Neocons Amid Lebanon's Rubble: A Challenge to Krauthammer's Israel-as-Strategic-Asset Argument

War creates both physical and ideological casualties.

Much of the debate in Washington in the aftermath of the fighting between Israel and Hizballah has focused on who has "won" and who has "lost" Lebanon War II. Foreign policy pundits have pondered about the final outcome of the bloody cycle of violence in the Levant and the way it affected each side's strategic goals, military power, economic resources, diplomatic support and propaganda methods.

     Wars not only bring about the rise and fall of military powers, they also create winners and losers in the wars of ideas and decide the fate of certain intellectual tenets that guided the leaders of these powers. Indeed, there is a growing recognition in Washington that the neoconservative paradigm that equated the advancement of U.S. interests with the spread of democracy in the Middle East has suffered a major blow as a result of the disastrous outcome of the Iraq War. Hence the notion that freedom is not on the march in Mesopotamia and elsewhere in Arabia could erode the influence of the Wilsonian agenda promoted by the neocons and enhance the power of their intellectual rivals in the foreign policy community, namely the realpolitik types.

      From that perspective, one of the main casualties of the latest crisis in the Middle East has been another favorite neoconservative paradigm, according to which the United States should regard Israel as a major "strategic asset" in the Middle East, which in turn is rooted in a neoconservative axiom of sort, that what is good for Israel's strategic interest is good for America and vice versa.

      The neoconservative plot-line of the recent Middle East "cinematic event" was obvious: Iran and Syria encouraged its proxy in Lebanon, Hizballah, to deliver a blow to America's proxy in the Middle East, Israel, as a way of shifting the balance of power in the Middle East in favor of Tehran and Damascus. According to the script, Israel, the American proxy was supposed to deliver a counter-blow to Hizballah, the Iranian-Syrian proxy and re-shift the balance of power in favor of Washington. This game was expected to conclude with an American-Israeli win over the Axis of Evil team. Instead, according to the conventional wisdom among experts, the final results of Lebanon War II--Israel failing to decimate Hizballah by doing a rerun of the Six Day War or a remake of the Entebbe rescue operation--are looking more and more like, in the best case scenario, a draw or, in the worst-case scenario, a perception of a Hizballah victory.

      "We have been driven into something we didn't want to do," said Anthony H. Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington in an interview with the New York Times. "Far from Israel being the American proxy in a war against Iran, we've become Israel's proxy in its war against Hizballah," he said. "Israel's miscalculations have been so serious that its only hope for victory is to have the United States and the international community do for Israel what it can't do militarily, which is defeat Hizballah, assemble an international force in Lebanon and bring some sort of endgame to all this." Oops . . . Something not very funny happened to the neocon paradigm on the way to southern Lebanon.

Israel's Proxy in the Middle East

     The idea that Israel was the "strategic asset" of the United States in the Middle East, or America's "unsinkable aircraft in the Eastern Mediterranean," was popularized by the intellectual predecessors of today's neoconservatives in the aftermath of the Israel's military victory in the 1967 Middle East War. The relationship between the United States and Israel was promoted as a "strategic alliance" in order to mobilize support for the Jewish state (after all, Israel had defeated Egypt, a military ally of the Soviet Union) and strengthen the political backing by disaffected liberal Jews of an unpopular war in Southeast Asia.

     But the American public, and American elite, felt sympathy and admiration for the young Jewish state primarily due to idealistic sentiments: Israel was a refuge for the survivors of the European Holocaust and a symbol of a dynamic and progressive democracy. The top U.S. diplomats and military officials that guided its foreign policy in 1947 were opposed to the idea of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine and pressed then-President Harry Truman not to recognize the new state, arguing that such a move would harm the U.S. position in the Arab Middle East. It was the Soviet Union that provided much of the early military and diplomatic backing for the new Jewish state. Similarly, it was France and not the United States that had served as Israel's main source of arms and munitions in the 1950's and early 1960's, including by helping to develop its nuclear military power.

     Even after 1967 when Israel and the United States strengthened their military ties, there was recognition in both Washington and Jerusalem of the strategic constraints on their relationship. America could not maintain its position as a great power in the Middle East without establishing its presence in the Arab world, while Israel's friendship with America could not substitute for the acceptance of the Jewish state by its Arab neighbors. Hence, the never-ending efforts by Washington to try to bring about peace between the Israelis and the Arabs began.