Wednesday, March 11, 2015

America should only help Israel if it helps itself

There was more to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in the US Congress than protesting against a nuclear deal with Iran. Mr Netanyahu was worried about Israel losing its central role in Washington’s relationship with the Middle East.

Yet the Obama administration has worried not only Israel, but also traditional Arab allies. In recent years the Americans have pursued a radical shift in their approach to the region. Their intentions were outlined early on by the “pivot to Asia”. Really it was a pivot away from the Middle East.

Despite American intervention in Libya, and again in Iraq against ISIL, there are no signs that the administration’s resolve to disengage from the region has changed. For Mr Obama this is a philosophical issue, one shaped by his reading of a changing world.

Mr Obama believes the US is no longer capable of sustaining the foreign burdens that it once took on. Its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq nearly ruined the country financially, while significantly degrading the capacities of the military, which was stretched to its limits.

Because the Middle East was the focal point of this damaging policy, Mr Obama believes, it was necessary to scale back US involvement there. Meanwhile, greater challenges were rising in Asia, particularly the emergence of a more assertive China. For the administration, this dictated a fundamental rethinking of the policies of the Bush administration.

This led Mr Obama into a profound reconsideration of how to maintain stability in the Middle East. If America could not intercede at every occasion to maintain regional order, some arrangement had to replace this. From there it was only a step to arrive at acceptance of a major responsibility for Iran. An avowed political realist, Mr Obama looked to lay the groundwork for a new regional balance of power.

Perhaps Mr Obama was influenced by Henry Kissinger’s A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822. The book argues that Europe enjoyed an extended period of peace after the Congress of Vienna reset boundaries in Europe following the Napoleonic Wars.

While Mr Obama has kept his cards close to his chest, his goal in the Middle East seems to be to replicate this. Only a balance between the main regional protagonists can bring stability. There may be instability for a time, but ultimately, once the major players have defined spheres of influence and methods of interaction, self-interest in cooperation will replace conflict. When the region introduces mechanisms to govern itself, the need for a powerful America to regulate regional affairs will no longer be necessary. Washington’s main concern in the interim will be to ensure that all actors are brought into the game in a harmonious way. This means that the US will seek to impose red lines to maintain an equilibrium.

Therefore, while Iran’s dominance in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is recognised, America will not allow Iran to seek inroads into Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Jordan and Israel. In Yemen the situation is more complicated, because the administration seeks to do a number of things: combat Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which can mean looking more sympathetically on the Houthis, yet ensuring that the country does not threaten Saudi Arabia.

In light of this, Mr Netanyahu is right to view a nuclear deal between the United States and Iran as the first stage in normalisation that could redefine Iran’s regional role. A new balance of power would alter how Israel is perceived. Rather than being Washington’s dominant ally, Israel would see its importance diminished.

In light of this, the Americans could say that they have warned Israel enough, and to no avail, about the risks of failing to resolve the Palestinian problem. Unless Israel seriously works towards such a resolution, its regional status could be eroded from within. America is willing to help Israel, the argument goes, but not if Israel refuses to help itself.

Mr Netanyahu is right to feel that Mr Obama is fed up with the Israelis. But the president is not about to abandon them. Nor is he willing to harm US interests by conferring on Israel a status far in excess of what it merits, in his eyes. That’s especially true when Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly sought to undermine Mr Obama’s agenda through Congress.

However, there is more to politics than what one reads in political science textbooks. All regional states have ambitions and fears, and will not gladly fit into Mr Obama’s neat template. Nor will they go along with it just because the US president wants to reduce America’s headaches in the region.

The European state system took more than a century to reach the post-Congress of Vienna level of stability, and even then it later led to multiple conflicts and two world wars in the 20th century. There is a smug finality in Mr Obama’s ambitions that is unsettling. Mr Netanyahu is a sordid man, but his doubts are shared by many.

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