“Obama, unlike liberal interventionists, is an admirer of the foreign-policy realism of President George H. W. Bush and, in particular, of Bush’s national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft (“I love that guy,” Obama once told me).”
— The Obama Doctrine, The Atlantic, April 2016
“Buying the long-standing realist notion that Israeli-Palestinian conflict drives much regional turmoil, Obama pressured Israel for a settlement freeze as a necessary concession for peace and downplayed Palestinian terror, anti-Israel incitement and the terror group Hamas’ role in Palestinian government as impediments to it.”
— A Dangerous Middle East Policy, US News & World Report, May 6, 2015
The recently departed administration of Barack Obama was characterized by the president’s open admiration of the “realism” of the foreign policy of the Presidency of George H. W. Bush, and Obama’s continuous and strong antagonism towards the State of Israel. The two ideas often go together, because the conventional wisdom has long asserted that an American leader who practices the doctrine of “realism” should attempt to reverse the (generally) strong U.S. friendship and support for Israel. This is because such “realists” have long believed that American backing for Israel is a net negative for the U.S., because it antagonizes the Arab and/or Muslim World, and other nations.
As a correlation, these realists frequently argue that if the U.S. were to reverse that support — or appear more “even-handed” — the U.S. would automatically garner more popularity with the world.
But is this conventional wisdom correct? Would a true realist automatically attempt to distance the U.S. from Israel? And would such a change be a successful strategy for the U.S.?
Realism is defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Realists consider the principal actors in the international arena to be states, which are concerned with their own security, act in pursuit of their own national interests, and struggle for power… The classical realists do not reject the possibility of moral judgment in international politics. Rather, they are critical of moralism — abstract moral discourse that does not take into account political realities.
Per this definition, a “classical realist” would be focused on the nation’s development of policies that most effectively maximize its “national interest(s),” which could include “moral judgment(s).” Note that, contrary to conventional wisdom, morality does play a role in classical realism.
However, for those who continue to insist otherwise, those that seek to divorce moral judgments from foreign policy making may be referred to as “moral-free realists.”
National Interests (Excluding Moral Judgments)
The following are some U.S. national interests frequently cited by public officials and national security experts, especially when discussing Israel. Obviously, some of these interests are overlapping. 1) The U.S. has an interest in assuring its own physical security and its citizenry from foreign attack.  2) The U.S. has an interest in protecting its own economic well-being. This entails keeping the oil and natural gas lanes in the Middle East flowing to the U.S. and the world. It also requires the U.S. to maintain its own national economic well-being by acting in a fiscally prudent manner. 3) The U.S. has an interest in bolstering the interests and security of its allies — i.e., positive reinforcement — and alternatively, in undermining or punishing its opponents — i.e., positive punishment — so as to incentivize pro-U.S. policies. 4) The U.S. has an interest in balancing power in every region, so as to deter future wars and help stabilize the world. 5) The U.S. has an interest in maximizing its popularity with other nations.
In reference to the first national interest, Israel has long been a strong ally of the U.S. Israel backs the U.S. around 90 percent of the time at the U.N. It is a bitter enemy of, and has fought against, many of the same terrorists and rogue states that the U.S. has found itself in conflict with, including Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Hamas, ISIS, etc. In 1970, at the behest of President Nixon, Israel mobilized its troops to intimidate Syrian troops invading Jordan, prompting the Syrians to retreat. In 1981, Israel destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor, which allowed the U.S. to avoid a nuclear confrontation with Iraq in 1991, and later earned it the thanks of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. In 1991, at the behest of the U.S., Israel did not respond to Iraqi Scud Missile attacks so as not to endanger the international coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2007, it destroyed a nuclear reactor in Syria, which may have prevented a nuclear incident from occurring during the Syrian civil war.
Israel provides crucial intelligence to the U.S. In the early 90’s, Gen. George J. Keegan Jr., former head of U.S. Air Force intelligence, statedthat America’s military defense capability “owes more to the Israeli intelligence input than it does to any single source of intelligence,” the worth of which input exceeds “five CIAs.” He stated that between 1974 and 1990, Israel received $18.3 billion in U.S. military grants, while providing the U.S. with $50-$80 billion in intelligence, research and development savings, and Soviet weapons systems captured and transferred to the U.S. Today, Israel is still providing unmatched national security intelligence — for example, regarding Syria and chemical weapons, and also in the U.S. campaign against ISIS. For example, Israeli intelligence information may have shown the truth about Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
As for the second national interest, there is no question that Israel has provided great economic benefits to the U.S. The Washington Institute has reported that “Israel has facilitated U.S. efforts to deal with emerging soft security challenges related to economic competitiveness, the information technology revolution, resource sustainability, and public health.” These include the development of cyber systems, robotics, rocket/missile defenses, battlefield ISR, advanced munitions, passive and active defenses for armored vehicles, and mini-satellites, IT, water conservation and management, high-tech agriculture, medical R&D, cleantech/renewable energy, and societal resilience, all of which have been shared with the U.S.
Contrary to popular belief, the (now) $3.8 billion in annual foreign aid the U.S. has given to Israel has been a military and an economic boost for the U.S. as well. It has yielded one of the highest rates of return on U.S. investments overseas. U.S. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce has himself said: “For those who ask about our foreign aid support to Israel, you should ask them, where do you think these ideas come from and where are they trained on the battlefield, and how much would it cost to replace Israel if it was not in the Middle East as the bulwark against what is developing as a result of the chaos throughout the region.” Israel now spends 100 percent of its military aid in buying U.S. goods, making the aid an indirect American subsidy to U.S. arms manufacturers, and creating at least 70,000 jobs in America.
In many ways, the assistance Israel provides to the U.S. military industry is unique. Israel’s air force developed a method of identifying, repairing and preempting cracks in old combat planes, such as the F-16 that it shared with the U.S., which reduces the time planes are grounded from six months to two weeks. Likewise, Israel has bought explosive-neutralizing robots from a Northrup Grumman, Tennessee plant, both putting the seal of Israeli approval on these robots and thereby boosting foreign sales, and providing, through a weekly telephone conference call, constant improvements to these products.
The flip side to this — the economic danger to the U.S. for supporting Israel — is mostly non-existent, regardless of the “Arab lobby.” Except for the 1970’s, the Arab/Muslim world has proven to be largely uninterested in utilizing their energy tool against Israel. Perhaps it is because the oil producing Gulf States recognize that Israel has actually been helpful to them in the past and do not really consider Israel to be a danger to their own existence? Or, it could just be that they recognize that the U.S. has less of a need for Arab and/or Muslim energy resources, because it has developed its own, alternate sources of oil and natural gas. In 2012, Forbes magazine wrote: “within eight short years, the U.S. will surpass Saudi Arabia in terms of oil production, the International Energy Agency said.” That is now three years away.
The U.S. also may benefit from Israel’s development of its own energy sources. Israel has been “transformed with the 2010 discovery of a natural gas field off its Mediterranean coast. Dubbed the Leviathan gas field, it is the largest exploratory find in the world in the past decade and, based on increased estimates released a week ago, contains nearly 22 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.” There is also the Israeli natural gasfield’s of Tamar and Dalit, which began producing in 2013, and are expected to produce 3 million tons of natural gas by 2017. These fields also have oil reserves.
Then, there are the critics of U.S. foreign aid to Israel (and other nations). During a time of huge debts and deficits, they often claim it is fiscally irresponsible to provide the $3.8 billion annual military aid. These critics may also point to the overall total of more than $115 billion given by the U.S. to Israel, since 1949.
Of course, eliminating Israeli aid just saves the U.S. $3.8 billion a year in military assistance. While $3.8 billion is a lot to an individual, it is almost nothing to the federal government. The U.S. government is almost $20 trillion in debt, and the U.S. deficit in 2016 was almost $552 billion.
In addition, it is a rather misleading to make the argument that the yearly $3.8 billion U.S. military foreign aid to Israel is somehow uniquely expensive to the U.S. The official foreign aid budget misses quite a bit of actual U.S. foreign aid. The U.S. State Department’s foreign aid budget does not take into account the foreign assistance money spent by the Defense Department, the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID), and over a dozen more U.S. agencies. In 2015, the State Department’s total planned foreign aid budget was $32.6 billion, while the Defense Department’s total foreign aid budget was officially listed as $10 billion, USAID adding another $33.7 billion, and Treasury adding another $2.4 billion. Then there are the U.S. troop deployments, which are also not officially foreign aid. The U.S. stations 150,500 troops in 70 allied nations all over the world, such as in Germany, Korea, and Japan, which costs the American taxpayer an annual $85-100 billion. This is really foreign aid, and, unlike the aid to Israel, this assistance also puts the U.S. military in harm’s way.  Once these costs are added to the office State Department foreign aid budget, the largest aid recipients are Japan, where 48,828 U.S. military personnel are stationed, costing over $27 billion, and Germany, with 37,704 U.S. troops on its soil, costing over $21 billion.
The third national interest requires that the U.S. provide positive reinforcement for allies, and positive punishment for enemies. For the U.S. to distance itself from Israel (as President Obama did) would seemingly indicate to most objective observers that the U.S. does not necessarily reward its allies for their good behavior. This thereby incentivizes anti-U.S. policies.
Certainly, the Palestinian Arabs are not U.S. allies. The Palestinian Authority (PA) and the more extreme Muslim fundamentalist Hamas terror group in Gaza continue to incite their people against the U.S. and against Christians (the vast majority of the U.S. population) in general. They payterrorists salaries for actions that have killed and harmed American citizens. The Palestinian leadership has routinely supported the enemies of the U.S. – Nazi Germany, the U.S.S.R., Iran (Hamas), Iraq (during the invasion of Kuwait), and others. They have even praised (and here) Osama Bin Laden, and condemned his killing by the U.S. They have a history of destabilizing the Middle East, and other nations that are our allies; including Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon. In polls, the Palestinian people show high levels of hatred or dislike towards the U.S. and Americans. On September 11, 2001, some Palestinians celebrated in the streets at the fall of the Twin Towers.
During the past eight years, under President Obama, the U.S. worked hard to curry Palestinian favor. The U.S. boosted its annual bilateral financial aid to the PA dramatically. The Obama administration also significantly increased the U.S. aid to the UN agency UNRWA, whose sole job is to administer welfare to the Palestinian refugees. Obama worked hard to implement policies to establish daylight with Israel and show unprecedented support for the Palestinians, among others by stridently criticizing Israeli settlements and pre-emptively endorsing the Palestinian claim to statehood for the PA (which is supposed to be decided under Oslo by bilateral Palestinian-Israeli talks).
Yet, during all that time, the U.S. received few benefits from this appeasement. The PA viewed “the Obama administration’s quenchless demand for Israeli concessions,” as inadequate and not worthy of real gratitude or reward. Unlike during the Bush or Clinton administrations, the PA refused to engage in bilateral talks with the Israelis. Palestinian — and other Arab peoples — support for Americans “reached an all-time nadir.” The PA implemented a coalition government with Hamas, an anti-American terror group. The PA also continued to pay over $130 million a year, almost 10 percent of its budget, for terrorists and their families in reward for their terror attacks, which have led to the murder of over a hundred Americans, and the injury of many more.
The fourth of these interests cited is essentially based on the balance of power doctrine to minimize conflict. Considering the Arab world’s huge numerical and monetary advantage over Israel, the U.S. is more likely to balance the sides by aiding Israel. Further, the idea that the U.S. should favor the anti-Israel Arab side, including the Palestinian Arab side, to balance the parties and thus dis-incentivize either party from instigating a war seems counterintuitive. If the U.S. wants to maximize peace for all parties in the region, empowering the more warlike, sometimes genocidal, groups such as the Islamist-led Saudi Kingdom, any Syrian groups, Fatah, Hamas, and Hezbollah would probably be far less likely to lead to peace than supporting democratic and human rights respecting Israel. Even the more moderate Arab nations, such as Egypt and Jordan, have been violent and aggressive in the past, and have populations and elites that make declarations of anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism and express desires for acts of violence directed against Israel and the U.S.
The fifth national interest — to boost the U.S.’s popularity with the world — is also a frequent argument made by those who oppose Israel. Once again, this argument has surface appeal, but falls apart upon closer examination.
Most Arab and/or Muslim hatred or opposition towards the U.S. has little to do with the Palestinians. As the noted scholar Barry Rubin has written, “Arab and Muslim hatred of the United States is not just, or even mainly, a response to actual U.S. policies — policies that, if anything, have been remarkably pro-Arab and pro-Muslim over the years. Rather, such animus is largely the product of self-interested manipulation by various groups within Arab society…”
A study on this question, by the distinguished historian Efraim Karsh, found that “this argument is not only completely unfounded, but the inverse of the truth. For even though the ‘Palestine question’ has long formed the main common denominator of pan-Arab solidarity and its most effective rallying cry, neither the Arab states nor Palestinian leaders have truly wanted the ‘liberation of Palestine.’” Further, he wrote, “any notion claiming a link between finding a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and attaining regional peace and stability is both false and misleading.” Even the anti-Semitic view of the Arab masses has nothing to do with the Palestinian cause. “Not once has the proverbial ‘Arab street’ driven the Arab regimes to war with Israel; it was rather the Arab masses, indoctrinated for decades with vile anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hatred, who have been repeatedly goaded into violence by their unelected rulers so as to divert attention from their own marginalization and repression.”
Dennis Ross — who has served as a diplomat in the last four presidential administrations — has written that recent events in the region has also proven the idea that “you can’t transform the region, or America’s position in the region, unless you solve the Palestinian issue” to be false. In fact, “(t)oday most of the Arab Sunni states see Israel as a bulwark against both the Iranians and Islamic State and groups claiming loyalty to it. While they may keep their cooperation largely private — given public sensitivities about the Palestinian issue — the scope of what Israel is now doing with a number of Arab states on security is unprecedented.”
Then, there is the historical record. Several times, the U.S. has actually adopted anti-Israel policies. Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, [George H.W.] Bush and Obama all did. Every single one of these administrations were disappointed by the results of these anti-Israel policies; rather than gaining from the outreach, they typically produced more Arab demands.
In the 1950’s, the Eisenhower Administration sought to separate itself from Israel to improve the U.S. position in the Middle East. As scholar Mitchell Bard has written, it didn’t work: “Despite President Eisenhower’s initial pursuit of policies toward Israel that were unhelpful at best, such as keeping the Jewish state out of military alliances and opposing arms and aid requests and, later, during the Suez crisis, threatening to take a variety of punitive actions if Israel did not withdraw from the Sinai, relations with much of the Arab world worsened. The Soviets gained a foothold in the region using Egypt as a proxy to weaken U.S. allies in the late 1950s.” Michael Doran’s book on Eisenhower’s, called “Ike’s Gamble,” has explored these policies in greater detail, and found that Eisenhower came to realize far too late that he had made a major mistake in believing this pearl of American conventional wisdom.
In the 2009-2017 period, we saw much of the same thing. During the years under President Obama, the U.S. has distanced itself from its allies, including Israel, and has increasingly made benevolent gestures towards its bitter enemies, like Hamas. As a result, the world, and the Middle East, has become a much more violent and dangerous place for Americans and U.S. interests, as other nations have become incentivized to oppose America.
However, even with the Obama Administration showing a marked bias against Israel, the U.S. was still not particularly popular in much of the Arab and/or Muslim world. The Egyptians were disgruntled with the U.S. mainly because of U.S. action regarding the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which brutalized their own people, driving millions of them into the streets. The radical Iranian leadership still hates the U.S. because they are radical Muslims and we are infidels, or the “Great Satan,” in their words. The same thinking applies to the transnational fundamentalist Muslim groups of al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia was angry at America as a result of the U.S.’s policies in Syria, Egypt, and Iran. All these Arab and/or Muslim countries love to mouth words of support for their Palestinian brothers, but in reality, many of them either hate or ignore the Palestinians. They rarely put their money where their mouths are by giving the Palestinians tangible humanitarian support.
None of these five interests has been conclusively disproven, but all seem to rather weak arguments that do not provide a truly compelling argument to reverse U.S. support for Israel.
National Moral Judgments
Now, for the classical realist alone, let us examine the U.S.’s oft-stated moral interests regarding foreign policy. 1) U.S. leaders have historically expressed their desire to maximize human rights and democratic rights throughout the world. 2) The U.S. habitually cites its desire for a peaceful world. 3) Specific to Israel itself, many religious Christians and Jews support Israel based on biblical verses that claim that God favors Israel and those people that support it. 4) In general, the American people have a predisposition to aid the victims of aggression, and fight the aggressors.
Regarding the first moral interest; since Israel is the only democratic state in the Middle East that even attempts to protect its religious, ethnic, gender and sexual minorities, it is hard to argue that the U.S. should not support it in its struggles if the U.S. truly wanted to maximize human and democratic rights in the region.
Certainly, the state that would replace it — either completely, or in just in Judea and Samaria — doesn’t seem to care much about human rights. In the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority holds sway, elections arerare and suspect, women are discriminated against, Christians are persecuted, people are imprisoned without trial and tortured, the press is not free, and terrorists who kill innocents — including American travelers to Israel — are paid and celebrated. In Gaza, where the terror group Hamas rules, in addition to all the above problems, Christians are not just persecuted, they are kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam, and sometimes tortured and murdered for “spreading Christianity.” And the human rights records of the PA and Hamas have only gotten worse.
For that matter, few of the Arab and/or Muslim states are known for protecting the human rights or democratic rights of their people. According to Freedom House, “The Middle East and North Africa registered the worst civil liberties scores of any region.” Except for Israel, of course. In most of the Arab and/or Muslim world, women are treatedrather poorly. Many Arab and/or Muslim societies have high rates of honor killings. In Saudi Arabia, women can’t vote, must be veiled, are forbidden from leaving their home without a male counterpart, and are even disallowed from driving automobiles. In Iran, many of the above rules are also followed, and law further decrees that girls are held criminally responsible at the ages of 8-9 years old, while criminal responsibility for boys begins at 15. As a result, in Iran, child executions continue to be high. In “most of the Middle East, homosexuality is a taboo and can result in harsh punishments if someone is found guilty.” In Saudi Arabia, a gay man was recently sentenced to three years and 450 lashes. In Iran, men are hung, often from cranes, for homosexuality.
However, despite these facts, there are still some Israel critics who complain about Israel’s democracy and human rights record, usually tossing around such language as “apartheid, genocide, security walls, Nazi-like behavior,” and other catch phrases. Quite frankly, such critics are rarely making a serious argument. There is no genocide and noapartheid in Israel or the West Bank. (Gaza is now ruled by Hamas.) All restrictions on Arabs within Israel and the disputed territories are onlythere to enhance Israeli security. In fact, there were very few walls and checkpoints prior to the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. Arab Muslims who are Israeli citizens have full rights in their nation, including the right to vote for the Parliament. Most other Middle Eastern states do not give their citizens the right to vote in frequent and fair elections, including Hamas in Gaza and Jordan, both of which are majority Palestinian Arab states/entities. The Israeli Defense Forces has been praised for its respect for human rights, “during Operation Protective Edge [in 2014] … Israel not only met a reasonable international standard of observance of the laws of armed conflict, but in many cases significantly exceeded that standard.”
In regard to the second moral principle, maximizing peace, Israel is the only democratic state in the region, and like most democratic states, its people tend to favor peace. In poll after poll, its people have consistently expressed their desires for peace with the Palestinians and their neighbors. Every single war that the Jewish state has been involved in has been defensive in nature.
Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the region, few other nations push for peace, especially since the “Arab Spring.” Dictators rule through violence, and polls of the general population show significant levels of hostility towards non-Muslims, and express sizable support for the death penalty for apostates and adulterers, honor killings, suicide bombings, and Sharia law. As a result of the violence from the Arab and/or Muslim majorities, nearly the entire Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel was forced to flee, mainly to Israel. Today, much of the Christian population in the Middle East is in physical danger and is fleeing to the West. Warfare is rampant in the region. And the idea that another Arab state in the West Bank will be peaceful is ludicrous.
In regard to the third moral principle — religion — obviously, religious Christian and Jewish Americans who believe in the truth of their religion have a “moral” reason to favor Israel. Although many secularists might object to these arguments, the segment of American society that believes them is substantial, even in the halls of Congress.
Finally, in regards to the fourth moral principle, the Israelis are, once again, rarely the initiators of the violence directed against them. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Arabs are the aggressors in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
An evaluation of these moral concerns of the U.S. seem to argue for continuing firm American support for the Jewish state.
The U.S. as the Weak Horse
Even if it were possible to curry favor with the Arab and/or Muslim world by suddenly opposing Israel, few anti-Israel realists address the fact that a reversal in U.S. attitudes cannot automatically expunge sixty-plus years of the narrative of the (perhaps supposed) strong U.S. friendship and support for Israel.
In fact, it might do just the opposite. It is often said that in the Middle East “(p)ower is respected; weakness is not.” This concept has also been popularized by Osama Bin Laden, who memorably was quoted as saying that people favor the “strong horse” over the “weak horse.” He meant that most Muslims respect and support a strong nation, even if that nation is not always friendly towards them, rather than a weak nation that keeps trying to endear itself to them.
So, if the U.S. started expressing hostility and opposing Israel now — after 60-plus years of warm friendship — this might actually be considered another example of the U.S. showing weakness. And if the U.S. shows weakness, based on the “strong horse” theory, Arabs and/or Muslims would be culturally predisposed to oppose the U.S.
Then again, perhaps this is exactly what has happened during the last seven years?
Contrary to conventional wisdom, realists do not have to be hostile to the Jewish state. Both of the two types of realists examined here — “classical” and “moral-free” — should be focused on developing state policy(ies) that most effectively maximize “our national interest(s).” In both cases, those policies should include support for the state of Israel.
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 The oft-mentioned national interest “Combating the War on Terror,” which is in reality a “Combating the War on Al-Qaeda and similar jihadist groups and nations,” is really just a subset of this principle.
 Note that I am not in any way arguing against the U.S. providing these troops and aid. I am just acknowledging their costs.
 Note that Barry Rubin is making the argument that U.S. policies are “remarkably pro-Arab and pro-Muslim,” contrary to the conventional wisdom, which asserts that the U.S. has pursued pro-Israel policies. My argument focuses on the conventional wisdom, and does not actually attempt to determine if, in truth, over the years, on average, the U.S. policies have generally been pro-Israel or not.
Photo credit: Sally Morrow