The brouhaha over what Hillary Clinton said was Israel’s calculated "insult" to the United States is escalating into what many characterize as a "crisis" in US-Israeli relations, a turning point in which the terms of the "special relationship" are about to undergo a major change. When Joe Biden berated his hosts for making the settlements announcement as he arrived on Israeli soil, it was as if a light bulb went off over his head:
"This is starting to get dangerous for us," Biden is reported to have said. "What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace."
"Starting to get dangerous for us"? I find it difficult to believe this is the first time anyone in Washington has noticed the chief strategic consequence of the Iraq war, and that is what might be called the umbrella effect. Due to the heavy US presence in Iraq, the Mediterranean, and the Persian Gulf, Israel feels empowered to push a brazenly expansionist agenda. The umbrella effect was a key reason why the Israel lobby pushed hard for the invasion and occupation of Iraq: it put US soldiers in between the Israelis and their multifold enemies in the region.
Whether that was the intention all along is largely irrelevant. Ensconced smack dab in the middle of the Arab world, our troops were and are sitting ducks, useful to the Israelis because their presence diverts Arab anger and retaliation away from Israel and toward other targets – namely, American soldiers in Iraq.
Furthermore, the inevitable consequence of the invasion was to place US soldiers in a position where they could be dragged in to a wider war in the Middle East on Israel’s behalf. The conquest of Iraq implied a continuing and wider effort by the US to "transform" the region, a conflict that would, not so coincidentally, improve Israel’s position, and indeed this was the rhetoric employed by the Bush administration and its supporters in the run-up to the Iraq war.
The news that it was General David Petraeus, CENTCOM commander and author of the Iraq "surge," who raised the alarm over the regional consequences of Israeli intransigence back in January, is indicative of a point I have long made in this space: that ever since 9/11, objective circumstances required a US tilt away from Israel. That the impetus for a policy change is coming from Petraeus underscores the objective nature of the conditions forcing US policymakers to confront what has by now become a serious military problem.
Unfortunately for Petraeus and the US officer corps, this is a major domestic political problem for the Obama administration, which is loath to take on the Israel lobby – and with good reason. Which is why they’re backpedaling furiously, and denying Biden ever said or meant what he clearly did mean and did say.
The outcry in Congress, from Democrats as well as Republicans, in Israel’s defense has been almost comical in its outlandish support for a foreign country over one’s own: a kind of inverse Bizarro-patriotism of the sort that we haven’t seen since US leftists waved the flag of the National Liberation Front at antiwar rallies during the Vietnam era. The big difference being that this fifth column is enormously successful and influential, motivating Democrats to denounce a President and an administration of their own party, and orchestrating such an outcry that the Pentagon and the State Department will be forced to back down.
In any conflict between objective reality and political reality, when it comes to foreign policy the latter is bound to win out. That is why Israel and its lobby in America have invested so many resources into influencing US public opinion, and, more than that, setting the parameters of the debate – such as it is – over US policy in the Middle East, and US relations with the Jewish state.
The long arm of the Israelis reaches directly into the US via an active and well-funded lobby, which reflexively defends the actions of the Israeli government and seeks to discredit the Palestinian cause in every venue. Up until recently it was impossible to say this without being called all sorts of nasty names. More recently, however, while the nastiness has if anything escalated, the smear brigade is less successful at driving their opponents to the margins of public discourse. Objective reality – otherwise known as the truth – matters. Dead US soldiers whose demise could have been prevented matter greatly – and that somber reality can be masked by propaganda and "spin" only so long.
General Petraeus is concerned with the safety of his troops, and so it was the military that took the lead in this instance. Unfortunately, this is one battle that the politicians are none too eager to fight, and my guess is that this crisis will pass – although of course it will continue to bubble underground, periodically coming to the surface at key junctures, reminding our "leaders" that reality always has the last word.
Military and strategic imperatives demand a rupture, or at least a radical divergence, between the US and Israel: political reality forbids it. As the old song puts it: something’s gotta give.