Shared values and democratic systems count for a lot in the political world — and they can advance military cooperation — but national security interests can evolve without them. No one would mistake Saudi Arabia or Bahrain for a country that shares American values, yet the U.S. Central Command works closely and cooperatively with both.
Israel shares American values in many ways, but a shared security outlook is something else, hinging on threat perceptions that may no longer be coincident.
Vice President Biden took to the stage at AIPAC this week to promote U.S.-Israel security relations. His emphasis on American support for Israel’s missile defense program is the coin of the realm – first because it is true and second because Israel’s enemies have missiles.
But security relations have undergone a subtle, negative change in the past four years.
The Obama administration has been willing to be Israel’s protector, patron to a client, or parent to a child. This patronizing attitude is reflected in the President’s assertion that Israel’s democratically elected leaders “don’t know what’s in their own best interest” and Vice President Biden’s comment that President Obama wants to hear from “regular Israelis” on his upcoming trip, suggesting that what he hears from Prime Minister Netanyahu would be disputed by Israel’s citizenry. The administration is less willing to be Israel’s partner in addressing common threats, including terrorism and the rise of radical Islam. And there has been a limit to consultation and cooperation on Iran. On occasion, the U.S. adds to Israel’s problems by allowing Israel to bear the brunt of the world’s disapprobation at the UN.
Israel’s first strategic allies were France and Great Britain. The U.S. was sympathetic to Israel’s plight as small and vulnerable to threats from combinations of Arab states, but except for a desire not to have socialist Israel in the pro-Soviet camp and the 1956 Eisenhower outburst, the U.S. was uninvolved in Israeli security. President Johnson declined to be of assistance to Israel in the Six Day War.
Presidents Nixon and Reagan saw Israel in the Cold War context. Nixon stood with Israel as a defensive measure against the Soviet Union in 1973. Reagan opened “strategic cooperation” as a forward step in a plan to defeat the USSR. His idea of ballistic missile defenses was matched by Israeli innovation in the field; the result was tremendous advancement and in-depth cooperation.
At the end of the Cold War, President Clinton called for “capabilities based” defense to cover contingencies rather than specific enemies. Israel was well placed to continue to work with the United States and provide technological capabilities and test beds. Israel established warm relations with some of the newest NATO members, Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as with Bulgaria and Romania.
After 9-11, President Bush’s formulation of a “war against terrorists and the states that harbor and support them” resonated fully with Israel, and there was increased closeness and cooperation on perceived regional threats. But congruity of interests is never total. When American and Israeli positions on Iran diverged (about 2007), President Bush refused Israel weapons that could be used against Iran.
When the Obama Administration redefined the wars in which the United States is engaged, the words “Islamic” or “Muslim” terrorism and radical Islam were shelved in favor of more neutral appellations. In his Cairo address, President Obama sought to establish “mutual respect” between the West and the “Muslim world,” and he accepted the view that policies of the West were partly responsible for the antagonism of Muslims toward the United States. He called Israel’s independence a response to the Holocaust — a charge that fed into the Arab complaint that Israel was foisted on the region by guilty Europeans rather than by being a legitimate and permanent part of the region.
Without commenting on the approach itself, it should be noted that the independence of and continuing support for Israel is, by the definition of its enemies, part of what the West did and does that creates antagonism in the “Muslim world.” And for those who believe, as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has said, that terrorists are created as a reaction to Western provocation, support for Israel is precisely such a provocation.
In terms of military cooperation, then, the President’s formulation reduced the ability of Israel to have equal stature with the United States in a regional mission.
The United States in the United Nations
At the outset, the Obama administration made it clear that the United Nations would be its preferred venue for diplomacy. In contrast to the Bush administration, the U.S. rejoined the UN Human Rights Commission and the UN Alliance of Civilizations, an openly anti-Israel body which claimed in 2006 that global tensions were driven primarily by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and referred to the September 11th attacks as resulting from “a perception among Muslim societies of unjust aggression stemming from the West.”
It was in the Alliance of Civilizations that Turkey’s Prime Minister last week lumped Zionism with “Islamophobia” and anti-Semitism as racist doctrines and “war crimes.”
In the UN Security Council, the U.S. declined to support Canada’s traditional, once-a-decade bid for a seat. Canada, an outspoken supporter of Israel, lost to Portugal, a stalwart representative of EU ambivalence. The U.S. voted against the infamous “Goldstone Report,” but declined to use its influence to encourage others to do the same. The administration demanded a “total settlement freeze” from Israel and allowed Israeli policies to be denounced in the fiercest terms in the Security Council before exercising its veto. The U.S. brokered a Security Council “compromise” that allowed Israel to be criticized along with Syria.
The administration accepted the 2010 UN Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty Review that singled out Israel for condemnation – despite public statements that it would never do that.
Bilateral Cooperation while Preserving Distance
There has been an increase in Ballistic Missile Defense cooperation, which is good for Israel: its enemies have missiles. But it represents a completely defensive option. The administration is comfortable with the idea of defending Israel, but by putting Israel in the position of the “defense client” it was until 1980, rather than by enhancing its status as a “partner” in mutual defense — this is not a step forward.
Further, defense is irrelevant until after an attack. Any thought Israel has about protecting its citizens through pre-emptive measures is not covered. Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress, “I don’t want to be complicit if they [Israelis] choose to do it [attack Iran’s nuclear program].” That remark must have greatly comforted Iran.
Austere Challenge, a once-cancelled U.S.-Israel missile defense exercise, did go forward at the end of 2012, but in a scaled back mode, most likely to reassure Iran that it was not cover for any offensive activity. In case this dodge was not clear, Gen. Craig Franklin, Commander of U.S. Third Air Force, repeated that point several times in a single interview before the exercise: “It’s purely to provide defensive capabilities with Israel. … This exercise doesn’t look at any particular threat, it looks at a threat scenario that is notional. … This is a military exercise not tied to any particular recent world event, it’s just a notional exercise. … As I mentioned, this is not related to any particular recent world event.”
While missile defense cooperation continues, the Obama administration has taken overt steps to tell the Arab and Muslim world that the U.S. is severable from Israel. The NATO-related air rescue operation Anatolian Eagle was canceled because Turkey would not let Israel participate. Last May, the Administration held Eager Lion 2012, a Special Operations exercise with 19 Arab and Muslim countries, including Egypt, Lebanon and Pakistan.
The tactics and training of Special Operations is an important component of Israel’s “qualitative military edge.” How much of what the U.S. and Israel developed over the years was shared with countries overtly hostile to Israel? Israel was not invited to the May 2012 NATO confab, although 13 NATO “partner nations” were invited to discuss terrorism. Two other US-organized and -led multilateral counterterrorism confabs excluded Israel as well.
When Turkey objected to the sharing of intelligence information with Israel, Secretary of Defense Panetta said no NATO radar intelligence would be shared “outside of NATO.” Secretary Hagel is unlikely to share what Secretary Panetta would not.
Cooperation for the Future
The U.S. and Israel continue to share values across the board, share capabilities in certain areas and to acknowledge common threats. President Obama’s visit to Israel later in the month would be an opportune time to think about how to end the current patron-client relationship and restore Israel’s position as a security partner to the United States.