Previous quarrels between Washington and Jerusalem were about differing Mideast perceptions. Now the issue is how the U.S. perceives itself.
by Bret Stephens
April 20, 2015 7:37 p.m. ET
Recent conversations with senior Israeli officials are shot through with a sense of incredulity. They can’t understand what’s become of U.S. foreign policy.
They don’t know how to square Barack Obama’s promises with his policies. They fail to grasp how a president who pledged to work toward the abolition of nuclear weapons is pushing an accord with Tehran that guarantees their proliferation. They are astonished by the nonchalance with which the administration acquiesces in Iran’s regional power plays, or in al Qaeda’s gains in Yemen, or in the Assad regime’s continued use of chemical weapons, or in the battlefield successes of ISIS, or in Russia’s decision to sell advanced missiles to Tehran. They wonder why the president has so much solicitude for Ali Khamenei’s political needs, and so little for Benjamin Netanyahu’s.
In a word, the Israelis haven’t yet figured out that what America is isn’t what America was. They need to start thinking about what comes next.
The most tempting approach is to wait Mr. Obama out and hope for better days with his successor. Israel and the U.S. have gone through bad patches before—under Ford in the 1970s, Reagan in the early ’80s, Bush in the early ’90s, Clinton in the late ’90s. The partnership always survived the officeholders.
So why should it be different this time? Seventy percent of Americans see Israel in a favorable light, according to a February Gallup poll. The presidential candidates from both parties all profess unswerving friendship with the Jewish state, and the Republican candidates actually believe it. Mr. Obama’s foreign policy is broadly unpopular and likely to become more so as the fiascoes continue to roll in.
Yet it’s different this time. For two reasons, mainly.
First, the administration’s Mideast abdications are creating a set of irreversible realities for which there are no ready U.S. answers. Maybe there were things an American president could have done to help rescue Libya in 2011, Syria in 2013, and Yemen last year. That was before it was too late. But what exactly can any president do about the chaos unfolding now?
Shakespeare wrote that there was a tide in the affairs of men “which taken at the flood, leads men on to fortune.” Barack Obama always missed the flood.
Now the president is marching us past the point of no return on a nuclear Iran and thence a nuclear Middle East. When that happens, how many Americans will be eager to have their president intervene in somebody else’s nuclear duel? Americans may love Israel, but partly that’s because not a single U.S. soldier has ever died fighting on its behalf.
In other words, Mr. Obama is bequeathing not just a more dangerous Middle East but also one the next president will want to touch only with a barge pole. That leaves Israel alone to deal as best as it can with a broadening array of threats: thousands more missiles for Hezbollah, paid for by sanctions relief for Tehran; ISIS on the Golan Heights; an Iran safe, thanks to Russian missiles, from any conceivable Israeli strike.
The second reason follows from the first. Previous quarrels between Washington and Jerusalem were mainly about differing Mideast perceptions. Now the main issue is how the U.S. perceives itself.
Beginning with Franklin Roosevelt, every U.S. president took the view that strength abroad and strength at home were mutually reinforcing; that global security made us more prosperous, and that prosperity made us more secure.
Then along came Mr. Obama with his mantra of “nation building at home” and his notion that an activist foreign policy is a threat to the social democracy he seeks to build. Under his administration, domestic and foreign policy have been treated as a zero-sum game: If you want more of the former, do less of the latter. The result is a world of disorder, and an Israel that, for the first time in its history, must seek its security with an America that, say what it will, has nobody’s back but its own.
How does it do this? By recalling what it was able to do for the first 19 years of its existence, another period when the U.S. was an ambivalent and often suspicious friend and Israel was more upstart state than start-up nation.
That was an Israel that was prepared to take strategic gambles because it knew it couldn’t afford to wait on events. It did not consider “international legitimacy” to be a prerequisite for action because it also knew how little such legitimacy was worth. It understood the value of territory and terrain, not least because it had so little of it. It built its deterrent power by constantly taking the military initiative, not constructing defensive wonder-weapons such as Iron Dome. It didn’t mind acting as a foreign policy freelancer, and sometimes even a rogue, as circumstances demanded. “Plucky little Israel” earned the world’s respect and didn’t care, much less beg, for its moral approval.
Perhaps the next American president will rescue Israel from having to learn again what it once knew. Israelis would be wise not to count on it.
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