U.S. Strategic Fatigue Worries Israel
Mon, 04/18/2011
Special To The Jewish Week

Israel needs a strong America, engaged and projecting power in the Middle East, especially at this time of great political instability. But what if the United States doesn’t want to lead? What if the U.S. is downsizing its involvement in the region? What if America is befuddled by a confused foreign policy prism? These would be troublesome developments.

Unfortunately, the current American administration seems to have no clue how to deal with the Mideast, even as successive Arab regimes crumble and the regional architecture cries out for direction. That is the worrying conclusion that emerged from a high-level American-Israeli conclave held at the end of March in New York. Co-sponsored by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a prominent Israeli think tank, and Columbia University's Saltzman Institute on War and Peace and the School of International and Public Affairs, the strategic dialogue left the two sides far apart.

The Israeli strategists were advocating American resolve and leadership in a rapidly changing Middle East. A strong and confident U.S. posture in the region, BESA Center’s research associate, professor Eytan Gilboa, told the opening of the conference, is critical to confronting the growing power of Iran and radical Islam.

Only an engaged U.S. that is prepared to commit political, financial and military resources to the task, he said, can provide a modicum of strategic stability to the fast-shifting Middle East. Only an engaged America can combat the rise of Iranian hegemony. Only an engaged America can retard the ascendance of Islamist parties from Morocco to the Gulf.

However, American participants in the dialogue were very reserved. In effect, they yawned and said: No thanks. [Some of the American participants in the dialogue were William Quandt, Richard Murphy, Jonathan Rhynhold and Robert Shapiro.]

The top-level Columbia and Harvard academics, diplomats and former administration officials expressed awe at the changes in the region, but made it clear that America prefers to lower the profile of its involvement in the Middle East.

In fact, America wants out of the Middle East, they suggested. Out of Iraq; out of Afghanistan; and to a certain extent, out of Israeli-Palestinian affairs, too. The U.S. certainly has no zitzfleish, or stamina, for truly confronting a nuclear Iran.

You could almost feel the exhaustion in the room. America is overextended, we heard. While the tenor of the discussion was not isolationist, the positions expressed indicated an inclination to disengage from overseas commitments. Call it strategic fatigue.

Even more disturbing was the hint that America’s withdrawal from the Middle East stems from a deeper, more ideological place. It’s not just fatigue. It was hard to shake the feeling that American foreign and defense policy practitioners — at least those close to the current administration — no longer want to project American power in the Middle East because they no longer believe in the justness of doing so.

President Obama’s difficulty in openly identifying with American exceptionalism is well known. He seems embarrassed by, has often apologized for, the exercise of American power. The shadow of such feckless thinking seemed to loom over the conference.

Yet, strategic fatigue and ideological indolence were only one part of the pictured we Israelis were presented with in New York. We also found policy confusion.

Take, for example, the current burst of American military activism in Libya. This confused both the Americans and the Israelis at the conference, but for different reasons.

Americans fed up with foreign adventures were obviously suspicious of this new military engagement. They were, to some extent, relieved when the responsibility for the operation was transferred to NATO, which confirms the strategic fatigue syndrome. At the same time they were listening to an American media largely mobilized to assist the Obama administration, portraying the assistance to the rebels in Libya as a stopgap humanitarian effort. Americans have an ingrained passion to spread democracy and fight tyranny, which is morally laudable, but often strategically problematic.   

In contrast, Israeli participants were bewildered by the attempt to unseat Kaddafy, an Arab leader who has cooperated with the U.S. since 2003. It bemused Israeli strategists to see Libyan rebels naively portrayed as pro-democracy freedom fighters. We Israelis, who are concerned with America’s standing in the region, fear that America is backing the losing side in this Libyan civil war — a cardinal sin in realpolitik terms.

Simply put, Washington’s behavior makes no strategic sense. First, it stabbed its ally Hosni Mubarak in the back; then it sought to block Saudi intervention in Bahrain, which was necessary to forestall an Iranian-backed Shiite victory; and now it has intervened in a civil and tribal war in which the rebels might well be radical Islamists or subsumed by Islamists.

All this reinforces the Israeli view that Washington has lost it. A mix of strategic weariness and naïve ideology supporting a half-baked doctrine of sporadic intervention for humanitarian reasons is a recipe for growing uncertainty about American wisdom and leadership. Many Middle Eastern states will distance themselves from an unreliable U.S., especially if its leaders appear to be misguided amateurs.

A confused and unpredictable America is even more frightening than a tired superpower. A Middle East without clear and strong American leadership is a very unruly place, especially for Israel.

Israelis still see America as a great and ennobling world power. America is not and need not be in decline. Thus we hope that the U.S. will snap back to its solid global performance and responsibilities quickly. The world — especially the Middle East — needs a strong America with strategic prescience.

Professor Efraim Inbar is director, and David M. Weinberg is director of public affairs, of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University (www.besacenter.org).

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Excellent article. I agree with the above poster - Raymond, on the true intent of Iran wanting to be the dominant power in the Middle East to counter and overtake the Sunni's and Saudi Arabia. The concept that all these issues can be solved by diplomacy is not going to work at all. The secular countries of NATO and the UN don't seem to want to grasp the fact that Iran and it's partners are fighting a religious war in reality first. Israel understands that we have to believe.

Someone needs to step up and defy Iran and other terrorist states. If the US backs out, the results could be catastrophic over time. No one wants another war, but that does not mean it is not required. Israel will be prepared by definition to defend itself, but will NATO and the US be up to the task? Where's Roosevelt and Churchill when we need them.

"In fact, America wants out of the Middle East, they suggested." As it happens, that's just what America's enemies - Iran and the radical Islamists - want, the US *out* of the Middle East. But they intend to *drive* her out. And that is what's happening. Iran intends to dominate the Persian Gulf region, which explains her activities in Yemen and the Gulf littoral states. Saudi Arabia, looking at a hesitant, disengaging US, is looking to Russia and China for support. Turkey is tilting away from the West (despite is current membership in NATO), growing closer to Syria and Iran. Lebanon is already lost to Iran's proxy, Hizbullah. Egypt for the first time allowed Iranian warships to traverse the Suez Canal, American entreaties to block them to no avail.

So who's left in the region the US can count on in a pinch? Israel. But in the face of the perceived "fierce moral urgency" of creating a Palestinian state, Israel gets no love from this Administration.

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