Frum's Case For Israel

I’m afraid it needs a little updating. Let’s take his points one at a time:

First, as the patron of the region’s pre-eminent military power, the United States gains leverage and status. Arab states that cooperate with the United States (e.g. Egypt) get what they want from Israel. Arab states that do not cooperate (e.g. Syria) do not get. The US can deploy Israel’s power to rescue other US clients from enemies (as the Israelis rescued King Hussein of Jordan from the PLO in 1970) or to accomplish strategic missions that the US would rather not dirty its own hands with (the destruction of nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria, the assassination of terrorist leaders).

The Cold War was a global ideological competition between superpowers. When Egypt switched sides from the Soviet Union to the United States, that was a big deal. If our alliance with Israel helped make that happen (topic for another day), great. But the Cold War is over. What is it we want from Syria today? Apart, that is, from having them make peace with Israel – what other foreign policy objectives do we have vis-a-vis Syria? Because the argument is that by being allies with Israel, we gain leverage over erstwhile hostile states to make them “cooperate.” So: cooperate on what? Against whom?

As for deploying Israeli power to save US clients or do our own dirty work – it feels to me like we’re doing a lot of our own dirty work these days. The only post Cold War scenario Frum comes up with is the 2007 strike on Syria. But it’s not clear to me in what sense an alliance with Israel was important to achieving that objective, assuming it was an American objective at all. And on the other side of the ledger, it is very hard to argue that since 1991 Israel doesn’t complicate our ability to operate freely in the region.

But there’s another point. Implicit in Frum’s point about Egypt is that American was able to deliver Israel. When Egypt flipped, we could make sure Israel gave back the Sinai. Is Frum sure that America could “deliver” the Golan Heights if Syria decided to abandon Iran as a patrion?

Second, Israel is a huge source of information to the US – and the most valuable live-fire test laboratory for US military equipment and doctrine. One of the decisive moments of the Cold War, for example, occurred during the skies over Lebanon in 1982. During the Yom Kippur war of 1973, only 9 years previous, Soviet ground-to-air missiles had wrought havoc upon Israeli aircraft. This time, Syria scrambled its air force to meet Israeli planes: 150 against 150, the largest air battle of the jet age. In just a few minutes, the Israelis downed 86 Syrian craft, suffering no casualties of their own. Microelectronics had triumphed in the test of battle. Soviet histories generally credit this event as the shock that jolted the Soviet elite into realizing that it must try some kind of “perestroika” of its ossifying economic system.

Well, it seems to me that since 1991 we’ve conducted quite a few live-fire exercises ourselves, no? The Gulf War, the Kosovo War, the Afghan War, the Iraq War . . . I kind of feel like we don’t need a proxy so much anymore, you know? And who’s Israel fighting these days? Hezbollah and Hamas, mostly – not groups flying the latest combat aircraft. And, on the assumption that Israel may one day fight against another state, who would that be? There’s no more Soviet Union. Who would Israel be fighting that would be a useful test-run to see if, say, we could defend Taiwan in the unlikely event of a Chinese amphibious assault?

Third: the demonstration effect of the superiority of Western ways in interstate competition. Israel in 1950 had an income per capita not very much higher than that of neighboring Syria. Today, Israel has a GDP per capita comparable to that of most European countries, and higher than that of Saudi Arabia. It has sustained democracy under military onslaught. It is a science and technology leader. The Arab world may not like Israel, but its success sends a powerful “If you can’t beat them, join them” message. And of course part of “joining them” is emulating Israel’s close relationship with the United States.

Hmmm. Again, this feels a little outdated. When we were in ideological competition with the Soviet Union, it was probably a good thing to demonstrate that Western capitalism and friendship with America brought prosperity. But to the extent that we have any “competition” for allies today, it’s economic competition with China. Which Arab country is following the Chinese model to misery? The evidence for capitalism is now far too widely accepted for Israel’s “demonstration effect” to have any consequence. I would imagine Singapore would be – and has been – far more influential in that regard.

The whole list feels like a Cold War relic, almost completely irrelevant to the world today.

The realist case for a strong relationship with Israel today revolves primarily around the claim that we have common enemies: that we’re both fighting against radical Islamic terror groups, and that America’s own Arab allies actually appreciate that Israel is fighting these groups because they are a threat to them as well. And, as Frum surely knows, there is real debate about whether our close relationship with Israel makes this fight easier or more difficult, as well as what exactly countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia “really” want Israel or us to do. This is the Middle East: everyone has at least six contradictory agendas, some so secret even they themselves don’t know them.

In truth, I’m not sure what point is served by debating whether we should be “allied” with Israel. I’m not even sure what “ending” our alliance would mean, given that we don’t have any treaty obligations to them and we are hardly going to stop sharing intelligence or what have you. We’re allied with all sorts of countries with whom we have a variety of disputes – we don’t agree with everything our allies do or want to do, and sometimes we take a very hard line on their behavior. We were extremely forceful in getting the British and the French to withdraw from Suez in 1956. Heck, Pakistan is officially a major non-NATO ally and we’ve been dropping bombs on their territory! The real question is not whether America should continue to be Israel’s ally but whether America should be much tougher on its Israeli ally than it is, whether a tougher line would serve American interests or whether it would backfire.