Is the Alliance with Israel in the US National Interest?

by Benjamin Studebaker

One of the long-standing assumptions of American foreign policy is that the United States’ alliance with Israel is a high priority and, consequently, Israel must be defended. Today I’d like to look at where this assumption originates from, whether or not it still has applicability, and what are the consequences that arise from it for the United States in terms of the national interest.

So, originally, the United States became allied to Israel in part because many of Israel’s Middle Eastern enemies had aligned themselves with the Soviet Union. Many regions had this sort of superpower proxy war divide, in which the USSR armed and aided one participant in the conflict while the USA armed and aided the other. North Korea, North Vietnam, Eastern Europe, Cuba, and several Middle Eastern states–namely Egypt, Syria, and Iraq–were initially Soviet allies, while the USA maintained alliances with Latin and South America, NATO, South Korea, South Vietnam, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and several Middle Eastern states–namely Israel, Iran, and Pakistan. It made sense at the time for both nations to expand and project their power through their various allies, to use their allies as a buffer zone to keep themselves secure. Over the course of the Cold War, some of these nations would switch sides–South Vietnam was conquered by the North, Egypt and Iraq switched to the USA, Iran switched to the USSR, and so on, but the principle remained the same; it was seemingly prudent to get involved in these distant nations and conflicts in order to counterbalance the opposing superpower, or so at least it could be argued.

Of course, then Soviet Union collapsed, and suddenly all of these distant alliances turned from tools of containment to potential drags on the United States. The United States spends vastly more than any other nation in the world on defence to maintain military bases all over the world, inherited from the Cold War era, to defend itself and its allies  against a threat that no longer exists. Perhaps these alliances served to contain the USSR in the past, but what are they doing now? Some of them facilitate trade that is of great benefit to the United States, like the alliances with the NATO member states. The alliance with Israel, however, is different, because it is the primary reason that US relations with the people and the nations of the Middle East continue to be strained.

What has been the result of that strain? Quite a large number of things, none of them in the national interest:

The US was forced to prop up American-friendly governments even when those governments were damaging to their own citizens in order to ensure continued friendly trade relations (The Shah in Iran, Mubarak in Egypt, Musharraf in Pakistan, House of Saud in Saudi Arabia, etc.), compounding resentments further, resulting in:

  • The storming of the US embassy in Iran and the subsequent hostage crisis
  • The September 11th Attacks (approx 3,000 Americans killed)
  • The War in Afghanistan (approx 2,000 Americans killed)
  • The War in Iraq (approx 4,500 Americans killed)
  • Cost of War on Terror (Brown University estimates $3-4 trillion)
  • The assassination of US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens
  • The possibility of becoming involved in a confrontation between Iran and Israel

Many of the nations whose populations are hostile are rich in energy and other trade resources. In order to maintain American firms’ access to those resources in the face of populations that are hostile to the US over the Israel issue, the United States has been forced to install, prop up, and maintain regimes that govern unethically and who abuse their citizens. The result is that US access to these resources are tenuous; there is permanent instability in the Middle East that threatens American trade routes and companies, and American economic prosperity more broadly (each an every one of us is impacted when instability in the Middle East resulting from the US alliance with Israel drives up the price of oil).

Alliances are meant to be a two-way street–what is the United States getting from the US-Israel alliance now other than a lot of grief? The Washington Institute argues that the US and Israel are able to cooperate on security issues in the Middle East, but most of these security issues only exist in the first place as a direct result of that alliance. It is like being friends with someone whose house often gets sets on fire, noticing that the very same people are trying to set your house on fire, and justifying the relationship on the basis of “well, at least we can both try to prevent arson together”.

It doesn’t help that current (and former–he was Prime Minister in the late nineties as well) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently rejected US lead efforts to resolve Israel’s problem with Palestine diplomatically. Netanyahu refuses to halt settlement construction, to stop blockading the Gaza Strip, or to grant basic protections to the Palestinians living in the occupied territories. He also has unreasonable demands, such as his demand that a future Palestinian state be entirely demilitarised while Israel is permitted to maintain is military strength. It is as if you have a friend whose house often gets set on fire, notice that the very same people are trying to set your house on fire, come up with a plan to stop it, and your friend says “meh, it’s not worth it–you can handle a little arson now and again, can’t you?”

The justification ultimately resorted to is that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East”, which has several problems with it–it’s not true (there are other democratic countries in the Middle East), if Israel’s a democracy, it’s not a very free one for its Arab population (Israel itself has numerous civil rights issues that make its description as “democratic” seem hollow), and further more, why do we care? Let’s look at each briefly:

First, there are other democratic countries in the Middle East:

  • Turkey is a democratic Middle Eastern country and has been for most of the last century
  • Even if Turkey wasn’t democratic, in the aftermath of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, if you believe them to have been in any way reasonably successful, this is no longer true
  • In any event, after the Arab Spring this is definitely no longer true

Second, Israel has numerous documented civil and human rights violations that call into question whether the fact that its democratic has any significant moral or ethical meaning, even if you think democracies are inherently better than other forms of government. There’s a lot written on this; Wikipedia’s as good a place to start as any for those interested in that line of argument.

Lastly, and what I think is most compelling, how does a state being democratic help the United States in any way? How does it materially benefit American citizens that Israel is a democracy? I see no intrinsic benefits here. Economically, we have a harder time profiting from trade with the Middle East as a result of this alliance. Militarily, this alliance results in the overstraining of our military resources. Israel has developed nuclear weapons, it is perfectly capable of defending itself. What the United States is doing amounts to grandstanding for moral principles that do not correspond with reality while the US national interest continues to take hit after hit, sapping America’s strength and weakening its position abroad. These chronically bad relations with so many people and nations in the Middle East are simply unnecessary and damaging. If we’re serious realists who truly care about the American national interest then it’s time for a change of policy–it’s time to dump the US-Israel alliance.