There’s No US-Israel ‘Crisis’ — It’s just Regular Old Alliance Politics


I can’t be the only one who thinks this whole got quickly overbaked – one small step in a well-established, well-publicized endeavor leads to the biggest crisis among friends in decades? Regardless of your opinion of Israeli West Bank behavior, settlement/colonization is a very widely-known and long-standing policy, so there’s little new here.

So this is less about Israel itself, and more about the changed US debate on Israel since the release of The Israel Lobby three years ago. Neocons who are nervous that elite opinion in the US is shifting against Israel saw an opportunity to push back before things go to far. And those pushing for more distance between the US and Israel saw an opportunity to push the issue into  mainstream credibility. But little of this impacts the real depth of the US-Israeli alliance (shared anti-Islamism, liberal democracy, fear of Iran). The whole thing smacks of inside-the-Beltway navel-gazing by people paid to hyperventilate. To rework Rahm Emanuel, never pass up an opportunity to manufacture a crisis.

1. Sure, Biden got snubbed. But ‘alliance politics’ are old hat. At least since the 70s, the US has been complaining that its allies don’t listen to it, that they don’t pay enough for their defense, that they freelance without asking the US for permission. Israel is just doing what lots of US allies have already done (which doesn’t mean it’s right, only that’s fairly typical). Consider that only two or three NATO allies now spend on defense what they they are treaty-obligated to spend (at least 2% of GDP). That includes really big ones like Germany, Italy and Canada. European allies have a pathetic 3 aircraft carriers between them. Or consider that the Europeans don’t want to go to Afghanistan, even thought they are treaty-obligated to do that too. Do we flip out about this every year? No. (Should we? Yes.) Or consider Mexico. Our closest ally in Latin America (since NAFTA)  has illegally exported 10-20 million of its poorest people to the US in the last generation, yet somehow we can’t get them take border security seriously. So why single out Israel so much for its bad behavior? Indeed, this has always been the biggest problem I have had with the Walt/Mearshiemer take on Israel (although I’m sure it’s not because of the idiot charge that they’re anti-semitic).

2. If you want America’s allies to behave better, then stop reaching for hegemony and start playing hard to get (Walt’s own idea btw, thereby increasing my confusion). US hegemony, or more specifically, our relentless celebration of it as America’s right because we are so awesome, tells allies that we love the top-dog slot so much, that we’ll never pull back from more involvement, more force, more shadow world government. This is my biggest beef with the Kagans, Robert Kaplan, Irving Kristol and the neocon persuasion generally. Just how much more do we have to spend on defense? How many more bases do we have to build? Kaplan even admitted that the US mission in Afghanistan is bleeding us white and better serves China than the US; but then he says we must go anyway! How can you possibly convince the allies to help if you say you’ll commit suicide before withdrawing…

This sort of attitude says that being the king-dog, lone superpower isn’t just good for US security or economy. Now it’s a part of our very identity. After three generations have been raised on the post-1940 National Security State, globe-spanning American exceptionalism is a part of who we are now (“God’s special mission for America,” to quote George W. Bush). Besides being exactly the forerunner of domestic tyranny the Anti-Federalists warned about way back in the 1780s, it also tells the world that the US will never abandon allies. Hence we cannot credibly threaten them.

3. Not only does this incentivize free-riding (Germany, Mexico), it also encourages misbehavior (Israel), because the US will never abandon its global role, because it loves it so much. This is (one) fatal flaw of the neo-con argument for US expansion. (The other is that we can’t afford hegemony much longer). Walt makes this argument regularly: if you want the allies to actually do what we tell them, then you have to be willing to cut them off once in awhile, to punish them for misbehavior. But given that NO ONE has the guts to cut Israeli aid on Capitol Hill, then the regular expectation should be Netanyahu-style misbehavior, not compliance. Think of Joe Lieberman and John McCain as enabling an alcoholic: why would Israel possibly stop if the consequences are absolutely zero? Ditto on Germany and defense spending.

Korea is a good comparison case here. US threats of alliance abandonment are far more believable here, because they are real. The size of US Forces in Korea (USFK) is in long-term decline. USFK is not tied into a larger multilateral framework like NATO, which would make it harder for the US to leave. Most Americans don’t know as much about Korea as they do our more culturally western allies, and if they do, they think rich Samsung-land should be able to defend itself. All these reasons cast doubt on the US guarantee to Korea. Koreans know this, and they know how much they need the US. As such, Korea is a far less troublesome ally to the US than most. By contrast, the Israelis or Germans know we aren’t going anywhere; too much of America’s self-identity as a totally awesome superpower is tied up a forward US presence in Europe and the Middle East. (Maybe there is a measurable relationship between cultural distance and credible threats of alliance abandonment; someone write that master’s thesis.)

4. The long-term structure of US foreign policy makes it all but impossible for individual initiatives, even from the POTUS himself, to change allied behavior. We tell Israel to be nice to the Palestinians once in awhile, while we simultaneously deepen our long-term position in the greater Middle East. Do you really think we can credibly threaten Israel with abandonment (a sanction for misbehavior) while US force structure so obviously say we won’t? As we build a huge string of bases that tells everyone – Jew, Muslim, Arab, Afghan, Persian – that we’ll be here for a long time? If you want the allies to burden share and follow orders, then stop enabling them through the endlessly sprawling national security state and endlessly expanding defense budget.

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