Israel needs a strong America, engaged and projecting power in the Middle East, especially at this time of great political instability. But what if the United States doesn’t want to lead? What if the U.S. is downsizing its involvement in the region? What if America is befuddled by a confused foreign policy prism? These would be troublesome developments.
Unfortunately, the current American administration seems to have no clue how to deal with the Mideast, even as successive Arab regimes crumble and the regional architecture cries out for direction. That is the worrying conclusion that emerged from a high-level American-Israeli conclave held at the end of March in New York. Co-sponsored by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a prominent Israeli think tank, and Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute on War and Peace and the School of International and Public Affairs, the strategic dialogue left the two sides far apart.
The Israeli strategists were advocating American resolve and leadership in a rapidly changing Middle East. A strong and confident U.S. posture in the region, BESA Center’s research associate, professor Eytan Gilboa, told the opening of the conference, is critical to confronting the growing power of Iran and radical Islam.
Only an engaged U.S. that is prepared to commit political, financial and military resources to the task, he said, can provide a modicum of strategic stability to the fast-shifting Middle East. Only an engaged America can combat the rise of Iranian hegemony. Only an engaged America can retard the ascendance of Islamist parties from Morocco to the Gulf.
However, American participants in the dialogue were very reserved. In effect, they yawned and said: No thanks. [Some of the American participants in the dialogue were William Quandt, Richard Murphy, Jonathan Rhynhold and Robert Shapiro.]
The top-level Columbia and Harvard academics, diplomats and former administration officials expressed awe at the changes in the region, but made it clear that America prefers to lower the profile of its involvement in the Middle East.
In fact, America wants out of the Middle East, they suggested. Out of Iraq; out of Afghanistan; and to a certain extent, out of Israeli-Palestinian affairs, too. The U.S. certainly has no zitzfleish, or stamina, for truly confronting a nuclear Iran.
You could almost feel the exhaustion in the room. America is overextended, we heard. While the tenor of the discussion was not isolationist, the positions expressed indicated an inclination to disengage from overseas commitments. Call it strategic fatigue.
Even more disturbing was the hint that America’s withdrawal from the Middle East stems from a deeper, more ideological place. It’s not just fatigue. It was hard to shake the feeling that American foreign and defense policy practitioners — at least those close to the current administration — no longer want to project American power in the Middle East because they no longer believe in the justness of doing so.
President Obama’s difficulty in openly identifying with American exceptionalism is well known. He seems embarrassed by, has often apologized for, the exercise of American power. The shadow of such feckless thinking seemed to loom over the conference.
Yet, strategic fatigue and ideological indolence were only one part of the pictured we Israelis were presented with in New York. We also found policy confusion.
Take, for example, the current burst of American military activism in Libya. This confused both the Americans and the Israelis at the conference, but for different reasons.
Americans fed up with foreign adventures were obviously suspicious of this new military engagement. They were, to some extent, relieved when the responsibility for the operation was transferred to NATO, which confirms the strategic fatigue syndrome. At the same time they were listening to an American media largely mobilized to assist the Obama administration, portraying the assistance to the rebels in Libya as a stopgap humanitarian effort. Americans have an ingrained passion to spread democracy and fight tyranny, which is morally laudable, but often strategically problematic.
In contrast, Israeli participants were bewildered by the attempt to unseat Kaddafy, an Arab leader who has cooperated with the U.S. since 2003. It bemused Israeli strategists to see Libyan rebels naively portrayed as pro-democracy freedom fighters. We Israelis, who are concerned with America’s standing in the region, fear that America is backing the losing side in this Libyan civil war — a cardinal sin in realpolitik terms.
Simply put, Washington’s behavior makes no strategic sense. First, it stabbed its ally Hosni Mubarak in the back; then it sought to block Saudi intervention in Bahrain, which was necessary to forestall an Iranian-backed Shiite victory; and now it has intervened in a civil and tribal war in which the rebels might well be radical Islamists or subsumed by Islamists.
All this reinforces the Israeli view that Washington has lost it. A mix of strategic weariness and naïve ideology supporting a half-baked doctrine of sporadic intervention for humanitarian reasons is a recipe for growing uncertainty about American wisdom and leadership. Many Middle Eastern states will distance themselves from an unreliable U.S., especially if its leaders appear to be misguided amateurs.
A confused and unpredictable America is even more frightening than a tired superpower. A Middle East without clear and strong American leadership is a very unruly place, especially for Israel.
Israelis still see America as a great and ennobling world power. America is not and need not be in decline. Thus we hope that the U.S. will snap back to its solid global performance and responsibilities quickly. The world — especially the Middle East — needs a strong America with strategic prescience.
Professor Efraim Inbar is director, and David M. Weinberg is director of public affairs, of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University (www.besacenter.org).