Israel: a strategic asset or liability?

On Tuesday, July 20, The Nixon Center hosted a luncheon discussion on “Israel: Strategic Asset or Liability?” in which Ambassador Chas Freeman, Jr., (US ambassador to Saudi Arabia for the George H.W. Bush administration from 1989 to 1992) delivered the following remarks:

Is Israel a strategic asset or liability for the United States? Interesting question. We must thank the Nixon Center for asking it. In my view, there are many reasons for Americans to wish the Jewish state well. Under current circumstances, strategic advantage for the United States is not one of them. If we were to reverse the question, however, and to ask whether the United States is a strategic asset or liability for Israel, there would be no doubt about the answer.

American taxpayers fund between 20 and 25 percent of Israel’s defense budget (depending on how you calculate this). Twenty-six percent of the $3 billion in military aid we grant to the Jewish state each year is spent in Israel on Israeli defense products. Uniquely, Israeli companies are treated like American companies for purposes of U.S. defense procurement. Thanks to congressional earmarks, we also often pay half the costs of special Israeli research and development projects, even when — as in the case of defense against very short-range unguided missiles — the technology being developed is essentially irrelevant to our own military requirements. In short, in many ways, American taxpayers fund jobs in Israel’s military industries that could have gone to our own workers and companies. Meanwhile, Israel gets pretty much whatever it wants in terms of our top-of-the-line weapons systems, and we pick up the tab.

Identifiable U.S. government subsidies to Israel total over $140 billion since 1949. This makes Israel by far the largest recipient of American giveaways since World War II. The total would be much higher if aid to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and support for Palestinians in refugee camps and the occupied territories were included. These programs have complex purposes but are justified in large measure in terms of their contribution to the security of the Jewish state.

Per capita income in Israel is now about $37,000 — on a par with the UK. Israel is nonetheless the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, accounting for well over a fifth of it. Annual U.S. government transfers run at well over $500 per Israeli, not counting the costs of tax breaks for private donations and loans that aren’t available to any other foreign country.

These military and economic benefits are not the end of the story. The American government also works hard to shield Israel from the international political and legal consequences of its policies and actions in the occupied territories, against its neighbors, or — most recently — on the high seas. The nearly 40 vetoes the United States has cast to protect Israel in the UN Security Council are the tip of iceberg. We have blocked a vastly larger number of potentially damaging reactions to Israeli behavior by the international community. The political costs to the United States internationally of having to spend our political capital in this way are huge.

Where Israel has no diplomatic relations, U.S. diplomats routinely make its case for it. As I know from personal experience (having been thanked by the then Government of Israel for my successful efforts on Israel’s behalf in Africa), the U.S. government has been a consistent promoter and often the funder of various forms of Israeli programs of cooperation with other countries. It matters also that America — along with a very few other countries — has remained morally committed to the Jewish experiment with a state in the Middle East. Many more Jews live in America than in Israel. Resolute American support should be an important offset to the disquiet about current trends that has led over 20 percent of Israelis to emigrate, many of them to the United States, where Jews enjoy unprecedented security and prosperity.

Clearly, Israel gets a great deal from us. Yet it’s pretty much taboo in the United States to ask what’s in it for Americans. I can’t imagine why. Still, the question I’ve been asked to address today is just that: what’s in it — and not in it — for us to do all these things for Israel.

We need to begin by recognizing that our relationship with Israel has never been driven by strategic reasoning. It began with President Truman overruling his strategic and military advisers in deference to personal sentiment and political expediency. We had an arms embargo on Israel until Lyndon Johnson dropped it in 1964 in explicit return for Jewish financial support for his campaign against Barry Goldwater. In 1973, for reasons peculiar to the Cold War, we had to come to the rescue of Israel as it battled Egypt. The resulting Arab oil embargo cost us dearly. And then there’s all the time we’ve put into the perpetually ineffectual and now long defunct “peace process.”

Still the US-Israel relationship has had strategic consequences. There is no reason to doubt the consistent testimony of the architects of major acts of anti-American terrorism about what motivates them to attack us. In the words of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is credited with masterminding the 9/11 attacks, their purpose was to focus “the American people … on the atrocities that America is committing by supporting Israel against the Palestinian people….” As Osama Bin Laden, purporting to speak for the world’s Muslims, has said again and again: “we have … stated many times, for more than two-and-a-half-decades, that the cause of our disagreement with you is your support to your Israeli allies who occupy our land of Palestine….” Some substantial portion of the many lives and the trillions of dollars we have so far expended in our escalating conflict with the Islamic world must be apportioned to the costs of our relationship with Israel.

It’s useful to recall what we generally expect allies and strategic partners to do for us. In Europe, Asia, and elsewhere in the Middle East, they provide bases and support the projection of American power beyond their borders. They join us on the battlefield in places like Kuwait and Afghanistan or underwrite the costs of our military operations. They help recruit others to our coalitions. They coordinate their foreign aid with ours. Many defray the costs of our use of their facilities with “host nation support” that reduces the costs of our military operations from and through their territory. They store weapons for our troops’, rather than their own troops’ use. They pay cash for the weapons we transfer to them.

Israel does none of these things and shows no interest in doing them. Perhaps it can’t. It is so estranged from everyone else in the Middle East that no neighboring country will accept flight plans that originate in or transit it. Israel is therefore useless in terms of support for American power projection. It has no allies other than us. It has developed no friends. Israeli participation in our military operations would preclude the cooperation of many others. Meanwhile, Israel has become accustomed to living on the American military dole. The notion that Israeli taxpayers might help defray the expense of U.S. military or foreign assistance operations, even those undertaken at Israel’s behest, would be greeted with astonishment in Israel and incredulity on Capitol Hill.

Military aid to Israel is sometimes justified by the notion of Israel as a test bed for new weapons systems and operational concepts. But no one can identify a program of military R&D in Israel that was initially proposed by our men and women in uniform. All originated with Israel or members of Congress acting on its behalf. Moreover, what Israel makes it sells not just to the United States but to China, India, and other major arms markets. It feels no obligation to take U.S. interests into account when it transfers weapons and technology to third countries and does so only under duress.

Meanwhile, it’s been decades since Israel’s air force faced another in the air. It has come to specialize in bombing civilian infrastructure and militias with no air defenses. There is not much for the U.S. Air Force to learn from that. Similarly, the Israeli navy confronts no real naval threat. Its experience in interdicting infiltrators, fishermen, and humanitarian aid flotillas is not a model for the U.S. Navy to study. Israel’s army, however, has had lessons to impart. Now in its fifth decade of occupation duty, it has developed techniques of pacification, interrogation, assassination, and drone attack that inspired U.S. operations in Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, Somalia, Yemen, and Waziristan. Recently, Israel has begun to deploy various forms of remote-controlled robotic guns. These enable operatives at far-away video screens summarily to execute anyone they view as suspicious. Such risk-free means of culling hostile populations could conceivably come in handy in some future American military operation, but I hope not. I have a lot of trouble squaring the philosophy they embody with the values Americans traditionally aspired to exemplify.

It is sometimes said that, to its credit, Israel does not ask the United States to fight its battles for it; it just wants the money and weapons to fight them on its own. Leave aside the question of whether Israel’s battles are or should also be America’s. It is no longer true that Israel does not ask us to fight for it. The fact that prominent American apologists for Israel were the most energetic promoters of the U.S. invasion of Iraq does not, of course, prove that Israel was the instigator of that grievous misadventure. But the very same people are now urging an American military assault on Iran explicitly to protect Israel and to preserve its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. Their advocacy is fully coordinated with the Government of Israel. No one in the region wants a nuclear-armed Iran, but Israel is the only country pressing Americans to go to war over this.

Finally, the need to protect Israel from mounting international indignation about its behavior continues to do grave damage to our global and regional standing. It has severely impaired our ties with the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. These costs to our international influence, credibility, and leadership are, I think, far more serious than the economic and other burdens of the relationship.

Against this background, it’s remarkable that something as fatuous as the notion of Israel as a strategic asset could have become the unchallengeable conventional wisdom in the United States. Perhaps it’s just that as someone once said: “people … will more easily fall victim to a big lie than a small one.” Be that as it may, the United States and Israel have a lot invested in our relationship. Basing our cooperation on a thesis and narratives that will not withstand scrutiny is dangerous. It is especially risky in the context of current fiscal pressures in the United States. These seem certain soon to force major revisions of both current levels of American defense spending and global strategy, in the Middle East as well as elsewhere. They also place federally-funded programs in Israel in direct competition with similar programs here at home. To flourish over the long term, Israel’s relations with the United States need to be grounded in reality, not myth, and in peace, not war.

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Comments

  1. AMEN!

  2. DICKERSON3870 says:

    RE: “…it’s remarkable that something as fatuous as the notion of Israel as a strategic asset could have become the unchallengeable conventional wisdom in the United States.” – Freeman
    HASBARA: “Blood libel!”

    RE: “…someone once said: ‘people … will more easily fall victim to a big lie than a small one.'” – Freeman
    MY COMMENT: Someone?(lol)
    “someone” – http://www.quotedb.com/quotes/3273

  3. at last !

  4. delia ruhe says:

    As usual, no pussyfooting around from Freeman. Clearly, he likes living dangerously.

  5. As Rigoletto ends his soliloquy , “la comedia et finita”.

    The question then becomes obvious as to who will be the biggest loser? The US of A or its one and only democratic ally in the world.

    Ye reap what ye sow, said anonymouse.

  6. Whose ‘one and only democratic ally in the world’ are we talking about here, OMOP? NATO is a cabal of dictatorships? (for just one example).

    It would be an advantage to discuss Israel’s policies and actions here, but the conversation would have to be rational and reasoned. Are Israel’s friends up to that?

    Good luck with that harvest, Israel.

  7. Meanwhile, it’s been decades since Israel’s air force faced another in the air. It has come to specialize in bombing civilian infrastructure and militias with no air defenses. There is not much for the U.S. Air Force to learn from that.

    An oversight on his part obviously, as this is exactly how I would describe the US Air Force as well.

    Recently, Israel has begun to deploy various forms of remote-controlled robotic guns…I have a lot of trouble squaring the philosophy they embody with the values Americans traditionally aspired to exemplify.

    Again, he undermines his own argument about Israel’s value to the US, confusing the worlds of policy and propaganda. As any literate person must know, America has shown a lot of enthusiasm for remote-control killing in Afghanistan, whatever its ‘traditional values’.

    To flourish over the long term, Israel’s relations with the United States need to be grounded in reality, not myth, and in peace, not war.

    My own suspicion is that Israel’s relations with the United States are grounded in reality, and that it is Chas who is struggling with only limited success to overcome myth. To paraphrase George Orwell, a lot of what happens in the world can indeed be justified, but only by arguments too brutal for most people to face. Adolf said much the same thing, but phrased differently: ‘People find it hard to be consciously evil…’.

  8. RLaing July 22, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    I though you people had given up the .. “Johnnie did it too mommy!” …defense for Israel.
    But apparantly not.

  9. Stephen Ward says:

    It’s Canio in Pagliacci who said “La commedia e finita. But good choice of quote.

  10. To S W first “Grazie”.

    Elliot Abrams, Norman Podhoretz’s son in law and one of GWB’s advisor said it best in one of his books,….”the Jew is a – part from the society [to mean not a part of]. in which he/she lives regardless in which nation they reside in. The only state in which a Jew feels a part of is Israel”.

    No one as of yet has “REFUTIATED” that statement. Well maybe Sarah P.

  11. “Elliot Abrams, Norman Podhoretz’s son in law and one of GWB’s advisor said it best in one of his books,….’the Jew is a – part from the society [to mean not a part of]. in which he/she lives regardless in which nation they reside in. The only state in which a Jew feels a part of is Israel”. ‘

    I am Jewish, and I completely reject this statement. I am an American, period.

  12. Mike Murray says:

    omop: Mind your operas! ‘La Commedia e Finita’ is from Ruggerio Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci,” not “Riggoleto.”

  13. Renfro

    Actually, it is not a defense of bad behavior to say that one particular jerk isn’t the only jerk in the world. For example, no serious person would take it as excusing American torture to say that the Nazis also descibed the practise as ‘enhanced interrogation’. OK, actually they called it ‘sharpened’, but you get the idea (I hope).

  14. Peter, there is some truth to this as it is true of most sub-groups in the US–or any country/culture for that matter. Whether one is Jewish, Gay, Black, Mexican, unitarian, an artist, weird, left-handed they are what we call socially stratified or cut apart from the dominant culture.

    It’s understandable that at Christmas, Jews feel like much of the dominant culture is off on its own little sidetrack. None of the marketing hits them squarely, you see the back side of the mask. You feel suddenly “other.” Hell, anyone on this page feels this, whether anti-Israeli or Jewish. For many of us the marketing misses. The entertainment/news is likely far too superficial for any reader here.

    I don’t know if you eat pork without thinking twice. If you don’t care, you might miss this. If you lived in some Muslim country where Pork was banned, you wouldn’t think about it if you were Jewish and abstained from swine. So, in a way, to actively see yourself as Jewish would likely and reasonably cut one apart from society.

    It’s no doubt helped Jews through the ages to be among the higher achievers. Their independence, their nomad nature was likely their greatest resource. It is ironic that achieving their homeland may well prove more destructive to Jewishness than 2000 yrs of diaspora.

  15. “It is ironic that achieving their homeland may well prove more destructive to Jewishness than 2000 yrs of diaspora.”

    This shiksa finds this an interesting observation. I also find it refreshing that this discussion hasn’t devolved into the Kabuki dance of stylized “argument” so common to discussions of the relationship between Israel and the US – especially on the internet.

    As woman, and as a member of several identifiable “minority communities” in the US, I can sort of appreciate your other observation about the feeling of exclusion from the dominant culture. But OTOH, the United States at least holds the principles of pluralism and equal justice as central to its identity, even if it often fails to embody them. Israel also holds similar principles in a similar light, though its sense of pluralism is constrained by ethnic nationalism and – increasingly – authority vested in a specific sectarian definition of Jewishness. As an American, I can always appeal to the promise of equal protection under the law, liberty and Justice for all. Were I a Palestinian in Israel, I would have no such vision of all-inclusive justice to invoke when faced with official oppression. I could be bulldozed out of my home, my children rendered homeless for no other reason than our ethnicity, and have no recourse to law whatsoever.

    I absolutely believe that Jewish people should have the same rights to security as anybody else. But I also don’t believe that being Jewish gives them any more inherent right to that security than anybody else – least of all than the people on whose land they’ve built their nation. If they refuse to take credible steps toward a two-state solution, then perhaps it’s time to take steps toward a nation worthy of American support – where every citizen is equal under the law.