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America's Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East
By Chas W. Freeman Jr.
Just World Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Chas W. Freeman, Jr.
All rights reserved.
Is Israel a Strategic Asset or Liability for the United States?
July 20, 2010
Is Israel a strategic asset or liability for the United States?
In my view, there are many reasons for Americans to wish the Jewish state well. Under current circumstances, strategic advantage for the United States is not one of them. If we were to reverse the question, however, and to ask whether the United States is a strategic asset or liability for Israel, there would be no doubt about the answer.
American taxpayers fund between 20 and 25 percent of Israel's defense budget (depending on how you calculate it). Twenty-six percent of the $3 billion in military aid we grant to the Jewish state each year is spent in Israel on Israeli defense products. Uniquely, Israeli companies are treated like American companies for purposes of U.S. defense procurement. Thanks to congressional earmarks, we also often pay half the costs of special Israeli research and development projects, even when — as in the case of defense against very short-range unguided missiles — the technology being developed is essentially irrelevant to our own military requirements. In short, in many ways, American taxpayers fund jobs in Israel's military industries that could have gone to our own workers and companies. Meanwhile, Israel gets pretty much whatever it wants in terms of our top-of-the-line weapons systems, and we pick up the tab.
Identifiable U.S. government subsidies to Israel total over $140 billion since 1949. This makes Israel by far the largest recipient of American giveaways since World War II. The total would be much higher if aid to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and support for Palestinians in refugee camps and the occupied territories were included. These programs have complex purposes but are justified in large measure in terms of their contribution to the security of the Jewish state.
Per capita income in Israel is now about $37,000 — on a par with the UK. Israel is nonetheless the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, accounting for well over a fifth of it. Annual U.S. government transfers run at well over $500 per Israeli, not counting the costs of tax breaks for private donations and loans that aren't available to any other foreign country.
These military and economic benefits are not the end of the story. The American government also works hard to shield Israel from the international political and legal consequences of its policies and actions in the occupied territories, against its neighbors, or — most recently — on the high seas. The nearly forty vetoes the United States has cast to protect Israel in the UN Security Council are the tip of the iceberg. We have blocked a vastly larger number of potentially damaging reactions to Israeli behavior by the international community. The political costs to the United States internationally of having to spend our political capital in this way are huge.
Where Israel has no diplomatic relations, U.S. diplomats routinely make its case for it. As I know from personal experience (having been thanked by the then-government of Israel for my successful efforts on Israel's behalf in Africa), the U.S. government has been a consistent promoter and often the funder of various forms of Israeli programs of cooperation with other countries. It matters also that America — along with a very few other countries — has remained morally committed to the Jewish experiment with a state in the Middle East. Many more Jews live in America than in Israel. Resolute American support should be an important offset to the disquiet about current trends that has led more than 20 percent of Israelis to emigrate, many of them to the United States, where Jews enjoy unprecedented security and prosperity.
Clearly, Israel gets a great deal from us. Yet it's pretty much taboo in the United States to ask what's in it for Americans. I can't imagine why. Still, the question I've been asked to address today is just that: What's in it — and not in it — for us to do all these things for Israel?
We need to begin by recognizing that our relationship with Israel has never been driven by strategic reasoning. It began with President Truman overruling his strategic and military advisers in deference to personal sentiment and political expediency. We had an arms embargo on Israel until Lyndon Johnson dropped it in 1964 in explicit return for Jewish financial support for his campaign against Barry Goldwater. In 1973, for reasons peculiar to the Cold War, we had to come to the rescue of Israel as it battled Egypt. The resulting Arab oil embargo cost us dearly. And then there's all the time we've put into the perpetually ineffectual and now long defunct "peace process."
Still, the U.S.–Israel relationship has had strategic consequences. There is no reason to doubt the consistent testimony of the architects of major acts of anti-American terrorism about what motivates them to attack us. In the words of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is credited with masterminding the 9/11 attacks, their purpose was to focus "the American people ...on the atrocities that America is committing by supporting Israel against the Palestinian people." As Osama bin Laden, purporting to speak for the world's Muslims, has said again and again: "The cause of our disagreement with you is your support to your Israeli allies who occupy our land of Palestine." Some substantial portion of the many lives and the trillions of dollars we have so far expended in our escalating conflict with the Islamic world must be apportioned to the costs of our relationship with Israel.
It's useful to recall what we generally expect allies and strategic partners to do for us. In Europe, Asia, and elsewhere in the Middle East, they provide bases and support the projection of American power beyond their borders. They join us on the battlefield in places like Kuwait and Afghanistan or underwrite the costs of our military operations. They help recruit others to our coalitions. They coordinate their foreign aid with ours. Many defray the costs of our use of their facilities with "host nation support" that reduces the costs of our military operations from and through their territory. They store weapons for our troops' use. They pay cash for the weapons we transfer to them.
Israel does none of these things and shows no interest in doing them. Perhaps it can't. It is so estranged from everyone else in the Middle East that no neighboring country will accept flight plans that originate in or transit it. Israel is therefore useless in terms of support for American power projection. It has no allies other than us. It has developed no friends. Israeli participation in our military operations would preclude the cooperation of many others. Meanwhile, Israel has become accustomed to living on the American military dole. The notion that Israeli taxpayers might help defray the expense of U.S. military or foreign assistance operations, even those undertaken at Israel's behest, would be greeted with astonishment in Israel and incredulity on Capitol Hill.
Military aid to Israel is sometimes justified by the notion of Israel as a test bed for new weapons systems and operational concepts. But no one can identify a program of military R&D in Israel that was initially proposed by our men and women in uniform. All originated with Israel or members of Congress acting on its behalf. Moreover, what Israel makes it sells not just to the United States but to China, India, and other major arms markets. It feels no obligation to take U.S. interests into account when it transfers weapons and technology to third countries and does so only under duress.
Meanwhile, it's been decades since Israel's air force faced another in the air. It has come to specialize in bombing civilian infrastructure and militias with no air defenses. There is not much for the U.S. Air Force to learn from that. Similarly, the Israeli navy confronts no real naval threat. Its experience in interdicting infiltrators, fishermen, and humanitarian aid flotillas is not a model for the U.S. Navy to study. Israel's army, however, has had lessons to impart. Now in its fifth decade of occupation duty, it has developed techniques of pacification, interrogation, assassination, and drone attack that inspired U.S. operations in Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, Somalia, Yemen, and Waziristan. Recently, Israel has begun to deploy various forms of remote-controlled robotic guns. These enable operatives at faraway video screens summarily to execute anyone they view as suspicious. Such risk-free means of culling hostile populations could conceivably come in handy in some future American military operation, but I hope not. I have a lot of trouble squaring the philosophy they embody with the values Americans have traditionally aspired to exemplify.
It is sometimes said that, to its credit, Israel does not ask the United States to fight its battles for it; it just wants the money and weapons to fight them on its own. Leave aside the question of whether Israel's battles are, or should be, America's. It is no longer true that Israel does not ask us to fight for it. The fact that prominent American apologists for Israel were the most energetic promoters of the U.S. invasion of Iraq does not, of course, prove that Israel was the instigator of that grievous misadventure, but the very same people are now urging an American military assault on Iran explicitly to protect Israel and to preserve its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. Their advocacy is fully coordinated with the government of Israel. No one in the region wants a nuclear-armed Iran, but Israel is the only country pressing Americans to go to war over this.
Finally, the need to protect Israel from mounting international indignation about its behavior continues to do grave damage to our global and regional standing. It has severely impaired our ties with the world's 1.6 billion Muslims. These costs to our international influence, credibility, and leadership are, I think, far more serious than the economic and other burdens of the relationship.
Against this background, it's remarkable that something as fatuous as the notion of Israel as a strategic asset could have become the unchallengeable conventional wisdom in the United States. Perhaps it's just that as Hitler once said, "People ...will more easily fall victim to a big lie than a small one." Be that as it may, the United States and Israel have a lot invested in our relationship. Basing our cooperation on a thesis and narratives that will not withstand scrutiny is dangerous. It is especially risky in the context of current fiscal pressures in the United States. These seem certain soon to force major revisions of both current levels of American defense spending and global strategy, in the Middle East as well as elsewhere. They also place federally funded programs in Israel in direct competition with similar programs here at home. To flourish over the long term, Israel's relations with the United States need to be grounded in reality, not myth, and in peace, not war.CHAPTER 2
America's Faltering Search for Peace in the Middle East: Openings for Others?
September 1, 2010
The declaration of principles worked out in Oslo seventeen years ago was the last direct negotiation between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs to reach consequential, positive results. The Oslo accords were a real step toward peace, not another deceptive pseudo-event in an endlessly unproductive, so-called "peace process." If that one step forward in Oslo in 1993 was followed by several steps backward, there is a great deal to be learned from how and why that happened.
There can be no doubt about the importance of today's topic. The ongoing conflict in the Holy Land increasingly disturbs the world's conscience as well as its tranquility. The Israel-Palestine issue began as a struggle in the context of European colonialism. In the postcolonial era, tension between Israelis and the Palestinians they dispossessed became, by degrees, the principal source of radicalization and instability in the Arab East and then the Arab world as a whole. It stimulated escalating terrorism against Israelis at home and their allies abroad. Since the end of the Cold War, the interaction between Israel and its captive Palestinian population has emerged as the fountainhead of global strife. It is increasingly difficult to distinguish this strife from a war of religions or a conflict of civilizations.
For better or ill, the United States has played and continues to play the key international part in this contest. American policies, more than those of any other external actor, have the capacity to stoke or stifle the hatreds in the Middle East and to spread or reverse their infection of the wider world. American policies and actions in the Middle East thus affect much more than that region.
Yet, as I will argue, the United States has been obsessed with process rather than substance. It has failed to involve parties who are essential to peace. It has acted on Israel's behalf to preempt rather than enlist international and regional support for peace. It has defined the issues in ways that preclude rather than promote progress. Its concept of a "peace process" has therefore become the handmaiden of Israeli expansionism rather than a driver for peace. There are alternatives to tomorrow's diplomatic peace pageant on the Potomac. As Norway has shown, there is a role for powers other than America in crafting peace in the Holy Land.
Over thirty years ago, at Camp David, Jimmy Carter pushed Israel through the door to peace that Egypt's Anwar Sadat had opened. Twenty years ago, the first Bush administration pressed Israel to the negotiating table with Palestinian leaders, setting the stage for their clandestine meetings in Oslo. The capacity of the United States to rally other governments behind a cause that it espouses may have atrophied, but American power remains far greater than that of any other nation. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East.
For more than four decades, Israel has been able to rely on aid from the United States to dominate its region militarily and to sustain its economic prosperity. It has counted on its leverage in American politics to block the application of international law and to protect itself from the political repercussions of its policies and actions. Unquestioning American support has enabled Israel to put the seizure of ever more land ahead of the achievement of a modus vivendi with the Palestinians or other Arabs. Neither violent resistance from the dispossessed nor objections from abroad have brought successive Israeli governments to question, let alone alter the priority they assign to land over peace.
Ironically, Palestinians too have developed a dependency relationship with America. This has locked them into a political framework over which Israel exercises decisive influence. They have been powerless to end occupation, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and other humiliations by Jewish soldiers and settlers. Nor have they been able to prevent their progressive confinement in checkpoint-encircled ghettos on the West Bank and in the great open-air prison of Gaza.
Despite this appalling record of failure, the American monopoly on the management of the search for peace in Palestine remains unchallenged. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia — once a contender for countervailing influence in the region — has lapsed into impotence. The former colonial powers of the European Union, having earlier laid the basis for conflict in the region, have largely sat on their hands while ringing them, content to let America take the lead. China, India, and other Asian powers have prudently kept their political and military distance. In the region itself, Iran has postured and exploited the Palestinian cause without doing anything to advance it. Until recently, Turkey remained aloof.
On rare occasions, as in the case of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the Arabs have backed their verbal opposition to Israel with action. Egypt and Jordan have settled into an unpopular coexistence with Israel that is now sustained only by U.S. subventions. Saudi Arabia has twice taken the initiative to offer Israel diplomatic concessions if it were to conclude arrangements for peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians. Overall, though, Arab governments have earned the contempt of the Palestinians and their own people for their lack of serious engagement. For the most part, Arab leaders have timorously demanded that America solve the Israel-Palestine problem for them, while obsequiously courting American protection against Israel, each other, Iran, and — in some cases — their own increasingly frustrated and angry subjects and citizens.
Islam charges rulers with the duty to defend the faithful and to uphold justice. It demands that they embody righteousness. The resentment of mostly Muslim Arabs at their governing elites' failure to meet these standards generates sympathy for terrorism directed not just at Israel but at both the United States and Arab governments associated with it.
Excerpted from America's Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East by Chas W. Freeman Jr.. Copyright © 2016 Chas W. Freeman, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Just World Publishing, LLC.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Lessons from America's Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East 11
Part 1 The Role of the Israel-Palestine Conflict 21
Is Israel a Strategic Asset or Liability for the United States? 23
America's Faltering Search for Peace in the Middle East: Openings for Others? 28
Failed Interventions and What They Teach 41
Israel-Palestine: The Consequences of the Conflict 53
Hasbara and the Control of Narrative as an Element of Strategy 63
Grand Waffle in the Middle East 69
Israel's Fraying Image and Its Implications 75
Part 2 After the Arab Uprisings: Regression and Anarchy 81
The Arab Reawakening and Its Strategic Implications 83
After Abbottabad: Islam and the West 93
The Mess in the Middle East 99
About Syria 112
The Collapse of Order in the Middle East 116
Part 3 The Middle East and the World Beyond It 127
The Challenge of Asia 129
Change without Progress in the Middle East 141
The United States, the Middle East, and China 155
Coping with Kaleidoscopic Change in the Middle East 162
The Middle East and China 172
Part 4 The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy 181
Paramountcy Lost: Challenges for American Diplomacy in a Competitive World Order 183
Nobody's Century: The American Prospect in Post-Imperial Times 192
Obama's Foreign Policy and the Future of the Middle East 203
The Geopolitics of the Iran Nuclear Negotiations 210
Saudi Arabia and the Oil Price Collapse 217
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia: Marriage of Convenience on the Rocks? 222
Too Quick on the Draw: Militarism and the Malpractice of Diplomacy in America 228
Conclusion: Fixing the Mess in the Middle East 239
About the Author 253