From the perspective of a noninterventionist, President Obama’s foreign policy has been a disaster. Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, and now the stalled withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan – all this and more is evidence that the candidate who campaigned against the reckless policies of his predecessor has turned out to be worse, in many ways, than George W. Bush. However, in one area his recent actions have made us proud, and that is in his dealings with the rogue state of Israel.
Not that he started out that way. When Joe Biden went to Israel and was ambushed by his ungracious hosts – who took the opportunity to announce a new round of "settlement" building – there were no consequences for Tel Aviv. When the IDF attacked Gaza in alleged retaliation for a rogue attack on Israeli schoolboys, the President stood by while Israel rained death on Palestinian children – the main victims of the war – and again there were no consequences. And don’t forget the competition between candidate Obama and Mitt Romney over who could kowtow to Bibi Netanyahu more obsequiously: all in all a most unedifying spectacle.
Yet any President of these United States, no matter from which party, is bound to at least appear to be advancing American interests throughout the world, whether not these clash with Israel’s foreign policy agenda. And since – contrary to the Israel First crowd – the US and Israel are separate countries, with different interests, this clash is bound to occur no matter how close the "special relationship" may appear to be.
Furthermore, it is simply a fact of geopolitical reality that, ever since the 9/11 attacks, the clash of interests has become more apparent, and divisive, in spite of the initial solidarity that developed between Washington and Tel Aviv. The United States, faced with an assault by radical Sunnis intent on fighting a worldwide jihad against our interests, had to find Arab/Muslim allies in order to dispute Osama bin Laden’s claim to represent all Muslims everywhere. In short, it was necessary to split the Muslim world and drain the pool of potential recruits to Al Qaeda.
A more reasonable Israeli leadership might have understood and even sympathized with Washington’s predicament. But not this one. Whatever adjectives one might use to describe the current Likud-led Israeli government, "reasonable" is not among them. The extremism infecting Israel’s polity for many years has become the dominant force in that country’s political life: extremism is now the Israeli "mainstream," and ideas that would have once been laughed off as marginal are routinely coming out of the mouths of the Israeli political class.
The Israelis wanted us to declare war against over one billion Muslims – to essentially concede bin Laden’s point that he represented Islam. And we went along with it for a while: the neoconservative project to "drain the swamp" of the Middle East and propel it into modernity by force of arms was taken up by the administration of George W. Bush, with disastrous results. But even Bush had his limits. At the end of his last term, when the Israelis were pressuring Washington to launch a military strike against Iran, Bush – having apparently reached the endpoint of his capacity for appeasing Tel Aviv – declined to do so (over Dick Cheney’s objection).
Iran has always been the ultimate target in Israel’s longstanding campaign to eliminate all possible rivals to its regional hegemony. No sooner had the Iraq war commenced when then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reminded his American patrons that the next victims had to be Syria, Libya, and Iran. With Libya checked off, and Syria on its knees, only the Iranians remain standing. Yet America – weakened by perpetual war, and consumed by its own internal crisis – is reluctant to follow its marching orders this time.
Obama was patient with the Israelis – too patient. He put up with their pushiness, their public tantrums, their open insults for as long as he could and still maintain the dignity of his office and the country he represents on the world stage. However, when push came to shove, and the drumbeat for war with Iran reached a crescendo of bloodthirstiness – while his own intelligence apparatus told him Iran had given up its quest for nuclear weapons in 2003 – he suddenly remembered which country he was supposed to be looking out for. Contemplating the prospect of his legacy being war with Iran – a conflict that would resemble World War III in all too many respects – he decided to make overtures to Tehran.
The Iranians, who have been seeking an accord with the US for many years, responded positively – and the stage was set for the current clash between Washington and Tel Aviv.
The Israelis reacted with characteristic aggressiveness. Utilizing the same weapon they’ve unsheathed in every conflict with an American President since the Eisenhower era – their powerful Washington lobby – they launched a massive propaganda campaign, the culmination of which was a scheme for Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress, a deal struck with the Republican leadership behind the President’s back. This was followed by the now infamous "open letter" authored by Sen. Tom Cotton and signed by 47 Senate Republicans advising Tehran not to sign anything because a GOP administration would quickly repudiate the deal.
The Obama administration averred that this kind of canoodling with a foreign power at America’s expense is "unprecedented," clearly forgetting about the Federalist party’s plotting with the British during the War of 1812. Not to mention Netanyahu’s implicit endorsement of Romney in 2012.
In any case, the Obama administration’s reaction to Netanyahu’s reelection – and the tactics he deployed to win – are a real slap in the face for Israel. And never was a nation so deserving of the back of America’s hand. The President delayed making the traditional phone call to the victor, and when he did it was anything but congratulatory. Obama scolded the Prime Minister for repudiating his previous support for a two-state solution and for race-baiting Israeli Arabs with his comment about "droves" of them being "bused in" to vote against him.
Now, this kind of thing has happened before: after all, the "special relationship" has been unraveling for many years. However, this is the first time this kind of dirty laundry has been aired in public, with the President going on the record in an interview with the Huffington Post.
I give credit where it is due, and Obama, in this case, has earned it. Yet I don’t attribute this to any special virtue on his part for the simple reason that practically anyone in his position – that is, as chief executive of the American republic – would be compelled to take the same course. For the reality is that the US, far from advancing its interests in going to war with Iran, would be badly hurt by such a conflict, no matter what its outcome. And no occupant of the Oval Office could stand for the kind of treatment Obama has been getting from an alleged "ally" without responding in kind. Aside from that, however, the geopolitical reality looms larger: Iran’s interests and our own regional agenda are complementary, at least for the moment. Both Washington and Tehran are eager to defeat ISIS, and not only that but both are fearful of a Sunni jihadist movement with global reach.
This alignment of interests would be true no matter who occupies the White House. Indeed, if we had a Republican President it’s not hard to imagine the battle lines reversed, with Democrats allied with the Israel lobby and Republicans (with the exception of the Cotton-John McCain fifth column) on the other side of the barricades. Perhaps the insults and the scolding would be carried out covertly, but the tensions between Washington and Tel Aviv would persist and steadily worsen.
For a short time, during the first term of the Bush II era, the Israel lobby did indeed succeed in capturing the administration and bending Washington to Tel Aviv’s will: the results were an unmitigated catastrophe. We’re still getting hit in the face with the blowback. But even Bush began to pull away from the Israelis and their neocon agents of influence in the final months of his presidency. The lessons learned by the leaders of both parties from that fateful episode are not likely to be soon forgotten.
And while I don’t give Obama any special props for doing his duty and upholding American interests as opposed to Israeli interests, I have to say it’s a refreshing sight to behold. For once an American chief executive is standing up to the Israelis, and telling them he’s had enough. It is particularly gratifying to see Bibi stumbling all over himself trying to backtrack on his repudiation of the two-state solution: I guess Obama’s threat to "evaluate what other options are available," as well as numerous similar statements by administration spokesmen, made this would-be Churchill go full Chamberlain.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.