Superpower Outage

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on November 13.

Jonathan Tobin, writing at the Commentary blog, rightly dismisses as dangerous any Israeli attempt to play China or Russia off the United States out of frustration with the Iran policy of the Obama administration. When it comes to dealing with the immediate threat posed by Iran, only Washington has superpower leverage, and if Israel wanders off the reservation, it will only damage itself.

But Jonathan makes a further claim: “Israel’s long-term safety must be seen as linked to the ability of the United States to maintain its status as the leader of the free world. Even at times of great tension with Washington, Israelis must never forget that it is not just that they have no viable alternatives to the U.S. but that American power remains the best hope of freedom for all nations.” This “linkage” is problematic, and its acceptance could blind Israelis to what they need to do to survive through the next half-century.

The problem with American power, like all power, is that it waxes and wanes. We have become used to the notion that U.S. preeminence in the world and the Middle East is a constant. But it isn’t so. Geography has rendered the United States the most self-contained superpower in history. As a result, it goes through manic bouts of interventionism and isolationism, and sometimes awakens to the responsibilities of its power too late. It did so during the Holocaust, and it did so during the first years of Israeli independence, when the fledgling Jewish state had to look to the Soviet Union and France for the arms essential to its defense. The simple truth is that Israel cannot rely on the United States to do just the right thing at just the right time. That’s at the heart of the crisis of confidence between the United States and Israel over Iran, and its sources run deeper than the particular world view of Barack Obama.

More than six years ago, before Obama even declared his candidacy, I told the Conference of Presidents that “America’s era in the Middle East will end one day,” and that “it is possible that in twenty years’ time, America will be less interested and engaged in the Middle East. What is our Plan B then?” Obama accelerated that timetable, but the long-term trend has been clear for years. And one doesn’t have to be a “declinist” to realize that the United States can lead the free world and still write off the Middle East, which isn’t part of it. That’s precisely the mood in America today.

Hedging has been a fundamental principle of Zionism from its inception. That’s how it managed to outlast the fall of two empires that dominated the Middle East in the pre-state decades. When political Zionism emerged, the Ottoman Empire still held sway over the land, and Theodor Herzl went as a supplicant to the sultan’s palace in Istanbul. As late as 1912, the future first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, and the future second president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, went to Istanbul to study Ottoman law, on the assumption that they would have to build the Yishuv under the same Ottoman power that had ruled the country for four centuries. (Here they are, looking like the deputies to the Ottoman parliament they planned to become.) A few years later, Ottoman power collapsed. Fortunately, Chaim Weizmann had laid the foundations for the support of the Allied victors, above all the British, whose empire now expanded to encompass the core of the Middle East.

British dominance in Palestine lasted for thirty years, during which London became the center of Zionist political activity. Britain was the mother of democracy, bastion of freedom, and home to a strong tradition of philo-Judaism and Christian Zionism. Much was made of “shared values.” But Britain, after facilitating the remarkable growth of the Yishuv, backtracked on its commitment to Zionism at the very moment of paramount Jewish need. It was Ben-Gurion who understood that the world war would bring down the British empire across Asia and Africa, Palestine included, and who sought an alliance with the ascendant United States. Still, years would pass before the United States would admit Israel to a “special relationship,” leaving Israel to fend for itself in the world’s arms market. That insecurity drove Israel to ally with Britain and France against Nasser’s Egypt—to Washington’s chagrin—and to build a nuclear capability with French assistance—in defiance of Washington.

Those days may seem distant, and Israel and the United States have had an extraordinary run. But history stands still for no people, and if our history has taught us anything about geopolitics, it is this: what is will not be. However enamored we are of the status quo, Israel needs a Plan B, and it has to consist of more than editorially flogging America for failing to maintain its forward positions in the Middle East. The State of Israel, like Zionism before it, must be agile enough to survive a power outage of any ally, and to plug in elsewhere. If Israel’s long-term safety really did depend on America’s will to govern the world, then it would be a poor substitute for Judaism’s own survival mechanism, by which the Jewish people outlasted the fall of countless host empires. But Israel’s future depends upon something within its own grasp: its ability to read the changing map of the world, to register the ebb and flow of global power, and to adapt as necessary.

Let us pray for the perpetuation of America’s power to do good in the world. Let us prepare for something less.

• Jonathan Tobin replies to this post.