Israel, oil, and realism

Morbid fascination enticed me to accept an invitation to appear opposite John Mearsheimer at a Princeton University conference on “Energy, Security, and the Middle East” which met on Friday. This conference is an annual event, and it’s always held off-the-record. The reason: oil analysts participate, and they want to be free to make predictions on supply, demand, and price that won’t come back to haunt them. For that reason, I can’t report what Mearsheimer or anyone else said—anyone, that is, except me.

In line with the theme of the conference, I decided to begin by asking a simple question. Here’s how I put it:

If you asked the first ten people in line at any 7-Eleven (outside Cambridge, Masssachusetts) to identify a vital U.S. interest in the Middle East, nine of them would point to oil. Yet the word oil appears only three times in the paper by Professors Mearsheimer and Walt. You would think that it flows to us of its own accord, like water down a slope. In fact, an immensely complex machine keeps it moving one with a history as long as the U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

If you are going to maintain that U.S. support for Israel has harmed U.S. vital interests, you have to start with oil. You can finish elsewhere, but you have to start there. So has U.S. support for Israel damaged the most vital, other U.S. interest in the region: the free flow of oil? If it hasn’t, why not? What has the U.S. done right? For surely, reconciling these two interests would have to be counted a success.

Now Professors Mearsheimer and Walt do note correctly that U.S. support for Israel impeded the free flow of oil once, in 1973. But that just prompts a question they don’t ask: why has expanded U.S. support for Israel since 1973 had no impact on the flow oil?

Let me begin to answer with this observation. The distinguishing feature of a superpower is not only that it can sustain seeming contradictions in its policy, but it can turn contradictions into compatibilities. Israel and Arab oil are a case in point.

A problem in U.S. policy did arise in 1973, with the Arab oil embargo. Before that, the U.S. commitment to Israel had been limited. Israel found additional support in Europe, but it still felt vulnerable, and Arab states still believed they could gain by war. In every decade, the insecurity did produce war: 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. The United States was not invested heavily enough in the region to prevent these wars; its diplomacy just kicked in to stop them after exhaustion set in among the warring parties.

Until 1973, such wars did not threaten the oil flow; but that one did. That meant that yet another Arab-Israeli war might have the same impact or worse. The United States therefore resolved to prevent such wars, by creating a security architecture the pax Americana.

How did it do that? One way would have been to squeeze Israel relentlessly. But the United States understood that making Israel feel less secure would only enhance the likelihood of another war. It would also encourage the Arab states to prepare for yet another round. Instead, the U.S. solution was to show such strong support for Israel, as to make Arab states despair of defeating it, and fearful of the cost of trying; and to bring Israel entirely into the U.S. orbit, to make of it a dependent client through arms and aid. The mechanism for tying it all together was and still is the “peace process,” a series of U.S.-mediated Israeli concessions of territory Israel occupied in 1967.

The results of this strategy have been stupendously successful. There has not been a general Arab-Israeli war since 1973. The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty changed the dynamic. Jordan came in later, and Syria has kept its direct front with Israel quiet for just as long. Thanks to this stability, and the absence of destructive wars between Israel and Arab states, 1973 has not been repeated.

Now, Israel continues to confront some Palestinians. But we have learned that even the worst of these contests does not have the same impact as a full-blown war between Israel and Arab states. When these conflicts erupt, Arab oil states send aid to the Palestinians, and they even come up with their own peace initiatives. But they do not threaten an oil embargo against the West or the United States. (There are not even boycotts of U.S. goods. Arab consumers have not punished the United States for its support of Israel the way they have punished Denmark for a few cartoons in its press.)

So I return to my earlier point. A superpower can not only sustain seeming contradictions in its policy, it can turn contradictions into compatibilities. U.S. support for Israel indeed, the illusion of its unconditionality has compelled Israel’s Arab neighbors to join the pax Americana or at least acquiesce in it. And the United States, by enhancing and sustaining support for Israel these past thirty years, has prevented the one kind of Arab-Israeli war that might impede the flow of oil. All this has been done with a comparatively modest investment of treasure, and only symbolic deployments of U.S. forces, well out of harm’s way. (Sinai observers and a few Patriot missile batteries are the sum of it.)

I would expect realists, of all people, to appreciate the success of this policy. After all, the United States manages the pax Americana in the eastern Mediterranean from off-shore, out of the line of sight. Isn’t this precisely where realists think the U.S. should stand? A true realist, I would think, would recoil from any policy shift that might threaten to undermine the pax Americana in the eastern Mediterranean.

Among the many perplexing things in the Mearsheimer/Walt paper, certainly none is so perplexing as this. After all, if the United States were to adopt what they call a more “even-handed” policy, this might increase Israeli insecurity and stoke Arab ambitions. Were such a policy to overshoot its mark, it could raise the likelihood of the only kind of Arab-Israeli war that could endanger access to oil. Why would anyone tempt fate and endanger an absolutely vital American interest by doing so?

That’s why I see the Mearsheimer/Walt paper as a betrayal of the hard-nosed realism they supposedly represent. Readers know that I tend to agree with realists over democracy promotion. I’m not a neo-conservative, I’m an Elie Kedourie conservative. I believe in the careful conservation of structures that bring order and a modicum of civility, even if they aren’t perfect models of “justice.”

So when Mearsheimer and Walt urge “using American power to achieve a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” I wonder whether we are dealing with realism or romanticism. After all, “just peace” is purely subjective, and its definition is contested between and among Palestinians and Israelis. Its blind pursuit might be destabilizing in ways that damage U.S. interests. That hardly seems like a cautious and prudent use of American power. The aim of U.S. policy should be the construction of an American peace, one that serves U.S. interests, not the unstable claims of “justice.”

It’s sometimes said that neo-conservatism is actually the opposite of what its name implies—it’s anything but conservative. The same may well be true of realism—it’s anything but realistic. Beware of misleading labels.