Posts Tagged US policy
As I followed the fierce debate over President Trump’s executive order, denounced by its opponents as a “Muslim ban,” my thoughts turned the Jewish ban that changed the career of my mentor, Bernard Lewis.
Lewis, the great historian of the Middle East who last May turned 100, travelled extensively in Arab countries in the late 1930s and 1940s. Born in Britain to British-born parents, he traversed French-ruled Syria for his doctoral work, and then served in the British army in Arab lands during the Second World War. In 1949, at the age of 33, he was already a highly-regarded academic authority on medieval Islam and a full professor at the University of London. The university gave him a year of study leave to travel in the Middle East. But the Arab reaction to the creation of Israel derailed his research plans. Lewis explained what happened in an article published in 2006:
Virtually all the Arab governments announced that they would not give visas to Jews of any nationality. This was not furtive—it was public, proclaimed on the visa forms and in the tourist literature. They made it quite clear that people of the Jewish religion, no matter what their citizenship, would not be given visas or be permitted to enter any independent Arab country. Again, not a word of protest from anywhere. One can imagine the outrage if Israel had announced that it would not give visas to Muslims, still more if the United States were to do so. As directed against Jews, this ban was seen as perfectly natural and normal. In some countries it continues to this day, although in practice most Arab countries have given it up.
Neither the United Nations nor the public protested any of this in any way, so it is hardly surprising that Arab governments concluded that they had license for this sort of action and worse.
According to Lewis (in his memoirs), some Jews fudged their religious identification on visa applications. (“One ingenious lady from New York City even described herself as a ‘Seventh Avenue Adventist.'”) Others simply lied.
But most of us, even the nonreligious, found it morally impossible to make such compromises for no better reason than the pursuit of an academic career. This considerably reduced the number of places to which one could go and in which one could work…. At that time, for Jewish scholars interested in the Middle East, only three countries were open—Turkey, Iran and Israel…. It was in these three countries therefore that I arranged to spend the academic year 1949-50.
In retrospect, it is fortunate that Lewis had to make the adjustment: he became the first Western historian admitted to the Ottoman archives in Istanbul, and his pioneering work in this area opened up a vast field of study. Yet his exclusion as a Jew clearly rankled. It was something he hadn’t experienced in Britain, yet Western governments now failed to stand up for their Jewish citizens by insisting that they be accorded equal treatment. And in the 1950s, it got worse: not only did Arab states not admit Jews, they drove their own Jews into exile. This may have been the animating force behind Lewis’s 1986 book Semites and Anti-Semites, one of the first to analyze the continuing mutations of antisemitism in the Arab world.
Today, Arab states don’t ban Jews as such. They do ban Israelis. In fact, six of the seven states featured in Trump’s executive order ban entry of Israeli passport-holders: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. (So, too, do another ten Muslim-majority states.) Those same six states also won’t admit anyone whose non-Israeli passport includes an Israeli visa. I’m not aware that the international community regards this as a particularly egregious affront to international norms. The governments of these countries regard every Israeli, whether Jewish or Arab, or any past visitor to Israel of any nationality, as a potential security threat. That’s not irrational, since some of these governments have a record of threatening Israel through incitement, sponsorship of terrorism, and dubious weapons projects.
Trump’s limited executive order doesn’t resemble the sweeping Jewish ban that changed the career of Bernard Lewis. It’s more in line with the Israel bans implemented in the very same countries he’s named. Trump regards holders of certain nationalities as potential security threats, and has excluded them on that basis. There’s plenty of room to debate the wisdom, efficacy, and even morality of the executive order. While the United States may not be as great an exception to the rule as it sometimes claims to be, it still isn’t Sudan or Yemen. And one would hope that the United States, which has invested untold billions (or is it trillions?) in intelligence collection and vetting since 9/11, would be capable of telling friend from foe, and victim from victimizer, within nations.
But the governments of states like Iran have no cause to profess outrage. No one has practiced blanket exclusion on the basis of nationality as unremittingly, decade after decade, as they have, and they aren’t likely to give it up any time soon. It would be unfortunate if this became the norm in the world. But it wouldn’t mark much of a change in the Middle East.
This article will appear the July/August 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs, and may be previewed online.
Was the feud between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, first over settlements and then over Iran, a watershed? Netanyahu, it is claimed, turned U.S. support of Israel into a partisan issue. Liberals, including many American Jews, are said to be fed up with Israel’s “occupation,” which will mark its 50th anniversary next year. The weakening of Israel’s democratic ethos is supposedly undercutting the “shared values” argument for the relationship. Some say Israel’s dogged adherence to an “unsustainable” status quo in the West Bank has made it a liability in a region in the throes of change. Israel, it is claimed, is slipping into pariah status, imposed by the global movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS).
Biblical-style lamentations over Israel’s final corruption have been a staple of the state’s critics and die-hard anti-Zionists for 70 years. Never have they been so detached from reality. Of course, Israel has changed—decidedly for the better….
Read the rest here.
This article appeared at Mosaic Magazine on May 18. It is based on remarks delivered at a conference on “U.S.-Israel Relations” held on May 6 at the Center for International Security Studies, Princeton University.
On Israel’s Independence Day, it is customary for the Central Bureau of Statistics to summarize some of the basic facts about the transformation of Israeli demography and living standards since the state’s founding in 1948. This is always an encouraging read. Israel’s Jewish population, for instance, has grown nearly tenfold in the intervening years, from 700,000 to almost 6.4 million. When independence was declared in 1948, Israel’s Jews constituted a mere 6 percent of the world Jewish population; today they are at 43 percent. Moreover, 75 percent of Israel’s Jewish population is native-born, more than twice the percentage in 1948. Back then, there were only 34,000 vehicles on the roads; today there are three million. And so forth.
Israel has indeed grown dramatically—in population, wealth, and military prowess. These are all grounds for celebration. But has Israel seen a comparable growth in its independence? That is, has there been a comparable expansion of its ability to take the independent action it must take if it is to protect its interests and survive as a Jewish state? Or is it possible that in these respects Israel was actually more independent in its early years and that it has grown less so over time, especially with the deepening of its relationship with its principal ally the United States?
Let me explore this latter possibility with a quick trip through history. Israel’s security and sovereignty as a Jewish state rest on three events to which precise dates may be assigned: 1948, 1958, and 1967.
- In 1948, Israel declared independence. Just as important, the way it waged war, and the way the Arabs waged war, resulted in the flight of 700,000 Palestinian Arabs and determined that the new state would have a decisive Jewish majority. 1948 gave birth not only to a legally but also to a demographically Jewish state.
- In 1958, still subject to Arab threats to eliminate it, Israel commenced construction of a nuclear reactor at Dimona in the Negev. Subsequent progress secured Israel’s existence against any conceivable threat of destruction by Arab states.
- Finally, in 1967 Israel broke through the narrow borders in which the Jewish state had found itself after the 1948 war, giving it exclusive military control of the land mass from the Mediterranean to the Jordan valley—a control Israel is determined to preserve in any peace scenario. Israel’s victory also finally persuaded many Arabs that they would never defeat it outright, thus creating the incentive for later peace treaties.
These three actions laid the foundation of Israel’s secure existence as a sovereign Jewish state—demographically, militarily, geographically, and politically. But here is an often-overlooked fact: the United States vigorously warned Israel against all three of these actions, and threatened that taking them would leave Israel on its own and “alone.”
Let’s begin again with 1948. Britain had turned over its mandate for Palestine to the United Nations, which in November 1947 voted to partition the territory into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. Initially the Truman administration supported partition, but then began to backtrack in favor of a UN trusteeship over the whole. As Palestinian Jews contemplated whether to declare independence, Secretary of State George Marshall issued the first U.S. “alone” warning to Moshe Shertok (later Sharett), the foreign-minister-in-waiting. “I told Mr. Shertok,” Marshall reported to President Harry Truman,
that they were taking a gamble. If the tide [of Arab hostility] did turn adversely and they came running to us for help they should be placed clearly on notice now that there was no warrant to expect help from the United States, which had warned them of the grave risk which they were running.
This admonition so shook Sharett’s confidence that David Ben-Gurion practically had to quarantine him on his return.
It was, then, in defiance of an American warning that Ben-Gurion declared independence on May 14, 1948. Of course, it is true that Truman immediately recognized Israel, much to Marshall’s chagrin. But the United States also imposed an arms embargo on both Israel and the Arabs. Since Arab states had access to British arms, this effectively left Israel to scramble for weaponry, ultimately provided by the Soviet Union via Czechoslovakia.
Had the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community, been dependent on the United States in 1948, its leaders might have decided against pressing for independence. Alternatively, had the new state been dependent on the United States, the 1948 war might have ended in an early ceasefire, leaving Israel a “Jewish state” governed by a bare and dwindling Jewish majority—something like the Maronite Christians of Lebanon.
Next, 1958. With French assistance, Israel began construction of the Dimona nuclear reactor. The CIA immediately suspected the reactor’s purpose, but would underestimate Israel’s rate of progress. In May 1963, President John F. Kennedy wrote to Ben-Gurion, demanding that American inspectors be given access to the site: “We are concerned with the disturbing effects on world stability which would accompany the development of a nuclear-weapons capability by Israel.” Possession of such a weapon, Kennedy continued, would spur the Arabs to seek a similar capability from the Soviets, and others would follow suit.
Then came a presidential threat: the U.S. commitment to Israel, Kennedy wrote,
would be seriously jeopardized in the public opinion in this country and in the West as a whole if it should be thought that this government was unable to obtain reliable information on a subject as vital to peace as the question of the character of Israel’s efforts in the nuclear field.
Translation: you will be alone. Israel didn’t ignore JFK’s warning, but it also wasn’t alone, since it still had the cooperation of the French. In the following years it proceeded to stonewall and conceal its actions until, by 1968, the CIA concluded that, in defiance of the United States, Israel had indeed acquired a nuclear weapon.
Had Jerusalem been dependent on Washington at the time, and had the U.S. already been a major supplier of its conventional weaponry, Israel probably would never have developed a nuclear program.
Finally, 1967. In the spring, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran in the Red Sea, blockading Israel’s southern port of Eilat. It also evicted UN troops that had been in the Sinai since 1957. Israel then asked the Lyndon Johnson administration to uphold an Eisenhower-era American commitment to keep the straits open.
President Johnson not only balked; he warned Israel not to act. The U.S. position, as he formulated it verbally to Israel’s ambassador Abba Eban and in a letter to Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol, was this:
I must emphasize the necessity for Israel not to make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities. Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone. We cannot imagine that it will make this decision.
Once again in defiance of the United States, Israel did make this decision. In a preemptive act of self-defense, it flew French fighter aircraft on its way to ultimate victory, thus utterly transforming its overall strategic situation. When Jordan and Syria joined the fray, Israel swept through the West Bank and Golan Heights. Had Israel already then been dependent on the United States for its hardware, the events of that June might have unfolded very differently, leaving Israel in its narrow borders opposite emboldened foes still bent on its destruction.
It’s important to stress that none of the three decisions taken by Israel in the face of U.S. opposition was arrived at lightly or insouciantly. If anything, the warning that, if Israel did act, it would find itself “alone” sounded even weightier at the time than it might today. Only recently, after all, the United States had left the Jews very much alone. It had done so in the 1930s when it closed its gates to the Jews of Europe desperate to escape Hitler’s vise, going so far in 1939 as to turn away a refugee ship that had managed to reach American shores. During the Holocaust itself, Europe’s Jews were once again left alone as the United States conspicuously refrained from initiating any rescue program.
Marshall, Kennedy, and Johnson had lived through these events. They could well have thought that warning the Israelis they would be alone would touch deep apprehensions and effectively deter them from acting.
But it didn’t work, and for an obvious reason: in 1948, 1958, and 1967, Israel was not very reliant on the United States. Washington still believed in an “even-handed” approach as between Israel and the Arabs, and, though it huffed and puffed at Jerusalem, it also kept its distance. It lacked the leverage to make its “you’ll-be-alone” warnings decisive.
Things changed after 1967, as successive administrations finally concluded that leverage could be achieved only by drawing Israel into the American orbit. The first step was to sell it Phantom fighter jets, and the rest followed. Over time, in the race to maintain its “military edge,” Israel has been given access to the world’s best military hardware and (for the most part) enjoyed the political backing of the world’s greatest power. The tradeoff, however, is that in becoming ever more reliant on the United States it has sacrificed some measure of its freedom of action and thereby eroded its independence.
The erosion was evident as early as October 1973, when, deferring to U.S. pressure, Israel desisted from preempting an imminent Arab attack. To this day it remains a matter of dispute whether preemption was even possible by the point at which it was considered. Henry Kissinger, the American secretary of state at the time, has argued that it was not, but Golda Meir, then Israel’s prime minister, later testified to the contrary. “My heart was drawn to a preemptive strike,” she told the Agranat commission that investigated the war, “but I was scared…. 1973 is not 1967, and this time we will not be forgiven, and we will not receive assistance when we have the need for it.”
In other words, the fear was that, by preempting, Israel would be alone—and that that would be disastrous. In the event, the enemy struck first, the fighting was desperate, and only a massive, last-minute resupply of American weaponry enabled Israel to emerge the winner in a war that cost it thousands of dead.
This has been the general pattern ever since: Israel is expected to show “restraint,” if not to make concessions, in return for hardware and diplomatic backing. The earlier approach of ineffectual “you-will-be-alone” warnings was superseded by a “carrot-and-stick” approach, the carrot being the large military-assistance package.
The method’s effectiveness was on display in 1979, a fourth crucial date, when the United States helped add yet another pillar to Israel’s security as a sovereign state by mediating the peace with Egypt. This would render conventional Arab wars against Israel obsolete—no small benefit, although it is still an open question whether the peace concluded in 1979 was as fundamental to Israel’s security as the achievements Israel made on its own in 1948, 1958, and 1967. Indeed, the peace with Egypt (as well as later with Jordan) rests no less firmly, and maybe more firmly, on those earlier achievements.
One Israeli understood the price of his country’s growing dependence on the United States. In 1981, Israel destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor and bombed a PLO headquarters in Beirut, surprising and angering Washington. True to the carrot-and-stick approach, the Reagan administration proceeded to suspend delivery of fighter jets. Israel’s prime minister Menachem Begin, a man with an acute sense of national pride, rose in righteous indignation in a remarkable statement:
Are we a vassal state of yours? Are we a banana republic? Are we youths of fourteen who, if they don’t behave properly, are slapped across the fingers? Let me tell you who this [Israeli] government is composed of. It is composed of people whose lives were spent in resistance, in fighting and in suffering. You will not frighten us with “punishments.” He who threatens us will find us deaf to his threats. We are only prepared to listen to rational arguments.
Such words from an Israeli prime minister would be unthinkable today, when Israelis have become accustomed to a degree of dependence on the United States that Begin’s generation could never have imagined. The self-sufficient Zionist and Israeli “resistance” to which Begin alluded is a thing of the distant past. Today, it is hard for most Israelis to remember life outside the Pax Americana, before the era of the “unshakable bond” between the two countries.
But this is why, as Israel celebrates its nearly seven decades of independence, it is worth recalling that things were not always like this—and that during its first two decades, when it didn’t depend on the United States, Israel’s very lack of dependence served it well. Despite Washington’s disapproval and admonitions, Israel achieved a number of crucial goals that still form the bedrock of its national security as a viable sovereign state. Had it instead become an American client earlier in its history, it would likely be a far weaker state today.
In this perspective, the Iran deal concluded by the Obama administration last year, and vigorously but futilely opposed by Jerusalem, leaves one wondering whether a scenario might yet arise, possibly sooner than the deal’s expiration, in which Israel will wish it still possessed the freedom of action it enjoyed in its earliest years. Without the tools afforded by its American alliance, Israel would have very few options against Iran. But that very alliance may well foreclose even those options.
Israel declared independence 68 years ago, but being independent is a process, not a moment. That process is still unfolding, and it is still incomplete.
Illustration: Signing Israel’s declaration of independence, May 14, 1948. On left: Ben-Gurion; on right, Sharett. Government Press Office.
On December 4, I spoke at a new forum devoted to articulating a “grand strategy” for Israel, led by former Israeli National Security Adviser Uzi Arad. The day was devoted to understanding the strategies of other states, and I drew the assignment to characterize U.S. strategy. What follows is description, not prescription.
Let me begin with an observation which may seem paradoxical, given the amount of attention we lavish on the Middle East and the fact that I’m a Middle East expert. The Middle East is not a region of overriding U.S. interest. The value of what it produces, excluding oil, is small, and its militaries are largely weak and ineffectual. This limits both the promise and the danger inherent in the region, which traditionally figured somewhere in the middle or lower end of U.S. strategic concerns. The United States was prepared to expend much blood and treasure to put Europe and the Pacific rim on the track to peace and stability. It has never accorded the Middle East the same worth, and the usual approach has been to try to preserve U.S. interests in the region on the cheap.
The United States has four core interests in the Middle East: the free flow of oil, the security of Israel, countering terrorism, and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction—weapons that would allow Middle Eastern pathologies to spill over and endanger the world. On occasion, some have tried to add the promotion of human rights or democracy to this short list of interests. When that has happened, under the impetus of a Jimmy Carter or a George W. Bush, it’s lasted for a few years, and then dropped off. Democracy and human rights are nice-to-haves for the United States. They are not need-to-haves.
Some might imagine that it is (or should be) a U.S. objective to keep all other powers out of the Middle East. In fact, at no point has the United States believed that upholding the four core U.S. interests requires the exclusion of other powers. Europe, Russia, and China dish out aid, do business, sell arms, and support clients. The United States tolerates their presence, because its own presence is so dominant, and because considerable parts of the Middle East aren’t worth the costs of competing.
To preserve its four core interests, the United States has traditionally adhered to four basic strategies. I’ve given them names for the sake of convenience, but they are my names, and you won’t find them in any American document. They are: delegating, delinking, pairing, and flipping. I’ll explain each one in turn, but what they all have in common is that they are meant to achieve U.S. objectives at the lowest possible cost.
Delegating. Most great empires that have dominated the Middle East had to do so by putting boots on the ground—or, if you want to go all the way back to antiquity, sandals on the ground. The Romans, the Ottomans, and the British—to name a few—incorporated the region in their imperial systems by garrisoning it. The United States has traditionally preferred a different and more economical approach, seeking to dominate the region through allies, clients, friends, and proxies. The United States sells arms, conducts diplomacy, shares intelligence, runs some special ops, launches cruise missiles (and now drones)—everything short of landing the American soldier in full battle gear. When that soldier has been deployed, it has been in extraordinary circumstances, and has had the character of an aberration. The 1958 intervention in Lebanon, the 1982 dispatch of Marines to Beirut, the 1991 Gulf war—these were all short-lived interventions with narrow purposes.
The 2003 Iraq war, along with the Afghan war, were dramatic deviations from the norm—uncharacteristic attempts at nation-building. 9/11 broke the continuity of the American approach, culminating in George W. Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom.” He openly acknowledged that it constituted a sharp departure from traditional U.S. policy, and we are now in the midst of a reversion to the norm. The usual American approach has been to back its friends from a distance, to provision them to fight battles on their own, and to use its technological advantages to deal with threats at a distance. What is the right distance? I commend to you the article in the current GQ entitled “Confessions of a Drone Warrior.” The ideal distance, it turns out, is a hangar somewhere in Nevada. That’s the American way, and it becomes ever more attractive as technology advances.
The bedrock of these U.S. ties is now cooperation in the “war on terror.” 9/11 demonstrated that mass-casualty terrorism against Americans could shift U.S. opinion, distorting cost-benefit analysis in decisions to use force. To avoid a slide back into the region, the United States does everything necessary to keep Al Qaeda wannabes on the run and on their heels. Whenever the United States puts this one boot in, it is precisely in order to keep the other boot out.
Delinking. This second strategy seeks to separate the two areas of endemic conflict, the Israel-centered system and the oil-centered system. After 1948, the Saudis would regularly threaten that U.S. support for Israel could damage U.S. relations with Arab oil producers. Despite this, the United States managed to keep both Israel and the Saudis in tow. But in 1973, in response to an Arab-Israeli war, the Arab oil producers imposed an oil embargo on the United States, driving prices sky high, forcing the United States to ration gasoline, and prompting a recession.
Since then, a basic principle of U.S. strategy has been to delink the Israel-centered and the oil-centered systems, in order to block any chain reaction across the Middle East. It achieved that, first, deliberately, by brokering an Egyptian-Israeli peace that made another big Arab-Israeli war unlikely; and second, inadvertently, by standing by while Khomeini overthrew the Shah, leaving the Saudis and others no choice but to shelter in America’s bosom. Remember that delinking assumes linkage—that the link is real and so has to be broken. The average U.S. policymaker believes in linkage, and many of them think that the fastest way to delink the two systems is progress toward “peace” between Israelis and Palestinians. Even a process that doesn’t produce a final agreement has the ongoing effect of lowering the profile of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the oil-centered system.
Pairing. This consists of finding two adversaries whose rivalry is destabilizing, and knocking their heads together or plying them with incentives to bring them under one American umbrella. Until the Iranian revolution, the Shah’s Iran and Saudi Arabia, perennial rivals, constituted the “two pillars” of U.S. influence in the Gulf, which Washington kept in careful balance. After 1979, Israel and Egypt constituted the stabilizing duo in the Eastern Mediterranean. By definition, pairing means creating an unnatural alliance of wary partners—creating a triangle in which the United States forms the long side. A well-constructed triangle will leave the outsider twisting in the wind. The Egypt-Israel pair did that to Syria, and the Saudi-Iranian pair once boxed in Iraq.
The Iranian revolution broke up the crucial pairing in the Gulf, and one of the endemic problems of U.S. strategy has been the difficulty of forging an alternative. During the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia and Iraq paired against Iran, but that ended disastrously when Iraq invaded Kuwait. The “dual containment” of Iran and Iraq in the 1990s left the Saudis isolated. The removal of Saddam was supposed to make Iraq amenable once again to pairing with the Saudis and the Gulf Arabs. But a Shiite-dominated Iraq was destined to remain aloof from Saudi Arabia, and open to the influence of Iran. Absent a pairing for the Saudis and Gulf Arabs, the United States has had to play the role of the other half, in a costly way.
Flipping. Which brings me to the fourth strategy. Flipping involves engaging an adversary and turning him around. The classic instance was Egypt, which had been a militantly pan-Arab, stridently anti-American Soviet client state, and which the United States flipped into its own orbit. The idea is to focus on that state which is most disruptive of your interests, and slowly drive it to the conclusion that it can’t afford to remain outside the American tent. Why flipping? Containment is hard to preserve against erosion, and it tends to punish peoples more than their rulers. Regime change is risky and fraught with unintended consequences. Flipping isn’t easy, but when it works, it’s regarded as the most economical of all outcomes.
Much fog surrounds the Iran plan of the Obama administration, but the United States could be trying to solve its endemic problem in the Persian Gulf by flipping Iran. The nuclear deal could be an opening to a wider dialogue with Iran, which would bring Iran into some sort of strategic relationship with the United States, on terms no one can predict. In this scenario, the United States would seek to repeat the flipping of Egypt—this time, without a war to facilitate the last stage. Flipping presumes that for every Nasser there is a Sadat (read: Ahmedinejad, Rouhani), and that everyone has their price. It also presumes that the United States can drive down the price by a mix of incentives and threats. No one in the Obama administration dares hint today that this is the longer-term strategy, but it’s no doubt hiding in the back of many minds.
On the basis of what I’ve just outlined, it is useful to think of the Obama administration’s policy in the Middle East not as a retreat (or “appeasement”) but as an effort to get back to what worked for the United States in the past. It is a nostalgic project. And as we know from public opinion polling, that is just what Americans want. They wish to go back to the good old days, when a few clever people in pinstripe suits and a few well-placed intel assets could keep the Middle East on the back burner where it belongs.
There is much to be said for the argument that American obsessing about the Middle East has been a distraction from more important agendas. But preserving the four key interests I mentioned earlier requires an ongoing and determined effort to play a skilled game. The United States claims it intends to remain engaged in the Middle East. As it repositions itself, the credibility of that claim is sure to be tested.
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Provocative assessment of US Middle East policy by the always insightful Martin Kramer. http://t.co/un60932DJC
— Robert Satloff (@robsatloff) December 10, 2013
This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on December 2.
Last week, John Kerry appeared with British foreign secretary William Hague in London, and they congratulated one another on concluding their nuclear deal with Iran. Kerry expressed American gratitude for Britain’s support. “We are determined to press forward,” he said, “and give further life to this very special relationship and to our common objectives.”
It was President John F. Kennedy who first extended the concept of a “special relationship” beyond Britain to include Israel. In December 1962, Kennedy met with Israel’s then-foreign minister, Golda Meir, in Palm Beach, Florida, and the American memorandum of conversation reported his assurance in these words: “The United States, the President said, has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to that which it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs.”
The State Department disliked this. A few months earlier, the Near East and South Asia Bureau had put together a memo on U.S.-Israel relations. “Israel’s proposals for a special relationship with the U.S. would be self-defeating if executed,” it argued. “We consider it important not to give in to Israeli and domestic pressures for a special relationship in national security matters.” But Kennedy spoke the words, and even if their definition remained foggy, they provided some reassurance to Israel every time an American president or secretary of state uttered them.
Which is why it’s worth noting that John Kerry doesn’t utter them. To the best I can determine, in his present job, he hasn’t ever described the U.S.-Israel relationship as “special.” Susan Rice, while at the UN, did so on several occasions, and Senator Kerry did it when he ran for president back in 2004 and again to AIPAC in 2009. But as best as I can tell (and I would welcome contrary evidence), he hasn’t done it as secretary of state, and that stands in striking contrast to his repeated invocation of the “special relationship” with Britain.
For example, last February he visited London and said this (Hague beaming at his side):
When you think of everything that binds the United States and Great Britain—our common values, our long shared history, our ties of family, in my case, personal and friendship—there is a reason why we call this a special relationship, or as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron wrote, really, a partnership of the heart. It is that.
In June, Kerry (again with Hague at his side) stressed the “special relationship,” which he declared to be “grounded in so much—our history, our values, our traditions. It is, without question, an essential, if not the essential relationship.”
And in September, when Britain’s parliament voted down a motion to join the U.S. in the use of force in Syria, Kerry rushed to declare the “special relationship” intact:
The relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom has often been described as special, essential. And it has been described thusly, quite simply, because it is. It was before a vote the other day in parliament, and it will be for long afterwards after that vote. Our bond, as William [Hague] has just said, is bigger than one vote; it’s bigger than one moment in history. It’s about values. It’s about rules of the road, rules by which human beings try to organize their societies and offer people maximum freedom and opportunity, respecting rights, and finding a balance in a very complicated world. And we have no better partner in that effort than Great Britain, and we are grateful for that.
Quite early, the Obama administration earned a reputation in British public opinion for showing insufficient respect for the “special relationship,” and Kerry may see his mission as repairing that impression. But then the Obama administration stands no higher in Israeli public opinion, and Kerry sees no need to do any work of repair (and a few things he has said have heaped insult on injury).
President Obama does refer to the “special relationship” with Israel, but coming from him, the phrase means a bit less than it once did. That’s because he’s upgraded Britain to something even higher. On the eve of Obama’s visit to Britain in May 2011, he and British prime minister David Cameron published a joint op-ed in the London Times that included this sentence: “Ours is not just a special relationship, it is an essential relationship—for us and for the world.” (The headline: “Not Just Special, But An Essential Relationship.”) Suddenly, the word “essential” started cropping up in references to the relationship with Britain (see also two of the Kerry quotes above). “Essential” is now the new platinum card in relations with the United States, and Britain alone holds one. (That’s why having Britain on board the Iran deal was so important to the Obama administration, and it’s why Hague was assigned the role of setting Israel straight: “We would discourage anybody in the world, including Israel, from taking any steps that would undermine this agreement and we will make that very clear to all concerned.” How pleased he must have been to categorize Israel among the world’s “anybodies.”)
Still, while Obama may have promoted Britain, he didn’t demote Israel. And as John Kennedy made clear more than fifty years ago, the two belong in a league of their own. Just what makes a “special relationship”? It’s more than democracy—the world is full of democracies. It’s not “shared values,” since American values are widely shared around the world. What compels the United States openly to acknowledge two “special relationships” is that two foreign states embody old cultures to which the American public feels profoundly and uniquely indebted.
Given that debt, the U.S. government assumes the obligation to show a bit of respect and work a little harder to make its case, when its biggest-knows-best policies impinge on the interests of those two states. When they dissent, as Britain did over Syria and Israel now does over Iran, it’s their privilege to do so and still win American praise as “special” friends who are entitled to speak their minds freely. For an example of how it’s done, see the Kerry quote above, following the British balk on Syria. So far, there’s no equivalent for Israel over Iran.
The U.S. government’s recognition of a “special relationship” doesn’t create a fact, it acknowledges a debt felt deeply by the American people. John Kerry apparently doesn’t fully grasp that reality in regard to Israel. But then, little in his Mideast diplomacy suggests that reality constrains him anyway.
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