What does Foreign Policy’s prognosis that “The American Empire is Dead” mean for Israel?
“The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war… may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill."
In its morning-after article summarizing the emerging rapprochement between the West and Iran, Debka arrived at a surprisingly uninformed conclusion:
, will go down in Israel’s history as the day it lost its freedom to use force either against the Iranian nuclear threat hanging over its head or Syria’s chemical capacity – at least, so long as Barack Obama is president of the United States.”
The above quote is wrong on two counts: Israel never did have “freedom to use force;” and the suggestion that Obama is the problem, that the next US administration may make things right is completely wrong. There is a vast difference between national policy, and presidential freedom to determine policy.
Israel is junior partner in a partnership determined by the national interests of the senior partner. And America, particularly since awareness of the debacle it created in Iraq in 2003, has had a significant change of heart regarding its “interests” in the Middle East. One need only read President Obama’s recent speech before the United Nations to appreciate the full extent of America’s policy change following the Iraq invasion:
"The United States has a hard-earned humility when it comes to our ability to determine events inside other countries," he said in his address before the 193-member General Assembly. "The notion of American empire may be useful propaganda, but it isn't borne out by America's current policy or public opinion… the recent debate within the United States over Syria clearly showed the danger for the world is not an America that is eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries or take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war -- rightly concerned about issues back home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world -- may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership
that no other nation is ready to fill."
Since the Six Day War, when the United States realized Israel’s usefulness as a strategic ally in the region Israel has leapt at the outstretched hand, deliverance from Heaven! And from this romantic notion emerged the myth of the “special relationship;” that the United States and Israel are mystically joined by such abstractions as “shared ideals,” “Israel-as-democracy.” Obama clearly pointed at the fallacy in his UN speech when he reminded the world that the “American empire” is, at bottom, “useful propaganda” not “borne out as… policy.”
With the writing on the wall since Carter abandoned the Shah in 1979, most recently reiterated by Obama abandoning Mubarak in 2011, the question must be asked: How and why has Israel’s belief in the myth of the “special relationship” persisted?
Historically the term “special relationship” refers to that between the United States and England. Coined by Churchill during the war, it was already current in the United States before America entered the Second World War. Regarding the Israel’s relationship with the US that under circumstances unfavorable to the US the relationship with England was controversial. Israel does not rise to England in importance. America has a long history as “isolationist,” a fact referred to in Obama’s UN speech. And while the US continued to side with Britain until its entry into the war at the end of 1941, it is national interests, an ever-changing factor, that determines relationships between nations.
I have been writing for several years of America’s graduated retreat from the Middle East. This became pronounced immediately following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That Iraq was a disaster was clear almost immediately as the US, fighting Sunnis on behalf of the Shia quickly found itself also fighting Iran-backed Shia militias. In the end Bush blamed Rumsfeld and replaced him with Robert Gates, an opponent even of the use military threat in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. With the appointment of “Mike” Mullen, another critic of military force the region as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the mantra of the Defense Department was the oft-repeated warning of “unintended consequences” of even threatening the use of force against the Islamic Republic. Israeli military action, in absence of American, became Bush’s threat in dealing with Iran. And in the end Bush was saved the embarrassment of not carrying through on his frequent “threats” of “force” in dealing with Iran’s nuclear threat by that notorious 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that assured “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”
And so Bush handed off the Iran baton to his successor in the White House, President Obama.
Obama is justly criticized as naïve and hesitant, his confused diplomacy resulting in, as he himself describes, “a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill." His recent embarrassing retreat from threatening imminent military action in Syria only to have “second thoughts” a day later is a clear demonstration of incompetence.
Syria is but the most recent in a long series of regional missteps by this president. But there is a difference between consistent presidential amateurism and underlying national policy. And even the president announced before the world in New York that American policy is to withdraw from the Middle East and the world.
Where does this leave Israel? Several days have passed since both the American president and Israeli Prime Minister addressed the United Nations, several days since Obama famously telephoned President Rohani. Although the phone call was described as the first significant contact between the two states since the Iranian Revolution, in 2007 George W. Bush ordered the State Department to open an Interest Section in downtown Teheran, likely a reward for Ahmadinejad ordering Muqtada al Sadr to allow Bush’s “Surge” to succeed and hasten Iran’s replacement of the US in now Shia-ruled Iraq.
So President Obama’s reminder “that the United States, after a decade of war… may disengage” from the Middle East is not as recent a policy decision as critics of the president mistakenly suggest.
And what does that mean for the so-called Special Relationship between Israel and the United States; what are Israel’s post-America options?
Unlike Debka’s “sky is falling” description above, Israeli leaders seem already to have understood the facts on the ground and have been adapting to the changing international landscape. Israel has fostered military and other ties with several Balkan states as well as Muslim countries bordering Iran. These are important in any shaping any future diplomatic or military conflict with Iran. They provide deterrence as warning of Israel’s presence on the border of the Islamic Republic. Which raises another important question: to the extent that military force is “threatened” by President Obama, for as long as America does remain engaged in the region how dependable is an American supply line for armaments and spare parts should Israel be forced to confront Iran?
Beyond Israel’s “inner periphery” she is also focusing on expanding relations with Russia, India and China. Relations with Russia have run hot and cold, but it is Russia that will replace the US in the Middle East. Europe is fast losing significance as a factor in the region and the world, a role that will all but end with the Russian navy replacing America’s in the Mediterranean. Longer term, Israel’s relations with India and particularly China will grow in importance. China in particular, albeit mostly covert, has developed an intimate relationship with Israel and Israel is today China’s second most important supplier of military materiel.
National interest, not sentiment, determines policy. Having lost two wars in the region the United States has lost confidence in its ability to live up to its role as regional hegemon, global superpower. With the emergence of shale petroleum deposits around the world, but particularly in the US, Arab oil also is just no longer that important and so protecting the Saudis and Sunni oil monarchies (and Israel) are also less important as an American “national interest.”
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