National security has arguably not been at the core of Washington’s attitude toward Israel since Israel’s 1956 attack on the Suez Canal with the French and British was stopped cold by Eisenhower (a paleo-con Republican with a real sense of national security). But now, with a decade-old global conflict against extremist/radical/reformist Islam (three very different though overlapping groups that no one in Washington can tell apart) threatening all the gains of America’s Cold War victory, the dangers of blind subservience to Israel’s expansionist right wing are finally causing some nervousness among Washington national security thinkers.
Several points here may be worth spelling out:
- By “Paleo-con,” in case it is not obvious, I mean a traditional conservative who seriously tries to put the emphasis on U.S. national security, without getting swamped by either fundamentalist myths or unbridled greed.
- As for the distinctions among extremist, radical, and reformist political movements within a Muslim tradition, think of the differences between Cheney, William Lloyd Garrison, and Dennis Kucinich. In 1825 the idea of eliminating slavery from the U.S. was radical, but Garrison’s carefully reasoned and peaceful approach meant he was no extremist. Kucinich is the classic American reformer who makes the special interests very nervous. A Washington serious about defending U.S. national security would be focusing very hard on finding common ground with political Islamic radicals and reformers to isolate the violence-prone extremists.
- It is the “conflict” with Islam that threatens the U.S. more than the existence or behavior per se of America’s Muslim adversaries, i.e., the danger lies not in them so much as in U.S. attitudes and behavior toward political Islam.
- It is not the existence of an alliance with Israel but the subservience of U.S. decision-makers to the extremist factions that constitutes the problem.
To the degree that this national security hypothesis is correct (more precisely, is now emerging as the dominant explanation for U.S. behavior toward Israel), the media focus on perceived “insults,” on day-to-day shifts in settlement policy, on the emotions of this or that official miss the point completely. We are not seeing a “misunderstanding,” a “miscalculation,” or confusion about Netanyahu’s “direction.” We are seeing the exposure of the fundamentally divergent world views (e.g., FM Lieberman’s ravings about an “Islamic tsunami”) and national security interests of the U.S. and a Zionist Israel.
According to the “national security hypothesis,” the issue is the degree to which Israeli policies (such as preventive war, collective punishment, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, the combination of having a regional nuclear monopoly and using it to threaten non-nuclear states, and–most of all–the Israeli right’s advocacy of a hard-line, uncompromising, and unsympathetic attitude toward any sort of reformist Muslim political movement) collectively undermine the global U.S. position.
I penned this hypothesis only yesterday, but already today interesting support has appeared for it in the form of a Haaretz commentary (March 26, 2010) by Akiva Eldar, who asserted that:
As far as President Barack Obama and his senior advisers are concerned, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to blame for nothing less than damaging the standing of the U.S.in the Middle East and the Muslim world.
Eldar put Washington thinking about Israel in the context of the upcoming Arab League meeting, a perspective that assumes Arab regimes are starting to take the Palestinian situation seriously, perhaps thinking that Iran is scoring some telling points. Eldar claims:
The messages coming to the White House from Riyadh and Amman, then, were starkly clear: If you don’t rein in your Israeli friends, Tehran won’t be the only Middle East capital where American flags will burn.
Unfortunately, he presents no evidence to support this claim that Riyadh and Amman are getting serious, but an article in the LA Times recently did, arguing that Riyadh is reevaluating its own national security perspective and coming to see Israel as a greater threat to its stability than Iran. (More later on that report.)
As Eldar also noted, paleo-(?)con Robert Gates has also supported the idea that Israel undermines U.S. security, as reported by Qatar News Agency on March 26, 2010:
The lack of progress toward Middle East peace clearly is an issue that is exploited by our adversaries in the region and is a source of, certainly, political challenge….Whether it has a direct impact, I’m not entirely sure. But there is no question that the absence of Middle East peace does affect U.S. national security interests in the region.
Eldar concluded that “Obama decided his moderate Middle East coalition is more important than Netanyahu’s extremist one. This is a point of no return.” It may be a point of no return, but Obama hardly has a “moderate Middle East coalition.” A bunch of Arab dictators desperately holding on to power they do not deserve does not constitute a moderate coalition. But Eldar has a more significant point because a “moderate coalition” is exactly what Obama needs. If he worked with Erdogan and met with Palestinian/ Israeli civil society to work out a fair compromise, he might just be able to forge one.
Question: Can the Arab dictators afford to appear less critical of Israel than Washington?
- For an eloquent summary of the background to the current debate, see Uri Avnery on Hagada Hasmalit (3/23/10).
- For a view of unofficial American thinking on this issue, see the National Journal‘s National Security discussion of 1/5/09.
- For an ominous warning against continued American involvement in what is turning into “unendable Israel-Muslim religious war — now in the hands of violent zealots on both sides,” see Georgetown professor and former CIA manager Michael Scheuer in the National Journal of 3/22/10.