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 U.N.
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.