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Grand Strategy

Contrary to Washington wisdom, Israel is a clear strategic asset to the United States, says a new study by a bipartisan pair of veteran diplomats

Lee Smith
November 09, 2011
Then-U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and then-Israeli Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi meeting in Tel Aviv last year.(Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)
Then-U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and then-Israeli Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi meeting in Tel Aviv last year.(Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Many foreign-policy experts, even as they acknowledge that the United States has a moral responsibility to stand with the sole democracy in the Middle East, argue that Israel is a strategic liability. Robert Blackwill, a high-level diplomat in Republican administrations and a self-described Kissingerian realist, is someone who you’d safely assume shares that view. But Blackwill wanted to see if that way of looking at things was actually true.

Along with Walter B. Slocombe, who served as undersecretary of Defense for Policy under President Bill Clinton, Blackwill detailed his findings in a paper just published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Israel: A Strategic Asset for the United States” argues that the United States not only shares national interests with the Jewish state—like preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and combating terrorism—but also reaps numerous advantages from the alliance.

The paper offers chapter and verse on Israeli contributions to the U.S. national interest. They include: Israeli counter-proliferation efforts, such as the 1981 bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility and the 2007 attack on Syria’s secret nuclear facility at al-Kibar; joint military training exercises, as well as exchanges on military doctrine; Israeli technology, like unmanned aerial systems, armored vehicle protection, defense against short-range rocket threats, and robotics; missile defense cooperation; counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation; and cyber defense. Blackwill and Slocombe conclude that the alliance is in fact so central to U.S. national interests that U.S. policymakers should find ways to further enhance cooperation with Jerusalem.

Blackwill and Slocombe’s detailed list is a unique event in the ongoing U.S. policy debate over the advisability of this bilateral relationship. Blackwill says that for all the media attention devoted to Israel, he and Slocombe were surprised to find no comprehensive account of Israel’s contribution to the U.S. national interest existed previously. “I figured I’ll just Google it,” he told me this week over the phone. “But there was no existing encompassing list. So, we went item by item, making sure we had the facts straight. We didn’t exaggerate or overstate the contribution.”

The fact that Slocombe is a Democrat and Blackwill is a pillar of the Republican policy establishment is meant to drive home the strategic nature of their argument. According to Blackwill, the alliance has nothing to do with who’s in the White House, whether the Israeli prime minister is Labor or Likud, or how much movement there is on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “It is meant to be a grander argument,” he says. “National interests don’t change, except over the very long term.”

What has changed—in a positive way—is Israel’s ability to advance U.S. national interests. The national-interest case for Israel would have been harder to make 20 years ago, argues Blackwill. That shifted as “defense cooperation in the ’90s began to be enhanced,” he told me. “It’s increased greatly over the last few decades.”

Though Blackwill served as Condeleezza Rice’s National Security Council deputy for Iraq during 2003 and 2004—in Rice’s recently published memoir she calls him “one of the best policy engineers I had ever known”—it would be a mistake to identify him with the famously pro-Israel neoconservative camp of Republican policymakers. Rather, Blackwill traces his intellectual roots to Henry Kissinger, for whom he worked as a staffer during the 1973 Arab-Israeli crisis. And it was Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s secretary of State during that crisis, who was perhaps the first Republican policymaker to understand Israel’s strategic value.

Where President Harry Truman felt a moral responsibility and emotional attachment to Israel, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first Republican commander-in-chief to deal with the newly formed Jewish state, saw Israel is a strategic liability. He believed the Arabs were offended and alienated by America’s closeness to Israel. Eisenhower eventually came to a different understanding—Arabs’ hostility to Israel was far less crucial to the region’s dynamics than he previously thought—but, more significantly, he recognized that the Middle East was a key venue to defeat the Soviet Union.

This was Kissinger’s starting point. With the 1973 war, Kissinger saw that Soviet arms in the hands of Egypt and Syria could not be allowed to triumph over Israel, Washington’s client. During the course of the war, Kissinger came to understand that Cairo could no longer afford the cost of being Moscow’s ally. In order to enable Sadat to jump sides and join the American camp, Kissinger had to prevent the Egyptians from being humiliated and give Sadat a defeat that he could sell to his people as a victory. A peace treaty between Israel and the largest Arab state would both neutralize Moscow’s role in the Middle East and establish Washington as the undisputed power broker in the region. With Israel backed unconditionally by the United States, the Arabs could no longer afford to wage war against the Jewish state, he believed. And if they wanted anything from Israel, then only Washington, as Kissinger understood, could deliver those concessions.

As Martin Kramer explained in his 2006 essay “The American Interest,” the Pax Americana in the eastern Mediterranean was a tremendous accomplishment for U.S. policymakers. At $3 billion in aid annually, Israel’s friendship is a bargain. If the United States had an Israel in the Persian Gulf, another powerful ally it could count on to do its heavy lifting and keep the United States from having to land troops, Washington might well have avoided three decades worth of trouble in that part of the Middle East, from Saddan Hussein to al-Qaida to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The fact that Israel’s strategic value is lost on so many American journalists, analysts, and policymakers is largely a function of dogma, Blackwill argues. Given that so many American groups, from Christian evangelicals and the American Jewish community to the oil lobby, have a position on the U.S.-Israel relationship, it’s hardly surprising the issue generates heated emotions that tend to make the subject impervious to analysis. This affects American decision-making and public diplomacy. For instance, the U.S. Department of State, Blackwill’s home shop, is certainly not known for sending its foreign-service officers out to the Middle East to challenge Arab officials and journalists every time they say something negative about the Jewish state. The U.S.-Israel relationship really does make it harder for American diplomats to do their job—and so they just keep their mouths shut and internalize the Arab argument against the alliance.

But the hazards of the diplomatic profession shouldn’t obscure the facts of the matter for U.S. policymakers. If the alliance with Israel really is a liability to U.S. national interests, there should be concrete evidence to back it up. “We tried to identify episodes when you could plausibly argue that Arab governments exacted a price from the U.S. for its alliance with Israel.” Blackwill said. He and Slocombe found only one example: the Arab oil embargo after the 1973 war.

“Without doubt that embargo was related to the U.S. re-supply during the ’73 Arab-Israeli war,” Blackwill said. “We thought, ‘Well, there have to be other examples. We’re just not looking hard enough.’ But to our surprise, we couldn’t find another example from that instance to today.”

Why, then, is the notion that the United States pays a price for its alliance with Israel such a prevalent theme? “People confuse what Arabs say and what Arab governments do,” Blackwill explained. “No doubt Arabs complain very genuinely about our relationship with Israel. They don’t like it. And it’s not surprising then that U.S. ambassadors send these negative Arab views back to Washington. However, our piece doesn’t argue that the American relationship with Israel is popular in the Arab world. Our approach was to gauge the question analytically, and ask, what action have Arab governments taken? And it turns out that the policies of Arab governments toward the United States are dominated by their overall perceptions of their national interests, not by the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

For instance, as Blackwill and Slocombe speculate in their paper, would the Saudis lower their oil prices “if Washington entered into a sustained crisis with Israel over the Palestine issue during which the bilateral relationship went into steep systemic decline?” The answer, of course, is no. As is the case with all rational actors, what matters most to the Arabs are their own national interests. Yet Blackwill acknowledges that the Arab Spring may change the equation insofar as it empowers potential populist movements that look at the U.S.-Israel relationship from a very different perspective than their governments have.

In any case, the core of Blackwill and Slocombe’s argument is that the alliance with Israel is vital to U.S. interests regardless of how the Arabs see it, or how it’s interpreted by any given American administration or Israeli government. “Israel’s people and politicians have a deeply entrenched pro-American outlook that is uniformly popular with the Israeli people,” they write in their paper. “Thus, Israel’s support of U.S. national interests is woven tightly into the fabric of Israeli democratic political culture, a crucial characteristic that is presently not found in any other nation in the greater Middle East.”

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.

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