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

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.

     The end of the Cold War should have made the Israel-as-a-strategic-asset paradigm obsolete. But after 9/11 and against the backdrop of the Iraq War, neoconservatives succeeded in marketing the notion that the United States and Israel were now being brought together in a strategic alliance against "Islamo-fascism" and a global intifada. This alliance would operate in the form of an American sheriff and its Israeli deputy--American hegemony in the region with certain military tasks subcontracted to Israel. Israeli-Arab peacemaking was placed on the policy backburner. The neoconservative message has been that the United States needs to adopt more of the Israeli-tough methods in dealing with Middle Eastern terrorists and Bad Guys (since Arabs only understand force, etc.), which the Americans have been trying to do in Iraq with very little success. In the process, the Bush Administration has strengthened Iran--which, of course, runs contrary to both American and Israeli interests. Now the same sense of irony could be applied to the disastrous outcome of the Israeli military operation in Lebanon, which could help enhance the status of Iran (and Syria) in the region.

Krauthammer's Defeat-the-Bad-Guys Script

     So it is not surprising that neocons like Charles Krauthammer are angry and confused. In his unique form of Israel bashing, Krauthammer in a column in The Washington Post blamed Israel for not playing its part as a "strategic asset" of the United States in the Middle East, based on his own America-and-Israel-defeat-the-bad-guys script. Suggesting that America had given Israel the green light to attack Hizballah in Lebanon not as a favor to Israel, but as an act of clear [U.S.] self-interest, Krauthammer explained: "America needs a decisive Hizballah defeat." Hence, it was "Israel's rare opportunity to demonstrate what it can do for its great American patron." The United States "has gone far out on a limb to allow Israel to win and for all this to happen," counting on "Israel's ability to do the job." And "it has been disappointed." It seems that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's "search for victory on the cheap has jeopardized not just the Lebanon operation but America's confidence in Israel as well."

     But Israel, as Ha'aretz columnist Doron Rosenblum put it, "was not established in order to be a spearhead against global Islam, or in order to serve as an alert squad for the Western world."Moreover, the neoconservative paradigm would make Israel a modern-day crusader state, an outlet of a global power whose political, economic and military headquarters are on the other side of the world. America's commitment to the security of the Israeli "province" would always remain uncertain and fragile, reflecting changes in the balance of power in Washington and the shifting dynamics of U.S. politics and economics.

     At the same time, American policymakers need to recognize that the interests of Israel--a small Middle Eastern power focused on maintaining its security--are not necessarily compatible with those of the Unites States, a superpower with broad global interests that require cooperation with the leading Arab and Muslim states. In fact, taking into consideration the constraints on their relationship, Washington has never established a formal military alliance with Israel--whose status remains that of a client state that needs U.S. military support in order to preserve its margin of security while occasionally providing assistance to its American patron. And like in the case of any other client state, Washington should ensure that the Israeli tail doesn't wag the American dog by drawing it into unnecessary and costly ventures, like the current crisis in Lebanon.

     In short, if Israel is limited in its ability to provide security services to the United States, American hegemony cannot make the Middle East safe for Israel. Perhaps it is not too late for the Israelis to figure out how to take a path toward normalcy in the Middle East that leads to peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians and their other neighbors in the next generations. Achieving that goal would advance the long-term interests of both Israel and the United States.