A friend at the State Department relates a meeting he had recently with a high-level official from a one-time Soviet satellite state, one in fact where the US waged a major, and very unsuccessful, war. But with the Cold War over and the US having won it, this nation, like most others, wants a deal with Washington.
“We are looking for a Category One relationship,” the official told my friend. “But there’s no such thing as ‘Category One,’” the man from State explained. “Washington doesn’t work like that.” My friend continued: “The United States has bilateral relationships with a number of different countries and explores various ways of strengthening ties.” “Ah, OK,” the foreign official said, indicating that he fully understood. “But we want a Category One relationship—just like Israel!”
Israel is perhaps the US’s most famous—and most controversial—ally, but it is hardly the most privileged one. After all, Washington’s most enduring alliance is its “special relationship” with the United Kingdom, which partly explains why Tony Blair was one of the few European leaders to stick his neck out on behalf of the Bush administration and join the coalition of the willing.
The fact is that Washington has plenty of friends the world over—including the Middle East, though many of them think it best to play down their relationship with the Great Satan. For instance, the centerpiece of US-Middle East policy for the last 60 years has been the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, home to the world’s largest known reserves of oil. And the US taxpayer keeps the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet afloat to make sure that Gulf Arab energy stays readily available, a boon to the US and Khaliji kings and sheikhs alike, as well as markets around the world.
The White House stands with the Seniora government not just because Lebanon is a front, among many others, to advance democracy and fight Iran’s project in the region, but because Washington believes business is good for America and Beirut believes doing business is good. Egypt is another regional ally, the second largest recipient of US aid, getting $2 billion a year, partly as a bribe to maintain its peace treaty with Israel, but also because the US thinks it wise to be on good terms with the most populous Arab state. Indeed, the US spends loads of cash on its friends in the Middle East, including non-Hamas Palestinian institutions, and has free-trade agreements with a host of nations here, like Morocco and Oman.
Washington is not friendly with the Jewish state instead of the Arabs, but in addition to them.
The fact is that the US does not see the world as a zero-sum equation. The United States is perhaps unique in history among all Great Powers insofar as its default strategy is not “divide and conquer”; nor, unlike many other actors, does Washington typically seek to destabilize other states to knock rivals and friends off kilter. Rather, the US usually seeks to keep the peace around the globe and maintain the balance of power by using local actors. And this brings us back to Israel.
It is true that the United States was the second nation in the world to recognize the State of Israel (the USSR was first), but the relationship didn’t kick into high gear until later. After the Arabs’ catastrophic 1967 defeat, Washington recognized that the Jewish state could be a useful ally against the Soviets’ Arab proxies. But it was the 1973 October War that really cemented the US-Israeli alliance.
The 1973 oil embargo keyed in on the Americans’ Achilles Heel—their dependence on Gulf energy sources. In turn, Washington took advantage of the Arabs’ glaring weakness—their fanatical hatred of Israel. By arming Israel to the teeth so that the Arabs had little real hope in driving the Jews into the sea, the US ensured that if the Arabs wanted concessions from Israel they would have to go through Washington to get them, thereby securing the Americans’ position as the region’s prime mover. In lesser hands, the “Peace Process” may seem a maudlin exercise in fruitless diplomacy, but it is a masterstroke of realpolitik—one however that has probably outlived its usefulness with a Hamas government in power and Israel coming off of two wars along pre-67 borders this past summer.
All this has thrown a number of US policymakers and other experts into a state of confusion. Pity poor James Baker and his stillborn Iraq Study Group report. And then there’s sorely confused ex-President Jimmy Carter, who owes his place in history to the Israeli-Egyptian peace deal and yet whose new book now describes Israel as an apartheid state. No one however has misunderstood the principles of American foreign policy as dramatically as the authors of “The Israel Lobby,” Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. In following the Aljazeera line, and recommending that dumping Israel will lessen anti-American terrorism, they have posited a superpower without a spine. Imagine if during the midst of “the Troubles,” the Irish Republican Army had targeted the US for its alliance with the UK—would any serious analyst argue that Washington drop the Brits because of it?
Great Powers, as we have seen, make all sorts of alliances for all sorts of reasons; however, they are no longer Great Powers once they begin to accept terms dictated to them by terrorist gangs.