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The Realist Case for Israel

I was ready to put Mideast blogging to bed for a bit, but in my inbox this morning was a good piece by Martin Kramer (from 2006) that seeks to make the "realist" or purely strategic case for America's unconditional (his words) support for Israel. I had read it at the time, but it's worth bringing the arguments back to view now in light of the discussion of U.S. policy toward Israel after the Biden fracas. (Of course, 2010-era Martin Kramer has been in a bit of hot water lately over his suggestion that squeezing Gaza is helpfully reducing its supply of "superfluous young men.")

First off, it's important to recognize, as Kramer writes (and as Walter Russel Mead is explicating in a number of illuminating posts) that American support for Israel is rooted in the interplay of three major factors - religious affinity, a sense of moral and historical obligation, and strategic interests. All three pillars of support are legitimate and while I'm not particularly persuaded by arguments grounded in religious authority, I agree with the moral and historical claims* and think all three have every right, in our democratic society, to express themselves in our foreign policy. I think every "realist" recognizes (even if only to their chagrin) that U.S. policy is derived from a combination of factors and that strategic arguments alone do not always win the day in the public debate.

That said, this is a blog, and I'm not a politician . So back to Kramer's realist case for America's unconditional support for Israel.

Here's Kramer:

American support for Israel--indeed, the illusion of its unconditionality--underpins the Pax Americana in the eastern Mediterranean. It has compelled Israel's key Arab neighbors to reach peace with Israel and to enter the American orbit. The fact that there has not been a general Arab-Israeli war since 1973 is proof that this Pax Americana, based on the U.S.-Israel alliance, has been a success. From a realist point of view, supporting Israel has been a low-cost way of keeping order in part of the Middle East, managed by the United States from offshore and without the commitment of any force.
Yes, it's clear that the Pax Americana has been good for Israel, in that it shunted competition over contested territory to its weakest component (the Palestinians) and away from states. And yes, having Jordan but especially Egypt in America's orbit was also useful during the Cold War. But what about American interests in the 21st century? We need Egypt and Jordan to help on the intelligence front, but they too have a vested interested in keeping al Qaeda at bay. Which leaves us with oil. And just a few grafs after Kramer extols the Pax Americana in the Levant, he notes that the absence of a strong Israeli-like ally in the Persian Gulf has kept that region turbulent and America militarily-engaged. So by Kramer's own affirmation, the Pax Americana is not actually helping America where it counts the most: the Gulf. The fact that Jordan and Egypt are quiessecent is great, but from the realist perspective (esp. a post-Cold War perspective) so what?

And remember, before the Iraq war, Israel was the single largest recipient of U.S. aid. So for the strategic case to hold, you'd have to argue that that aid is commensurate with the strategic pay-off. I hardly think Kramer comes close to making that case.

Kramer also makes a fairly extraordinary statement toward the end of his piece:

But according to the realist model, a policy that upholds American interests without the dispatch of American troops is a success by definition. American support of Israel has achieved precisely that.

This fails on two accounts. First, I'm not aware of any plausible circumstance whereby the U.S. would have to send troops into Egypt and Jordan, whatever the relative strength of Israel. More importantly, this isn't even true. Remember Lebanon? If we endorse Kramer's strong client state thesis, it would have been useful for Israel to have tamped things down to her North. But instead we (foolishly) wound up dispatching troops there in 1983, and we all know how that ended.

All Kramer is able to prove is that America's unconditional support for Israel has been able to do is improve the security of Israel vis-a-vis Jordan and Egypt. A policy success to be sure, but hardly the pinnacle of our regional interests and of little direct relevance to our own security. Or am I missing something?

But Kramer goes further and suggests that in fact American support for Israel has no costs:

Then there is the argument that American support for Israel is the source of popular resentment, propelling recruits to al Qaeda. I do not know of any unbiased terrorism expert who subscribes to this notion. Israel has been around for almost 60 years, and it has always faced terrorism. But never has a terror group emerged that is devoted solely or even primarily to attacking the United States for its support of Israel. Terrorists devoted to killing Americans emerged only after the United States began to enlarge its own military footprint in the Gulf. Al Qaeda emerged from the American deployment in Saudi Arabia. And even when al Qaeda and its affiliates mention Palestine as a grievance, it is as one grievance among many, the other grievances being American support for authoritarian Arab regimes and now the American presence in Iraq.

I don't think that's quite right. The number two man in al Qaeda is an Egyptian who folded the terror group Egyptian Islamic Jihad (members of whom knocked off Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after he joined the Pax Americana and have tried to kill current President Hosni Mubarak) into al Qaeda. What's more, who are those "authoritarian Arab regimes" we're supporting? Well, they're Jordan and Egypt (among others). And why are we supporting them? To hear Kramer tell it, to keep them from attacking Israel and keep them in our orbit. And do Jordanians and Egyptians resent our support for their autocratic rulers and join al Qaeda? Why yes they do. So it's not clear to me why Kramer would suggest that American support for Israel is not a source of popular resentment - unless he wants to suggest that our policies vis-a-vis Jordan and Egypt have nothing to do with Israel, but that would only undermine the entire point of his argument.

I think Kramer is right to suggest that a much larger share of America's troubles in the Middle East have resulted from an ever-deepening military footprint in the Persian Gulf and not support for Israel. But most of the people championing a "Pax Americana" in the Levant also endorse that concept in the Persian Gulf, so it's not like they're particularly disturbed by the downside costs of such exposure. And just to reiterate, the "realist case" for unconditional U.S. support for Israel does not have to be airtight for it to still be compelling to the American people or even just the right thing to do. But I think any honest assessment of the strategic landscape shows that the partnership is less valuable strategically now than when it was during the Cold War.

UPDATE:
Dave in comments has a long rebuttal of my rebuttal.

*The historical claim that Jews are entitled to a homeland in Israel - there are obviously multiple claims about precisely where the borders should be.