Yes, But Isn’t There a Bigger Issue Here?

The title of this essay is the follow-up question I have always wanted mainstream media reporters to ask a political figure after he or she gives the rote response, "Israel has a right to defend itself" (e.g., Biden, Pence and Buttigieg) after the five million Palestinians confined in the "occupied territories" launch a rocket attack on Israel (typically after Israel has bombed them as happened last week) after 50 years of having lived under oppressive conditions and not having meaningful political rights.

This rote "on message" talking point is a classic case of US political leaders dodging a problem (like our country’s growing national debt crisis) for which they are (or will be if elected) responsible. Congress has given Israel over $142 billion in US foreign aid with no conditions attached over the last 70 years. But instead of using this leverage to address and resolve a contentious and destabilizing issue which our county alone in the world is responsible for perpetuating; federal officeholders just hope it will go away until he or she is out of office.

In the annals of post-World War II "American global leadership," America’s failure to use its self-proclaimed Indispensable Nation status to advance world peace by resolving the long-festering Israel/Palestine conflict in a fair and equitable manner – recognizing the legitimate rights and aspirations of all involved parties – stands as our country’s greatest historic foreign policy blunder. I say this knowing this epitaph is often attached to the Bush II administration’s ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003. That epic eight-year, multi-trillion-dollar military campaign was undertaken to establish what was expected to be a compliant pro-US government in Iraq and a permanent US military ground-force presence in Mesopotamia – war proponent John McCain said it could be "for 100 years"— similar to how US troops remained in post-war Germany, Japan, and Korea.

Having been involved in the Iraq War fiasco in 2007-08 and lived and worked in the Middle East for many years, it’s apparent to me the unstated purpose of this regime-change "war of choice" was to preserve what the Islamic World — joined by the rest of world based on the numerous UN resolutions the US has vetoed over the years on Israel’s behalf — sees as the unjust post-Cold War status quo of the Israel/Palestine conflict. As I cover in my book, invading, debilitating, and then permanently occupying Iraq was part of a plan to ensure Israel was the dominant military power in the region and thus is able to maintain indefinitely the current status quo of the Palestinians.

Thus, the disastrous Iraq War was the result of America’s prior foreign policy blunder in not allowing the UN to impose a just settlement of the Israel/Palestine conflict in the early 1990s after the Cold War ended. Prolonging this injustice contributed to fomenting the al-Qaeda movement which led to what President Bush called our country’s post 9/11 "crusade, this war against terrorism" that was heard as a war against Islam where I worked. This 18-year-and-counting amorphous war has cost US taxpayers $6.4 trillion and created 6,790 American Gold Star families — with some parents openly asking why?

The Iraq invasion did not work as its proponents planned and had unintended consequences. Rather than containing Iran as Israel’s chief geopolitical foe and the Islamic World’s most fervent supporter of Palestinian rights, the Washington elites’ Iraq War (Biden supported it) empowered Iran. With Saddam gone, Iran used its influence with its majority Shiite co-religionists in Iraq to get the big US troop presence out and the Pentagon’s mega-military bases (save one) vacated in 2011. Washington’s subsequent attempted regime-change intervention in Syria’s civil war – carried out by the Obama/Biden administration — also served to unintentionally empower Iran through its regional Shiite allies.

These destabilizing US interventions started a proxy war still being waged by the US and Israel against Iran and its allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. This conflict has caused ongoing political turmoil in these places (abetted by covert US/Israeli operations) along with civil wars, refugee crises, the creation of ISIS, terrorists attacks in Europe, massive bombing campaigns, extrajudicial assassinations, and over 800,000 civilian (predominately Muslim) causalities throughout the region.

Moreover, departing from America’s historic role as the creator and defender of a liberal post-World War II rules-based international order, the Trump administration (at Israel’s urging) unilaterally withdrew the US in May 2018 from UN-approved Iran nuclear deal that had been concluded among all world powers in 2015. Thus, the US is now in league with North Korea in defying UN nuclear-weapons nonproliferation resolutions. The US and Israel were the only "no votes" (with the US having ultimate veto power) on UN General Assembly draft resolution that passed by a 174-2 vote in November 2018 calling for the "Establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the region of the Middle East." This vote was the world’s response after President Trump had illegally imposed harsh economic-warfare sanctions on Iran’s 83 million citizens even though Iran was fully complying with the UN-approved treaty. This "go it alone" approach to foreign policy has irked our European allies and inflamed in the Middle East

As noted by Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, in an opinion piece in The Atlantic published on November 4th titled, "The Coming Middle East Conflagration," the region is currently on the verge of an unprecedented regional war that threatens Israel. Mr. Oren mentions the same unintended consequences I cite above in explaining why the Middle East is now on the brink of war. The remark in Mr. Oren’s essay that should alarm every American is that Israel is openly questioning – with the expected answer being "yes they will" — whether "American troops would go on the offensive on Israel’s behalf, striking Iranian bases" … with the US potentially getting "bogged down in new [Middle East war]." Mr. Oren ask this question — and states Israel’s expected affirmative response — even though he acknowledges "polls [in the US show] a lack of bipartisan support for even a small-scale American military involvement in the region." Indeed, our veterans — who typically deployed multiple times to fight our two recent Middle East wars — say by an increasing majority these wars were not worth it.

Given this quandary, the follow-up question I pose in my title for US presidential and other federal office candidates to answer is:

"Yes, Israel has the right to defense itself if attacked, but isn’t there a bigger issue here involving the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict?"

Namely

"As president (or a member of Congress), are you prepared to engage America in another Middle East war and commit tens of thousands US troops and spend perhaps several trillion dollars in US taxpayer funds to defend Israel in a prolonged regional war in order to perpetuate the current status-quo in the Israel/Palestine conflict?"

Recognizing the futility of another unwinnable Middle East war, one presidential candidate has already thoughtfully answered this pertinent question. When asked about the Middle East at the Democratic presidential primary national debate on October 15th in Ohio, candidate Elizabeth Warren answered, "I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East" (later clarifying this to mean combat troops). "But we have to do it the right way, the smart way. We need to get out, but we need to do this through a negotiated solution. There is no military solution in this region." Her campaign staff expanded her on-air comments adding, "[America] needs to end the endless wars. That means getting all U.S. troops out of combat in the Middle East and using diplomacy to work with allies and partners to end conflicts and suffering in the region and around the world." Assuming Senator Warren really means what she says in these remarks and follows through if she is elected president, that will be real American global leadership!

My follow-up question should be asked to all other candidates at the upcoming Democratic presidential primary debate in Atlanta. Afterall, they all say the most important decision they will have to make as president is whether to send our soldiers into combat. Let’s see who supports a third Middle East war.

Mr. Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA and MIT graduate who served in the US Air Force and has lived, worked and traveled extensively in the Middle East, including working as an USAID contactor and US Foreign Service (limited) Officer in Iraq and Afghan wars from 2007 through 2014. He is retired and lives in California and Mexico. He’s written a book critiquing US foreign and military policy titled, When Will We Ever Learn?