Israel, Obama and the Realist's Dilemma

If realists are really as businesslike as they claim, then foreign policy ought to look something like investment. And while short-term profitability is clearly one important element in choosing which countries to support, another is stability.
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As President Barack Obama concludes his first presidential tour of Israel, observers have contorted themselves to explain why, after four years of studied avoidance, he chose to suddenly head for the Holy Land.

Part of it has to do with how different the Middle East looks today than it did when he first took office -- including a series of convulsions so profound as to beggar comparison with anything that has happened since decolonization in the mid-twentieth century. This upheaval, dubbed an "Arab Spring" by optimists dreaming of an anti-authoritarian storm front leaving democratic May flowers in its wake, may in fact more closely resemble a bone-rattling tempest -- a near'easter -- that might not end for a very long time, bringing neither freedom nor peace to a region never quite sure whether such Western luxuries are not themselves a devil in disguise.

Such developments should require a recalibration of the overall American foreign policy assessment. But to where?

The president has been widely described as a Kissinger-style pragmatist, a "realist" for whom foreign relations must be undertaken according to the calculus of national interest rather than esoteric matters of the spirit, shared values, or sentimental attachments.

The new reality, however, poses a problem for realists. If in the past, they intuitively looked to the Arab states' oil and diplomatic power as the most reliable sources of political and economic benefit, today these have become much less reliable.

And they have become as such precisely at a time when Israel has stopped being the beleaguered underdog, emerging instead as a remarkably stable regime, with the most advanced military force in the region and arguably the sturdiest engine of economic growth in the developed world.

Just consider how far things have gone. Egypt, the greatest recipient of American aid in the Arab world, has been overthrown and is in upheaval. Turkey, the keystone of NATO's Middle East posture, has begun what looks like a slouch toward neo-Ottoman authoritarianism, jailing journalists and crushing opposition. Syria is in a brutal civil war that may not end soon, Libya has overthrown Muammar Gaddafi and is unhinged, Lebanon has sort of come under Hezbollah's control, Tunisia just had its liberal opposition leader assassinated and Mali has dragged French troops to war against al-Qaeda affiliates. And Saudi Arabia, the lynchpin of American oil interests, is facing its most difficult financial and political crisis in a generation. All this, while Iran continues to pursue a nuclear weapon that could shift the balance of power in the Persian Gulf and beyond - just when the United States needs stability there more than ever.

Now, contrast this with the remarkably steady rise of Israel over the last decade. Without underplaying the enormity of the Iranian nuclear threat, Israel's conventional military edge has advanced dramatically with the emergence of cyber-warfare, drones, satellite-based intelligence, and missile defense. With its deepening ties with India, Israel has become one of the top military exporters on earth.

Economically, Israel has become a world leader in innovation and a paragon of fiscal and monetary discipline, boasting steady annual growth of four to six percent combined with comparatively low inflation and unemployment. Even in 2009, when most Western economies contracted, Israel maintained a positive growth rate. While Western countries had their credit ratings clipped, Israel's improved; when they saw their debt-to-GDP ratios inflate, Israel's diminished.

True, Israel's economy is still smaller than Saudi Arabia's. But while the Saudis' economy is based on a single, wildly unstable commodity, Israel's economy is dynamic, innovative, consistent, and fully integrated. In investment terms, Israel today may be seen as a smoothly growing mid-sized company in a future-oriented market - like Google a decade ago, perhaps - while Saudi Arabia and the Emirates look more like a large, profitable airline: one that makes money today but, for reasons entirely outside of its control, could find itself collapsing under conditions that are not so difficult to imagine, such as the emergence of alternatives to Middle Eastern oil. And a true foreign-policy realist can be forgiven for thinking that in an increasingly turbulent region, the U.S. ought to be placing its bets as safely as possible.

So the present situation poses a real test for realists. For if they are really as businesslike as they claim, then foreign policy ought to look something like investment, with the periodic reassessment of earnings and ratios and prospects. And while short-term profitability is clearly one important element in choosing which countries to support, another is stability.

Some might argue that the comparison is unfair: Given the $3 billion in assistance the Americans provide Israel each year, effectively "propping up" the Jewish state, doesn't that undermine any claim that the U.S. should see it as strong and independent and a source of power and wealth?

No, for three reasons. First, because the investment in Israel has been far less costly than the huge and permanent military deployment the United States has maintained in the Persian Gulf region, which has done much more to "prop up" friendly regimes than anything America's done for Israel. Second, because the relationship with Israel is a far more healthy one than with the oil regimes. For the latter, economic success depends on high oil prices, which in turn harms the American and European economies. It is far less win-win, far more zero-sum, than should be comfortable as the basis of a long-term alliance. With Israel, the opposite is true: Israel is better seen as a partner than as a dependent, its success becomes part of a rising tide, helping other Western countries grow. And finally, because taken as a portion of Israel's national budget, American aid has actually dropped precipitously, from about 22 percent in 1985 to about 4 percent in 2011. Israel now stands very firmly on its feet--while if anything, the dependence that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE have felt towards the American military has only increased in recent years.

So, what remains of the realists' opposition to support for Israel? They must decide. Either they will remain true to their realism, and see that the scales have shifted; or they will continue criticizing American support for Israel regardless of what changes on the ground, and risk accusations that there never really were any scales to begin with.

We look forward to hearing from them, either way. With President Obama's visit to Israel, we may already have.

The columnist is editor of The Tower Magazine and author of "The Ten Commandments" (Scribner, 2010). A longer version of this feature appears in the debut April 2013 issue of The Tower Magazine.

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