This two-apart discussion was inspired two weeks ago by an anonymous White House spokesperson assuring that in an upcoming speech the president “will argue that his foreign policy philosophy is not isolationist, but rather “interventionist and internationalist.”
Between dusk and dawn lies uncertainty. And uncertainty recommends reflection and calculation. President Obama delivered his “America must always lead” commencement speech to West Point’s graduating class on 28 May. In it he sought to explain just how, in the words of his anonymous spokesperson, “his foreign policy philosophy is not isolationist, but rather “interventionist and internationalist.”” A word of caution: That which I discuss is not presidential “policy” since all administrations are constrained by an overriding and long-term national agenda in service of perceived national interests. “Why are we the world’s policeman” was not coined with Bush decapitating Iraq’s tyrant and America’s involvement in yet another losing war ala Viet Nam; the question was already on American’s lips in the 1950’s during the Eisenhower presidency.
The United States never was an ambitious imperialist on the European model. The Cold War with the Soviet Union forced leadership on the US who reluctantly inherited the oil-rich Middle East from the declining Europeans, Britain and France. Israel rose to prominence for America as forward base protecting US interests against the Soviet-backed nationalist regimes in Egypt and Syria. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War; particularly in recent years with new techniques of extracting oil from shale, Middle Eastern oil is no longer a strategic commodity, a primary interest justifying in the American calculus the investment of military and financial investment.
For centuries Russia sought a “warm water port” in the Mediterranean. Even after Egypt ousted the USSR in its turn to the US in 1972 Russia retained a bridgehead in the Levant with its intelligence base and naval port in Latakia, Syria. Bush invading Iraq was not only a failure of US arms but threw wide the door to Iranian and Russian ambitions in the region.
And so President Obama traveled to West Point to explain how America’s retreat from the Middle East and its message of “leading from behind” is somehow “activist and not withdrawal from global responsibilities: Isolationism.
In the period of uncertainty: America, Israel and the “special relationship”
Alliances between states exist to serve each party’s national interests. England and the United States had a long-standing “special relationship” born of political and cultural heritage. Yet in the early days of the Second World War England called on its strategic partner for assistance. America’s response was that the European war not America’s affair.
Israel has long described and considered solid its “special relationship” with the United States. And, at least for Israel, it was. The country, tiny and vulnerable, born of the Holocaust and surrounded by enemy states feels the need for alliance with a major power. Long before the US appreciated the strategic value of the Jewish state Israel and France were allied against the common enemy. The alliance lasted as long as the senior partner found it convenient and ended abruptly with France retreat from its colony, Algeria. With the world’s largest reserves of shale oil at home Arab oil is of diminishing interest, and a “special relationship” with Israel in defense of the Saudi monarchy is not only unnecessary, but a hindrance to US trade with the Muslim world.
So, what are Israel’s options in this period of uncertainty?
Israel’s Periphery Doctrine is a decades-long response to isolation surrounded by immediate and potential enemies. It is a strategic outreach to nations facing similar threat by shared enemies.
As early as the 1950’s Israel and China (PRC) were interested in diplomatic and trade relations. Under pressure from the Eisenhower Administration relations with China were delayed for three decades (Israel is today second only to Russia as supplier of military and technical materials to China). In terms of strategic necessity Israel has been particularly interested in alliance with non-Arab Muslim states. Relations with Iran had, for instance, been very close until the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. The Islamic Republic today threatens not only Israel but both Arab and non-Arab Muslim states leading to open and “quiet” defense agreements between Israel and Muslim states locally and more distant. Besides informal alliance with Jordan and Egypt Israel and the Saudis also have quiet understandings in intelligence and limited military cooperation in the event of war with Iran. Also within the “inner periphery” Israel has shared interests with such non-Muslim populations as the Christians, Druze and Kurds in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
Further afield Israel has a formal and public defense pact with Kazakhstan, a Muslim state with tense relations with Iran. Israel has less robust understandings with Turkmenistan, Tajikistan. And rumors persist that Azerbaijan will allow Israel the use of airfields for support and supply should war with Iran occur. And although relations with Turkey’s Islamist government are not nearly as close as with the previous secular government, threatened by Iran and Syria intelligence sharing with Israel has apparently continued uninterrupted.
In the non-Muslim world Bulgaria, Armenia and Greece are active or potential allies against Iran. Greece and Israel have a formal cooperation agreement and periodically hold joint military air exercises “targeting” Iran. Such an exercise took place most recently in late 2013.
Further afield and of future strategic importance India and China are the world’s next superpowers generation. Israel’s engagement with China was touched on. Israel is also an important source of military and industrial technology to India and relations with both states is expanding rapidly. For the nearer term Russia is clearly positioned to replace the US in the Middle East, another country eager to benefit from Israeli technology.
To repeat, Israel remains dependent on the US through this period of transition and must tread carefully not to provoke a breach in relations. Still, Israel’s long-term interests, as President Obama put it, also involves a “pivot” to the east.
Israel’s military options in the period of transition
After more than a decade of tepid US response Iran is not only approaching breakout for a nuclear weapon, but may already have the means to deliver that weapon to any point on the globe. Nor did it take that decade for the ayatollahs to appreciate that the United States, regardless the political party or White House incumbent the US never intended to back threat with action. Over the years Israel has done much to lay the groundwork with periphery partners leaving open the option to act independently against Iran. The major consideration for Israel is that, more than the military risk, without a highly unlikely “green light” from Obama Israel would likely face serious, perhaps crippling consequences for defying the president.
With its involvement in Syria Iran now faces Israel across the Golan. In March of 2013 I speculated that the war in Syria might necessitate Israeli action to secure not only her northern border, but the offshore natural gas platforms threatened by increasingly more sophisticated missiles in the hands of Hezbollah. A cordon sanitaire completely surrounding Lebanon would establish a strategic buffer against Syria and its new Jihadist threat. It would also close the land route from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Is such a project realistic? And how would that impact Israel’s relations with Obama? What impact on Syria?
An Israeli attack on Iran would be on a far larger scale than earlier attacks on Iraq’s bomb project in Iraq in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007. Bush invading Iraq threatened global oil markets and set conditions for the Great Recession. An even more widespread cross-Gulf war would likely trigger a similar, even more serious impact on the global economy. For Israel perhaps the continuation of clandestine warfare would provide a more controllable containment of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. And Iran could still be defeated on the ground, in Syria. Israel has attacked Syria several times by air. Recent reports put Israeli ground forces inside Syria. Even as Syrian rebels are creating a land buffer, a “safe haven” from Jordan to the Golan, Hezbollah remains a threat to Israel’s north, and al-Quaeda a threat from the Golan in the north, the Sinai in the south. A buffer strip manned by Syrian rebels under the protection of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would provide security to Israel, Jordan and Lebanon while promoting the de facto cantonization of Syria and likely the most favorable outcome for all Syrian factions. Iraq and Syria were artificially created by Britain and France for administrative convenience forcing populations with no common history into artificial union. Competitive and unmanageable except by force from a central authority (Sadam in Iraq, the Assads in Syria) one option considered before the US withdrawal from Iraq was a semi-autonomous federation of Shia, Sunni and Kurds loosely united under the Iraqi flag. The continuing civil war between Sunni and Shia in Iraq today continues to recommend cantonization. As for Iraqi Kurds they are already acting independently in defiance of Baghdad. Syria shares a similar mix: Sunni, Shia, Kurds; with a smaller Alawite population in the mountains abutting Lebanon.
As to the three questions posed above: “Is such a project realistic; How would that impact Israel’s relations with Obama, and; What impact on Syria?” To the first: while American boots are supposedly not “on the ground” in Syria US-trained and armed rebel forces are operating in Syria. And reportedly they are protected and supported by the IDF. Since Obama already has a toe in the conflict he is not well-positioned to loudly attack Israeli involvement, particularly if Israel were responding to aggression from the Syrian side. And Israel would enjoy far more support for an incursion by the American public and almost unanimous support from a US Congress already doubtful of the president’s approach to foreign affairs. As to the impact on Syria, almost any outcome ending the murder of civilians would benefit that country. And an outcome providing for “self-rule” by confession would reduce the need for an authoritarian central government to maintain control.
With Hezbollah reduced in influence Lebanon would return to pre-war, possibly pre-Iranian “stability.” Containing, even evicting al-Quaeda would relieve Jordan of at least one radical Islamist threat.
Overall, eliminating Iran from the Levant would provide a level of stability and quiet absent for years and might even lower the temperature of an “Arab Spring-turned-Winter.”
Fantasy? Possibly. But given the present situation in the region certainly better than the present chaos created by the retreating superpower.