede as a U.S. foreign policy priority. Indeed, this transformation has been brewing for decades, and poses an even greater challenge to Israel, its leaders, and its American and other international backers than the Cold War era tensions between U.S. and Israeli interests that date from the Jewish state’s founding in 1948.
Until the Iran deal debate reached critical mass, it was difficult to remember a time when a powerful U.S. conventional wisdom didn’t equate Israel’s fate with America’s. But this consensus (or at least its Washington, D.C. version) was relatively late to develop. Many of President Truman’s top advisers, for example, opposed prompt U.S. recognition of Israeli independence due to two intertwined fears. First, they hoped to avoid antagonizing Arab rulers sitting on huge and vital oil deposits and second, they hoped to avoid driving these rulers closer to the Soviet Union.
Although these concerns persisted with varying degrees of strength through the September 11 attacks, the underlying trend saw the United States and Israel move closer together. American public opinion, meanwhile, had turned strongly pro-Israel since the Jewish state defeated vastly larger Arab forces in the 1967 Six Day War and then faced increasingly serious terror attacks on its own soil and abroad (as during the 1972 Munich Olympics). Israel’s appeal to Americans was also surely heightened by the eruption of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East triggered by the Iranian revolution and seizure of American hostages in 1979.
In 2001, the full-blown emergence of another Middle East Muslim terrorist threat – this one capable of striking the American homeland – on top of continuing worries about protecting the flow of Persian Gulf oil, decisively convinced George W. Bush’s administration that Israel’s stability, strongly pro-Western orientation, and intelligence assets were of paramount importance to the United States.
Nonetheless, since the end of the Cold War, first geopolitical and then economic shifts have been unavoidably challenging the strategic logic of a close American alliance with Israel – although U.S. policy has been slow to grasp the implications. The fall of the Soviet Union eliminated the only country able to provide radical Arab regimes with an actual or potential superpower patron, or to threaten Gulf oil flows directly. The USSR’s demise also denied more moderate regional governments the leverage over Washington inevitably provided by a prospective rival for their allegiances. By the same token, however, staunch Israeli support became less important for achieving America’s regional objectives.
And several years ago, the revolution in American energy production began illuminating an eminently achievable future in which Persian Gulf oil matters much less to the U.S. and world economies. Therefore, the argument that Israel will matter just as much in these dramatically new circumstances – as a military base, an intelligence provider, and a combat partner – will ring less and less true.
The United States will still face actual and potential threats from Middle East-based terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, and for the short- and possibly medium-term future, Israel will have much to offer in these fights. But that’s only as long as “fighting them there” remains the focus of American strategy. As I’ve explained repeatedly, Washington should shift as quickly as possible to a strategy focused on tightly sealing the border against terrorist entry. This would amount to fighting terrorism mainly by seeking to control conditions that are relatively easy to control (America’s own borders) instead of fighting it by seeking to control conditions that are demonstrably impossible to control (the utterly dysfunctional Middle East).
Until this transition is made, Israel can certainly provide valuable assistance to the special forces-oriented harassment operations I believe would be most effective in keeping ISIS off balance and unable to consolidate a terrorist safe haven – like the one the Taliban enjoyed in Afghanistan while planning 9-11. But after the transition, this assistance – which could include help in tracking dangerous or suspicious characters – clearly won’t be as important to Americans.
The Middle East has been so central to American security and prosperity for so long, and still remains so volatile and unpredictable, that rendering it marginal to the country’s fate won’t happen overnight, or even close. Moreover, it’s entirely possible that the region will generate a deadly new threat that takes the U.S. government completely by surprise.
But that’s a big part of the point. The dynamics now increasingly driving U.S.-Middle East relations are so powerful that a genuinely game-changing development (or two!) would be needed to offset their effects on the region’s diminishing existential relationship to America. (One possibility – if Russia intensifies its Putin-era revanchism, grows much stronger, and re-emerges as a Soviet-scale problem.) Similarly, although Israel’s consequently diminished role in Washington’s security calculations will not become apparent in the near term in any dramatic, highly visible way, a corrosive effect on bilateral ties will emerge much sooner.
It looks sensible for Israel and its supporters to believe that relationships based on mutual need tend to be the most durable. But the United States has always been so inherently secure geopolitically and self-sufficient economically that few countries – especially outside the western hemisphere – will ever qualify as vitally important interests or partners. Fortunately for Israel, it has always had another promising option for attracting and maintaining support from such a strategically flexible superpower – its nature as a successful democracy that shares crucial values with Americans. And as suggested above, Israeli leaders have always known this.
Therefore, as long as Israel merits this description, it’s likely to enjoy strong backing from Americans even as they perceive fewer and fewer self-interested stakes in a peaceful, stable Middle East. Even better, and this is the fundamental point, an America not excessively worried about securing flows of Middle East oil or creating regional alliances to fight terrorist forces in the region could well be an America that feels freer to permit these values to govern its approach to Israel – and to Israel’s enemies. As a result, Israeli leaders who keep banging the strategic necessity drum will sound less and less credible, and more and more shrill.
Because Israel lives in a brutal neighborhood and has such a slim margin of error for survival, and because Americans have no remotely comparable experience, Israeli will continue to need to take actions, especially toward the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, that are bound to trouble Americans from time to time, and even on a regular basis. At the same time, since Americans are not completely naive, they’re sure to cut Israel considerable – but not infinite – slack. As a result, it will be more important than ever for Israeli leaders to strike the right balance between unavoidable toughness and image preservation. Both Israel and its supporters should be heartened by the Jewish state’s success so far at achieving this goal.