Paul Pillar

What Is Our Number One Priority?

In an interview broadcast during NBC's Super Bowl pregame show on Sunday, President Obama made a couple of statements that were disturbing, even if politically unsurprising. In a portion of the interview about the danger of Israel touching off a war with Iran, the president said, “My number one priority continues to be the security of the United States, but also the security of Israel.” Wait a minute—shouldn't the security of the United States be the number one priority of the president of the United States? Rather than merely sharing the top spot on the priority list with some foreign country's security? This comment was part of an unscripted interview, and perhaps the language of a prepared speech would have come out differently. But the president said what he said.

Elsewhere in the same interview, Mr. Obama said that in dealing with Israel regarding the issue of Iran, “We are going to make sure that we work in lockstep.” If working in lockstep means that Israel defers to U.S. interests and preferences, that would be fine for the United States. But of course the deference nearly always works the other way around. For a glaring recent example involving President Obama, recall how he caved to Benjamin Netanyahu regarding the continued Israeli construction of settlements in occupied territories. So this statement is disturbing as well.

Any national political leader in the United States should be expected to give clear, consistent, overwhelming priority to U.S. interests—never equating, much less subordinating, them to the interests of any foreign state. Relationships with foreign governments can be useful in advancing U.S. interests, but they are always means, not ends. I have discussed this principle before. Suffice it to note that the policies of the current government of the foreign state in question are not only not to be equated with U.S. interests but are seriously damaging those interests, whether through risking war with Iran, undermining efforts short of war to resolve differences with Iran, or associating the United States with a highly salient and unjust occupation. Even with an alternative government that was less destructive (to Israel's own interests, let alone to those of the United States), the interests of the United States should not be equated with the interests of this foreign state any more than to those of Denmark, Thailand, Argentina or any other foreign country, no matter what fondness individual citizens may feel toward those or other places.

The president's statements before the Super Bowl are mild compared to the efforts of most of his Republican opponents to outdo each other in subordinating themselves to the wishes of the Israeli government. One of the best indications of what is shaping the environment in which these candidates operate comes from the lips of Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate who is Newt Gingrich's biggest bankroller and is likely to open his wallet to Mitt Romney's campaign once Romney nails down the nomination. Speaking to an Israeli group in 2010, Adelson said that when he did military service as a young man it was "unfortunately" in a U.S. uniform rather than an Israeli one. He said he hoped his son would become a sniper for the Israel Defense Forces. Adelson concluded, “All we [meaning Adelson and his Israeli wife, who did serve in the IDF] care about is being good Zionists, being good citizens of Israel, because even though I am not Israeli born, Israel is in my heart.”

Speaking as someone who feels fortunate and proud to have worn a U.S. uniform when performing military service, I find it deeply distressing that such sentiments are playing such a large role in determining U.S. policies and perhaps the U.S. presidency.