Beyond a ‘strategic liability’–the special relationship has made the U.S. ugly

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I received one of the coveted invitations to Tuesday’s Nixon Center’s debate between Chas Freeman and Robert Satloff over whether Israel is or is not an American strategic asset. It was a sign of the intense interest in the topic (and perhaps too in Chas Freeman) that, in the dog days of summer, it looked to be the most popular Nixon Center luncheon of the year. The guest list seemed almost scientifically balanced: in apparently equal number were representatives from the sturdy Arabist Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and several more or less like-minded organizations, as well as from AIPAC, the ADL, the JTA. But with one exception, the audience was exceedingly polite throughout. 

In his prepared remarks, Chas Freeman described succinctly all that the US does for Israel, financially and diplomatically, then noted that the it gets in return virtually none of the strategic benefits one typically receives from allies. Israel is so unpopular in its region that its participation in any joint project is sufficient to drive others away. For his part, Satloff claimed that Israel is America’s best bargain for ally ever. In manner, he was almost smugly confident and self assured. At the outset he talked about his reluctance at accepting the invitation, wondering whether his participation would “lend legitimacy” to a question which is out there “on the fringes, (though not only there)” . He stated that the issue of Israel’s strategic value was never debated “in the Situation Room” and nor by a “vast majority” of military leaders and national security specialists agree, across the political spectrum. I suspect if Satloff was so certain of this, he wouldn’t have bothered to come. 

Like David Frum, (but for different reasons) I found the debate interesting but slightly unsatisfying. I think Freeman’s points are unassailable, but there would be many who would also be persuaded that Israel proved itself as a Cold War ally, demonstrating the superiority of American avionics (in dogfights with Syria) and, through its military strength, weakening the Soviet foothold in the region. (Walt and Mearsheimer also wrote there was much to be said for Israel’s strategic value during the Cold War.) And I would acknowledge that these points in Israel’s favor were not anticipated by the early Cold War strategists who felt, initially, that American support for Israel would be incredibly costly in geostrategic terms, in the short and medium term. Satloff of course also emphasized Israel’s technical prowess, its success in devolping drones so Americans can strike Afghan targets from computer screens in Nevada, and its high tech industry. All very Dan Senor– though it’s never explained why Israel needs to occupy the West Bank and starve Gaza for its computer industry to thrive. Satloff seemed pleased to contrast the relative peace around Israel with the situation in the Gulf: See, Americans, for the cost of a mere $100 billion in aid, the Levant plus Egypt is relatively pacified, while the Gulf is full of war.

I think Freeman was excellent, but what I believe is his most salient point he expressed tangentially, and in segments, and in truth is not the kind of thing that can be argued well in debate, because it is grounded in sentiment and inference rather than cold facts. I would put it this way: that the nature of Washington’s alliance with Israel, and especially the extreme deference to Israeli sensibilities that seems inextricable from it, had pulled the United States into an ever expanding arc of conflict with the Muslim world, a conflict that is far from inevitable and in fact unnecessary—and that this conflict has made us a target of terrorism and has already eroded our constitutional liberties, as well as costing us hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of dead and wounded. Freeman noted that several terrorist operatives have mentioned American support for Israel as an important motivator for their actions, but they have other, also serious, reasons for their hatred. Would the United States have had troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, the residue of the first Iraq war, without Israel and its lobby? A case could be made either way. I don’t believe we would be at war with Iraq now without Israel, though the proponents of that war now work overtime to claim that no, Iran was always Israel’s preferred target. We certainly would not be working ourselves into a froth over the remote possibility of an Iranian nuclear deterrent without Israel’s prodding.

But how exactly do you quantify the cost of appearing as blatantly hypocritical (about democracy, about human rights) to hundreds of millions of Muslims? Satloff can and did claim that Arabs (quietly) support a war against Iran and say that when Arab governments complain about American support for Zionism, it is more or less meaningless. Perhaps it is; the governments are weak, autocratic, not very effective and hardly beloved by their own people.

The question period was slightly more expansive. Joe Klein (who I would depict as near neutral in this debate) asked in his signature fashion a pointed question to each figure. I asked Satloff whether his calculus might change if the two-state solution negotiation were to end (or to be generally acknowledged to be over) and Israel was seen, more clearly as a state denying political rights to four million people under occupation. His answer surprised me: there has been a two state negotiation going on since 1937 (the time of an early British partition proposal) and it’s still ongoing. He could not have made it clearer that Israel and its American spokesman enjoy the pretext of a peace process—it can go on forever!– while Israel, which got its state 62 years ago, continues to settle and seize the land it wants.

Satloff was full of condescending praise for the Obama administration for “correcting its error” of asking for a settlement freeze in Jerusalem as a prelude to negotiations. Indeed, he smugly noted that Obama had learned the error of his ways very quickly, so deserved double praise! Generally I found Satloff an interesting character, exuding confidence, expressing forceful talking points at every turn. And they all take a moment to unravel—yes, what he said is a kind of half-truth, and the other half is false. But if the statements come cascading out, expressed rapidly and cogently enough, it can work. I imagine that being in a room with Netanyahu has the same effect.

The one volatile moment came when someone with an Israeli accent (from the guest list I surmise it was Amitai Etzioni, but I’m not certain) challenged Freeman for claiming that one of the things America had learned from Israel was targeted assassination and torture. He was vehement, and mentioned (a good debating point) the Phoenix program in Vietnam. Freeman replied that he had heard first-hand from Israelis about Israeli assassinations and torture, Israelis who had grown repulsed by them. The element that isn’t revealed in the exchange is a complex one—what our interrogators have learned from Israeli ones, whether the entire Israeli colonizing discourse about Muslims, and sex and shame has fed into Abu Ghraib type atrocities. I believe it has, but connecting the dots can’t done in a debate.

In his post on this, David Frum says that Freeman didn’t play the part of coldly calculated realist. I think there’s something to this, and Chas, though he certainly has excellent realist credentials, does argue and think in terms of values as well. So do most realists I know. Coming away from the debate, I felt more strongly that the question of Israel in the United States is going to be decided on the basis of values, as much as strategic costs and benefits. That’s a realm where Israel as a democracy has an overwhelming advantage, and where Israel as an apartheid occupier has none whatsoever.

About Scott McConnell

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of the American Conservative. The former editorial page editor of The New York Post, he has written for Fortune, The New Criterion, National Review, Commentary and many other publications.

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