Monday, March 15, 2010

US/Israel ties are at an historic low: Is this temporary or permanent?

It is difficult to interpret the importance of events like Israel's recent snub of Joe Biden. On the one hand, there is no fundamental change related to the Israeli decision either to approve new settlements or to announce them. On the other hand, there may be fundamental changes in the region. It may be that an event like this can be used as a pretext to bring US policy into alignment with new realities.

Not long ago, I felt a sense of hopeful denial on the part of most Western analysts in discussing Iran's nuclear program. The idea that sanctions would not be sufficient to cause Iran to give up its right to nuclear capability led analysts to cling desperately to the idea that maybe a military strike would solve the problem, or funnier, while admitting that a military strike could not solve the problem, maybe convincing Iran that the US thinks a military strike could solve the problem would by itself solve the problem. The last gasp, which died in mid-February was the idea that a pro-American regime change might solve the problem.

For the last month, and in some cases longer, things I read increasingly demonstrate an acceptance that the US does not have options that plausibly may cause Iran to give up a nuclear weapons capability. But the reason Western analysts clung to the idea that a miracle would save Israel from having a nuclear-capable neighbor is that it really is an Israeli strategic necessity that it have an overwhelming military advantage over its neighbors.

(My thoughts on the colonies are also changing because of this. The US first choice with respect to Iraq, it seems to me, was for Chalabi or Allawi to play the role of Mubarak in Egypt. However, Iraqi resistance made that impossible and the US now seems willing to accept an Iraqi representative government that more-or-less reflects the sensibilities of the Iraqi people. I do not believe the United States could have accepted a democratic Iraq as Iraq was in 1989, however after twenty years of severe sanctions and bombings, Iraq is weak enough, and can be kept weak enough with minimal new intervention, that the US does not oppose democracy as vigorously as it does elsewhere in the region. I'm coming to think that Arab colonial-type dictatorships are not an objective for the United States, only one way among others to keep Arab states weak enough that they do not threaten Israel.)

But with the realization that Iran cannot be prevented from attaining a nuclear capability necessarily also comes the realization that Western analysts have been working so hard to avoid - the US generally is not able to restrain Israel's region at a cost consistent with US priorities. Iran's nuclear capability alters the strategic environment not only as a virtual weapon that weakens Israel's strategic ability to threaten to use its weapons, but also, and possibly more importantly, as a symbol of the limits of US coercive power in the region.

By setting a line before Iran's nuclear program and marshaling tremendous resources to prevent Iran from crossing that line, the United States has to deal itself with the fact that it could not hold that line. The anger the US is expressing toward Israel today may carry elements of frustration that despite its maximal effort to unilaterally rewrite the NPT to increase Israel's regional strategic advantage, it failed.

(We also have to be clear that the idea pursued by the US, that Iran does not have the right to a nuclear capability despite the fact that Brazil has it, Japan has it, dozens of other countries have it and the NPT explicitly says its rights are held "without discrimination" was immoral and illegal as soon as it was implemented by the US shortly after the Iranian revolution.)

Keeping the Middle East safe for Israel is expensive, and US analysts, it seems, are now beginning to understand the cost. In that light, an Israeli snub of a US official is more egregious of an insult than it would have seemed without that realization. More importantly, snubs like this give the US an excuse, if and when it decides to take it, to make adjustments in the amount of resources it is willing to expend on Israel's behalf.

I expect relations to recover, for the most part. But the fundamental trend of US support for Israel I expect to be a decline overall. This time it was Iran's nuclear program. Next time it may be Egypt's dictatorship, or Iraq's rearmament or one-person/one-vote in Lebanon or something else in Israel's region where Israel depends on US expenditures to prevent threatening strategic outcomes. It is no longer clear that the US has the ability to keep making these expenditures, and as the US realizes it is losing its ability, it is not clear that the US will maintain the will to keep making them.

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