By Barry Rubin
On the eve of President Obama's first visit to Israel as chief executive, I have just returned from briefing a high-ranking official of country x on the Middle East. We kept coming back to a vital theme: the incredibly shrinking power of the United States. Try to explain American behavior to neutral, open-minded third parties for whom U.S. policy activities have become just plain bizarre!
One of my recent articles for example, published here, shows how terrorists, including the murderers of four American officials in Benghazi, are literally laughing at the United States and its inability or unwillingness to do anything effective to defend its interests.
This item in a CBS News report particularly caught my eye:
“U.S. officials [in December 2012] lamented the lack of cooperation with the governments of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in their ongoing investigation into the [Benghazi] attack, saying most of the suspects remain free.”
--Tunisia, where the U.S. government supported not only the overthrow of a regime allied to itself but also elections that led to a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government. Helpful hint: You should have intervened behind the scenes to get the four non-Islamist (secular, if you wish) parties to work together, run their campaigns successfully, and win. They got 60 percent of the vote but lost the election.
--Libya, where the U.S. government installed the current regime, which is basically an American client regime, by military (NATO, technically) force and pumped in support yet feared to send in a rescue mission to Benghazi. Obama should have called the Libyan leader on the evening of September 11, 2012, and said, “We’re on our way and expect your cooperation.” And the only reason for not doing that would have been knowing the Libyan government could rescue the Americans, which it was unable to do or even to try doing. The Libyan government has now said it would not cooperate in further investigation of the Lockerbie airplane bombing by Libyan intelligence under the previous regime.
--Egypt, where the U.S. government was cheerleading for the Muslim Brotherhood as early as Obama’s Cairo speech and backed it all through the revolution. There was the alternative of backing the military to get rid of Husni Mubarak and then make reforms. Or there was the alternative of backing the disorganized, under-financed moderates (and helping them to unite, get money, and be effective). But Obama did neither and his administration for all practical purposes endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood.
And now we see that these three governments won’t even cooperate in getting terrorists responsible for murdering Americans. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was booed by the moderates when she visited Egypt! And now the main, moderate coalition says it will boycott her successor, John Kerry's visit.
Remember that Tunisia and Egypt, even if they are Islamist-ruled, have no direct interest in helping these Libyan terrorists—the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t like al-Qaida, which it correctly views as both a rival and a group willing to attack its own regimes—but won’t help the United States due to anti-Americanism, a generalized Islamic solidarity, and knowledge that they can stick their finger in America’s eye and taunt, “What are you going to do about it?”
How the mighty have fallen! But what’s most amazing is that this isn’t a process of murder but of suicide, it is voluntary. Is it reversible? Nobody knows but it isn’t going to be reversed in the next four years.
You have to understand, I tell the diplomat, that there’s been for all practical purposes a profound--albeit possibly temporary--transformation in the governance of the United States. Regarding foreign policy, all the old rules don’t apply—credibility; punishing enemies and rewarding friends; deterrence; don’t leave your men behind to die; don’t appoint a muddle-headed fool to be secretary of defense. In each case there is a nicely crafted rationalization for going against centuries of diplomatic and security practices. But so what? It’s still wrong.
Obama is busy in apologizing for real or imagined past U.S. bullying, proving he only believes in multilateral action, showing his respect for local customs, and trying to demonstrate to those who hate it that America is their buddy in order to win them over.
The language above is harsh but it is also true.
Once upon a time there were two superpowers, the United States and USSR, in the Cold War. Then there was one superpower, the United States. Now there are none.
And yet what this means from Israel’s standpoint may be very different from what you’d expect.
Israel can cope with this situation, especially since it continues to receive U.S. military aid, intelligence-sharing, some diplomatic backing, and nice rhetoric about the ironclad special relationship between the two countries. Simultaneously, the U.S. government has taken leadership in setting strong sanctions against Iran.
Despite periodic slights and verbal distancing, the purely bilateral link remains good on practical matters. There is absolutely no sense in making the relationship with the United States worse than it is now. Finally, the continuous disappointment in the administration's expectation, the crises and betrayals it will face by the revolutionary Islamist regimes and movements, Iran's intransigence, and the very disrespect the situation entails may force U.S. policy--at least on certain issues--to improve.
And those assets rest on a foundation of public and congressional support for Israel in the United States. Indeed, it is clear that Israel is the only—the only—factor that Obama doesn’t like that has been able to preserve its interests while other seemingly far more powerful forces—the health industry, the energy industry, the National Rifle Association, for example—have been battered into defeat or are hard-pressed.
Moreover, Israel can defend itself. It is willing to take unilateral action when needed and can succeed in doing so.
That’s why, as I know from first-hand observation, that it is a myth that Israel’s government has done anything to undermine Obama. People who make such charges provide no proof or even references to specific events.
On the contrary, the Israeli government consciously developed the policy of seeking to avoid any friction with Obama and his government. One key reason was that it knew coexistence with Obama was possible. The other was that it knew avoiding making the situation worse was imperative.
The seemingly most obvious exception—building in east Jerusalem—was based on a prior secret agreement with the U.S. government. The other apparent exception—Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress—came after Obama ambushed Netanyahu by changing U.S. policy toward Israel while the prime minister was on a plane to Washington.
And here’s a powerful item of proof on the other side: not a single pro-Israel Democrat in political life has turned against Obama. If Israel is so influential, why did a supposed anti-Obama campaign not change anyone’s position?
In fact, pro-Obama American Jews, who comprise a large majority of the community, and pro-Israel political figures have either reconciled the discordant information (Obama is Israel’s best friend); kept their mouths shut; had other priorities; or tried to keep relations as good as possible.
And in practice—a point on which Obama’s supporters are correct--there have been no real, material, huge problems in direct U.S.-Israel relations. What they leave out is that this was also largely due to Arab, Iranian, and particularly Palestinian intransigence. These forces lost the opportunities Obama offered them to undercut Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship because they didn’t rush to seek deals on much better terms.
If they had done so, Obama would have pressured Israel to make big concessions and would have been far more antagonistic if. Israel refused. Israel’s enemies threw away that chance and it will not come again in his second term.
By the same token, it is equally foolish for some to criticize, for example, President Shimon Peres for giving Obama a medal or Israeli leaders for lauding Obama on every possible opportunity. And the same applies to AIPAC not objecting to Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, never criticizing Obama, and inviting him to speak at its annual meetings. Whoever is president or secretary of defense, AIPAC and Israel will have to work with him.
All of these people, then, are doing their jobs properly by avoiding entanglements in such internal American issues.
Israel needs good relations with the United States. Obama is the president of the United States twice elected by the American people and he will be president for the next four years. It is not the task of Israel’s government to interfere with America’s internally made choices. It is the job of Israel’s government to live as best as possible with those rulers, minimize the advantage, and wait out this period by agreeing, smiling, giving in on small things, and doing everything possible to protect the nation’s security.
And thus Israeli leaders should applaud Obama, say what a good friend he is, and do everything possible to maximize cooperation on the critical issues that both countries face. These include continued military and intelligence cooperation as well as the maximum possible support on Iran and other issues. In this context, Israel—like every other country friendly with the United States able to do so—retains its independence of action while minimizing friction.
People like me are free to express our views about the damage he is doing. That damage is first and foremost to U.S. national interests; second to the lives of people in Arabic-speaking countries, Turks, and Iranians; and only in third place to Israel.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.