Monday, August 16, 2010

Look at it the other way

Most readers will be familiar with the claim, recently circulating in the media, that Israel’s recalcitrance in the conflict with the Palestinians, is something that compromises American foreign policy and endangers the lives of American soldiers and diplomats. Most simply it is claimed that our alliance with Israel is a foreign policy liability, something inflicted on us by the excessive power of the “Israel Lobby.” This is a refrain that is eagerly embraced by anti-Semites (both polite and crude), and something that has lately also appealed to more rational, objective thinkers, many of them Jewish. It is a seductive idea, but it is also insidiously subversive of careful, rational thought. To argue that somehow Americans would be safer if America abandoned Israel seems to me like a desperate stretch – one for which little supporting evidence can be found. And in the bigger perspective Israel and America (their citizens) share common norms and values worth preserving and defending and these critics sometimes forget that.

The question of optimal American foreign policy is another matter. Foreign aid, drawn from taxpayer money, deserves to be carefully and critically examined all round. I am not knowledgeable on foreign policy, but I suspect a lot depends on one’s perception of the real dangers to American citizens. So, I am not defending any particular level or configuration of support nation to nation. I want here to make a different point.

I want to suggest that maybe the direction of causation goes the other way, namely, that America’s foreign policy actions may be hurting Israel. There is much evidence to suggest that American foreign policy incursions, whatever their motivations, tend to end up counterproductive and cause a huge amount of collateral damage – some obvious, some hidden. These wars in pursuit of “democratic” ideals and pre-emptive neutralization of foreign threats, arguably make things worse by impoverishing economies and radicalizing insurgents. They are cases of overreach. In so doing they may provide additional support for those in Israel’s neighborhood who are working toward her destruction.

Israel’s position is very different from America’s. America is huge and remote from its enemies. Even the internal terrorist threats, while very emotionally unsettling and potentially disruptive, are not existential threats. The American nation state and civilization is not yet threatened by them. Tempered vigilance would seem to be the correct response. Israel, on the other hand, is tiny and in very close proximity to powerful organizations that proclaim their credible intention to destroy her – to destroy the Jewish state and establish a Muslim state in its place. Israel is in the middle of a neighborhood that religious Muslims regard as reserved for Muslim rule. Sixty years of history has proven that efforts at placating these organizations are futile. It is not what Israel does, it is what Israel is, that matters to them. When American foreign policy alienates potentially moderate Muslim allies, this gives succor to Hamas and Hezbollah and other radical groups working in the area.

For this reason it is probably not surprising that Israelis were secretly (and some openly) ambivalent about the American invasion of Iraq– fearing the absence of a viable exit strategy and the occurrence of many undesirable unintended consequences. [For an explanation of why war is a likely to produce unintended consequences see here.] And this is something that may make Israel’s very real perpetual struggle to survive just that much more difficult. The Afghanistan war may be even more disastrous in the long run– leaving the country much worse off, potentially beyond remediation. From Israel’s perspective a smaller, more focused, more efficient American footprint in the world would probably be preferable. From America’s perspective a foreign policy aimed at doing what is realistic and is necessary to keep America safe should be the focus. America’s foreign policy critics should focus on this, not on the alliance with Israel.

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