Archive | October, 2011

Why is Israel Considered a Strategic Ally?

I’ve wondered why Israel was ever considered a ‘strategic ally’ of the US in the Arab world?  And I especially don’t get it now.

Some people peg it to the Cold War.  If the Soviets supported Nassar, the US needed to counter-balance with Israel.  Others say we share democratic systems with Israel, calling it an oasis of democracy in an authoritarian part of the world.  Unfortunately, the US has seldom made democracy a top priority for its allies, and after OPEC was founded America assiduously courted all the Arab authoritarian oil-producers with promises of security garauntees and arms sales.   In return, led by Saudi Arabia, OPEC kept the price of oil within a set range by manipulating supply. That’s strategic!  Even before OPEC, the US displayed a rather cynical view of democracy in the region, having supported a British-inspired 1953 coup d’etat  against the democratically elected government of newly independent Iran and replaced it with the brutal rule of Reza Shah Pahlavi.  We’ve been paying ever since.

Israel as a state grew out of the carnage of WW2.  One factor in the US and Western embrace of Israel was certainly that the Jewish people had a right to a state with defensible borders. And the European Jews who emigrated to Israel during and after Nazi rule were certainly more familiar culturally than the Islamic-Muslim states nearby.  American Jews have been going back and forth to Israel in droves since it was established. So there is a social cultural bond that spans continents.

Maybe I don’t understand the term ‘strategic ally.’  Certainly none of the above reasons explains why so many American politicians in both parties have developed a myopic ‘Israel right or wrong’ policy that directly conflicts with twenty years of official US policy concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israeli settlement expansion.

Israel is an ally but so is Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and several other smaller Persian Gulf states.  Calling Israel a ‘strategic ally’ gives it an importance that is harder and harder to justify.

George H. W. Bush was the last in a line of GOP presidents to seek a balanced policy in the Middle East,  at least to the extent of convincing the PLO to sign the Oslo Accords believing that Israel would negotiate if it had US security protocols backing it.   George Bush 41 famously held up loan guarantees to Israel until it signed the Oslo Peace Accords.  Unfortunately, the Oslo process turned into a joke over the last two decades, with no American President holding either side accountable for throwing new obstacles up to the peace process on a yearly basis.

Meanwhile,  AIPAC and other politically oriented American Jewish groups shifted into overdrive to build their numbers and influence in American politics.   And under Bush 43, they merged their interests in an informal marriage of convenience with Christian fundamentalists who support Israel based on Biblical  prophesy  in Revelations that predicts the conversion of Jews to accept Jesus Christ or their damnation in hell.

Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said that while evangelicals had a role, the changed post-Sept. 11 world should not be underestimated as a factor. Republican presidents such as Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush operated in a Cold War arena in which cultivating allies among Israel’s rivals and enemies may have made sense — but that is no longer the case, he said.

“There were elements in the realist camp who may have seen Israel not as a strategic ally,” Brooks said of the presidency of the first George Bush. “Given how things have developed — the global war on terror, the rise of militant Islam — that doesn’t make any sense anymore.”

Brooks is one who makes no sense.  9/11 changed US strategic interests, and Israel has thumbed its nose at some of those changes for twelve years.  America’s interest in 2001 was to isolate and destroy the terrorists while assuring Arab and Muslim countries that America was not at war with them.  Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have been the one act which, after the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, might win back some good will among Arabs towards America. By the time President Bush got serious about peace six years after 9/11, it was too late.  Although the Bush Administration, like Clinton, threw a Hail Mary pass for Middle East peace during the last months of its second term, it was too late.

In taking office, Netanyahu courted the far right in Israel and solidified the ‘refusnik’ branch of the Israeli body politic.  Although General Petraeus, six former NSC heads and most recently Defense Secretary Panetta have warned that continuation of the Israel/Palestine conflict runs counter to US interests in the area, both Presidents Bush 43 and Obama continued with uncritical support of the Netanyahu government.

Israel under Netanyahu is openly dismissive of US security interests and proves it by making no attempt to restart peace negotiations.  The US Congress, afraid of offending donors, has caved to Netanyahu’s hawkish narrative to the extent of supporting Israeli policies directly at odds with US foreign policy and undermining the President of the United States.

Israel’s increasingly hard-line refusnik policy towards peace, its unrepentant settlement expansion deep into the West Bank and Netanyahu’s desire to wipe the negotiation history of over 20 years clean and start over – all have hurt the US standing not just in the Arab world but globally.  Large parts of the Arab world think peace negotiations are a sham and ridicule the tail-wagging-dog relationship between Israel and Washington.

Over the past year, Israel’s ‘strategic alliance’ with the US has taken an even more ominous direction.  While the formerly autocratic post-independence Arab autocrats are being replaced by more open, democrat governments, Israel doubles down, saying it’s impossible to have peace with so much upheaval.  More pointedly, Israel has destroyed its own relationship with Turkey, a NATO member and real ‘strategic’ ally of the US and Egypt, with whom its co-existed peacefully for over 30 years.

A strategic ally doesn’t ignore all requests by the US to ease up on settlements.  A strategic ally doesn’t manufacture a fight with the President on US soil to court members of the opposite party.  A strategic ally tries to work with its partner in influencing the direction of diplomacy in a region.  It doesn’t kiss a NATO ally of its ‘strategic partner’  goodby and good riddance over a hubristic refusal to apologize for killing nine of its citizens.  It doesn’t keep throwing the region out of balance by its own blunders even as the region navigates upheavals of its own.

Israel is no strategic ally to the US.  Maybe President Obama should study Bush 41′s playbook and get serious.



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White House Breathes Again – Christie Won’t Run

The White House must be rejoicing this morning, as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie finalizes his decision not to run for President.  Christie would be President Obama’s most formidable GOP opponent.  I have not followed Mr. Christie but am impressed with his firm stand against anti-Muslim bigotry, calling it ‘crap’ and his decisive, blunt demeanor, 180% opposite Obama.

Christie is smart.  He’s young and has plenty of time to run for President.  This means Obama will most likely face-off against Romney, also a worthy opponent.  I think Democrats are dreaming if they believe Romney’s flip-flops  will do him in.  What some people see as a plastic demeanor others will see as a well-prepared, articulate candidate.  Of course, fundamentalist Christians may stay home because of Romney’s Mormon faith.  But it will be a right race.

It will be a nail-biter race.

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SecDec Panetta Slams Israel on Isolation

Leon Panetta, in a conversation with reporters on his way to visit Israel and Palestine, slammed Israel on its increasing diplomatic isolation:

“There’s not much question in my mind that they maintain that (military) edge. But the question you have to ask is it enough to maintain a military edge, if you’re isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena?” Panetta said.

Panetta went on to say: “At this dramatic time in the Middle East….it’s not a good time for Israel to become increasingly isolated.”  Panetta said Israel needed to repair its relationships with Turkey and Egypt and would urge both Israelis and Palestinians to restart peace negotiations, adding both sides ‘have nothing to lose.’  He indirectly spoke to the US fear that Palestinian expectations of statehood not met by a UN resolution could result in West Bank violence.

The good news is that finally, a high-ranking US official, is calling out the Likud government for its self-defeating policies, charging that Israel itself is responsible for most of the isolation it’s encountered.  The bad news is that he, like other Western officials, is once again hiding behind a concern that raised Palestinian hopes could collapse into a third infatada.  This is nonsense.  The PA has made it clear it will initiate and support non-violent civil disobedience to occupation based on the Arab Spring tactics of Tunisia and Egypt, but will not tolerate violence on the West Bank.

I happen to think that Abbas should accept the Quartet push for new negotiations even if Israel doesn’t issue a moratorium on settlements.   The ‘whole world is watching’ the post-UN maneuvering, and this is a perfect time for Abbas to call Netanyahu’s bluff by agreeing to restart negotiations and using that platform to expose the Likud’s double-talk and ‘refusnik’ program if Netanyahu demands that all previous Israeli PM negotiation position are null and void.  In other words, give the Likud government enough rope to escape its self-defeating myopica and if not,  to hang itself in the court of world opinion.

At this point, Israel has accepted the Quartet’s statement on restarting peace negotiation.  President Abbas and the PA have asked the Quartet to clarify what it meant in calling for both sides to avoid putting ‘obstacles’ in the way of renewed talks.  Of course, anybody following the drama knows that for Israel the allusion is settlements, and for Palestinians, it’s pushing forward with the UN vote.

So far, Israel has suffered no repercussions for setting up obstacle after obstacle for negotiations.  Whether Panetta’s trip signals a change in US policy away from unquestioned support of the Netanyahu government remains to be seen.

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Drone and Insurgencies

The co-called War on Terror has conditioned Americans to take for granted two far-reaching changes in Pentagon strategy.  The first is that state-to-state warfare is unlikely for the near-term future.  Therefore, the military is focusing on smaller, expeditionary strike forces that can enter and leave a country with speed and flexibility, with or without that country’s government approving or even knowing about the mission.  The second is the use of drone planes to target terrorists, either bands of fighters or individuals.  The killing of Bin Laden and al-Awlaki are examples of both.

Some people praise drone warfare because drone precision causes less  ‘collateral damage’, a/k/a civilian death and casualties.  We’ve come a long way since Dresden and Hiroshima! Or have we?

Some of us were shocked when we grew up and learned an Anglo-American coup overthrew the parliamentary government of newly independent Iran in 1953.  Or that the CIA helped the brutal Belgium regime assassinate Patrice Lumumba, one of the most respected and talented leaders coming out of the African independence movements, as he assumed leadership of Congo in 1961. Or that the Gulf of Tonkin  ‘incident’ that ‘started the Vietnam War’ never happened.  Many of us became committed anti-interventionists.

However, two years ago, some of those same anti-interventionists were arguing the merits of counter-insurgency (COIN) vs. counter-terrorism in Afghanistan.  A smaller number refused to consider either, saying the US should leave Afghanistan as fast as possible.

The War on Terror has legitimized targeted, cross-border actions, including assassinations, that were once CIA directed special and black ops.  At the same time, with the use of sophisticated remote technology, the US is capable of taking out the bad guys antiseptically.  Not only are there fewer civilian casualties, but no American lives are in danger.   Drones are directed remotely by pilots who go back to their homes after work.

In fact, the military made the killings of bin Laden and  al-Awliki, set against the intensified ‘search and destroy’ anti-terrorist operations ordered by President Obama shortly after coming to office,  look almost easy.   And that’s the point.  US drone technology is unfettered at this time.  Although the US has sold drones or their technology to several countries, none has so far been able to weaponize them for combat.   We’ve entered the post-’mutually assured casualties’ (if not destruction) era of warfare.   American soldiers can bomb or blow up the enemy remotely with blood only spilled on the other side.

It’s a matter of time before other countries weaponize drones.  Still, the US military seems confident that its next weapons systems will be ready to neutralize the drone combat it initiated in the first place when that need arises.

The conventional arms race is out of control, but the US alone has 52% of the global market, followed by a distant 19% for Russia.  It’s impossible to tell how, by and against whom this technology will be used in the future.

It’s difficult to believe that US military sales to other states are geared towards protection of those states, when the same systems are sold to their declared enemy (Saudi Arabia and Israel).  And why would the US sell drones, even for surveillance, to other countries? We are stuck in a self-proliferating cycle of military innovation,  arms sales, more innovation, more sales. Very few of these weapons are ever used; they just drain money from other needs.  Some are used against the buyer’s own citizens.  Most are used by the US.

Food for thought.








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