President Trump’s execution of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani has renewed the endless canard that neoconservatives are trying to push the United States into war with Iran to help Israel.
The mythology about the “neocon” obsession with helping Israel is growing tiresome, not least because it has an offensive, anti-Semitic undertone, implying as it does that certain influential American Jews are more loyal to a foreign country than their own. It is also objectionable because it has no real basis.
Neoconservatives have no pull within the Trump administration. Their influence within the Republican Party in general has greatly waned since the Bush presidency. But more importantly, the premise rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of the neoconservative agenda. The neoconservatives do not prioritize Israel over America. In fact, in most global affairs, they aren’t thinking about Israel at all.
Israel likely holds a special place in neoconservatives’ hearts as many are Jewish. But as policy advocates, they are primarily interested in Israel’s political, economic, and social values and modern achievements.
To best comprehend neoconservative foreign policy objectives, one has to know about a theory advanced by some political scientists called the “Democratic Peace Proposition.” In a nutshell, this theory states that democratic countries don’t go to war with one another. The theory doesn’t propose that democracies never go to war at all; the essential stipulation is that they do not enter into armed conflict with one another.
Why? Because voters within democratic societies prefer diplomatic solutions to taking up arms. Democracy itself is a conflict between adversaries carried out by ballots instead of bullets. Having that principle in common, democratic countries will prefer to seek peaceful resolutions to their disputes than see blood spilled.
Neoconservatives have strong confidence in this theory. They also think that liberal democracy creates the best conditions for economic modernization and advancement as it permits citizens to think freely and take risks. Economic advancement, in turn, ensures peace and stability because countries don’t want to go to war with their trading partners.
These advantages of democracy are so compelling to neoconservatives that they believe it is fundamentally in the interests of global and regional stability for as many nations of the world as possible to have popularly-elected governments. They therefore frame their foreign policy proposals around nudging despotic societies in a democratic direction. They believe that, in the end, America’s security interests will be best maximized if we are dealing with democratic actors. Terrorists, they suggest, are the products of tyrannical regimes and would not flourish in a liberal democratic world. As such, they promote the exportation of democratic government to societies that do not have it.
Sometimes, with far less controversy, they advocate that democratization occur gradually through economic contact. But in some cases, especially in the Middle East, they believe authoritarian countries will only become democratic if forced to do so by America’s military.
Israel is fundamentally important in the neoconservative foreign policy vision because it is the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. They think Israel, therefore, has the same interests as the United States. Hence, neoconservatives believe vehemently that the U.S. should help Israel financially and tactically in its regional conflicts. They believe that democracies need to stick together, and they mostly blame the failure of a two-state solution on the fact that the Palestinians lack liberal democratic order.
Israeli leaders do not share the neoconservatives’ pro-democracy perspective. Israel aims to develop good relations with authoritarian regimes to avoid conflict, and, in the Arab world, Israeli leaders are often more frightened by the prospect of a democratic government led by antagonistic political factions than they are of iron-fisted dictators who prefer to avoid hostilities with Israel.
For example, in 2011, neoconservatives agreed with President Obama’s support of the January 25 Revolution in Egypt and the subsequent “Arab Spring” while Israel felt comfortable with Hosni Mubarak in power, a dictator who kept a 30-year peace with the Jewish state despite factions in Egypt that wanted to tear up the Camp David Accords.
Israel didn’t agree with the neoconservatives’ advocacy of regime change in Iraq in 2003 either, sensing that Saddam Hussein was at least keeping even worse parties out of power.
Israeli leaders and American neoconservatives do currently share a similar assessment on the Iranian threat. But neoconservatives have their own American aims – and these aims don’t always mesh with those of Israel.