Shadow Government

Obama and Israel: Hot or cold?

Is the Obama administration's relationship with Israel close or cold? According to Eli Lake, writing in the most recent issue of Newsweek, it is both. Lake, in reporting the apparent delivery of "bunker-buster" bombs by the US to Israel, provides additional substance to an argument often made by defenders of the administration's approach to Israel: that despite any strains in the political relationship over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S.-Israel military and security ties have never been stronger. 

That the military-to-military relationship is strong is not in dispute -- it has been growing broader and deeper for many years, and the Obama Administration has maintained this trajectory. That the strength of this relationship attests to the good health of the U.S.-Israel alliance, however, is questionable.

The ties between the US and Israel are based on many things, not least a deep historical and cultural affinity. However, those ties are also based on shared strategic interests. The United States provides military assistance to Israel not out of charity, but because it is in our interest to do so (indeed, this is the rationale behind most foreign assistance). Israel is a powerful, competent, and cooperative partner in a region of the world that is vital to American security and prosperity. Our assistance not only protects Israel, but also provides for our common defense against threats such as Iran's nuclear and missile program and transnational terrorist groups. These threats and Israel's cooperation in dealing with them are not merely hypothetical, as demonstrated by the Israeli strike on Syria's clandestine nuclear program in 2007. We seek to safeguard Israel's security in order to advance our own.

Providing for Israel's security, however, involves more than good military-to-military ties. It also requires a good political relationship, for two reasons. First, the threats faced by the United States and Israel (and our other allies) in the Middle East have both political and military dimensions, and often the former are more important than the latter. Frequent, close, and candid political contacts are vital in any alliance for dealing with potential threats (and capitalizing on opportunities) before they metastasize into matters that must be dealt with by generals. Second, many of the steps the United States would like Israel to take (or, in some cases, refrain from taking) would be eased by the assurance of strong U.S. backing for Israel, whether at the United Nations or in regional and global capitals. As is the case throughout the Middle East and elsewhere, our political and security relations with Israel are inextricable.

Many observers have suggested that our military support for Israel should be traded for Israeli concessions in the peace process (indeed, this was the implicit bargain offered by the United States to Israel in November 2010 -- military hardware in exchange for an extension of the settlement freeze). This sort of zero-sum thinking has a simplistic appeal, but does not stand up to the rigors of the real world. A more patient and nuanced approach views our security relationship with Israel -- and indeed our regional security efforts -- and advancing the peace process as mutually reinforcing. The reasons are simple: first, an Israel both consumed with external threats and worried about the reliability of U.S. backing is one which will hunker down, not take risks for peace; second, to the extent Israel and its neighbors are focused on similar threats, such as Iran and terrorism, our efforts to counter those threats can serve as a rare point of cooperation, even if implicit, among them and improve the regional political atmosphere.

The United States should not be uncritical of Israel, nor should we expect that we will not have differences, including publicly, with Israeli leaders. The reality of any alliance is that however extensively overlapping our interests, they are not identical. But we should treat those differences -- as we do with other close allies -- as obstacles to be overcome as we pursue a close and cooperative military and political relationship. We should not allow them to define the relationship, much less highlight them in the vain hope of winning the esteem of Israel's foes.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Kicking the Pakistan habit

I'm deeply skeptical our government can pull off the pivot away from Pakistan that my friend and colleague Dan Twining outlines below.  While I wish we could orchestrate an alignment to isolate and punish Pakistan for its invidiousness, I don't think we can realistically bring the necessary alternatives into play on anywhere near the timeline we need for the war in Afghanistan.  Sadly, we need the Pakistanis more than they need us, so until we can find ways to manage by other means the threats emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan, we're stuck with grudging partial assistance by a Pakistani government that's hedging against our abandonment.

I agree with Dan's assessment of the extent to which the Pakistani military and intelligence community is working against us, and that the civilian government in Pakistan is a generation away from having the power to control their national security apparatus.  I likewise agree with Dan's evaluation of the factors the U.S. would need to bring on line to successfully sever our partnership with Islamabad: keeping troops in Afghanistan indefinitely, denying Pakistan a sphere of influence, replacing Pakistani supply routes for ISAF, cutting off intelligence cooperation, redoubling our support for India, persuading China not to fill the void with Pakistan, and acknowledging our own complicity in the current mess.  But there are severe impediments to our attaining every one of the items on that daunting list.

Continuing the fight beyond 2014.  The president's already made his decision to end the surge and wind down the war.  And as he's shown in Iraq, he's willing to tolerate significantly poor outcomes rather than revisit his politically-driven timelines.  The behavior of the Pakistanis will more likely be used as one more justification for ending, rather than winning, the war.  He will be betting that our defensive game has improved enough, and our intelligence from the region is now accurate enough, to prevent a successful attack on the American homeland.  The frequency with which senior administration officials say al Qaeda is near defeat suggests they really believe it.

Prevent Islamabad's sphere of influence.  Experts on South Asia were unanimous in denouncing the president's timeline for the surge on the basis that it would undercut our efforts as regional powers, and it has come to pass.  Effectively preventing the spread of Pakistan's influence would require assisting the efforts of other countries equally or more opposed to the outcomes we want: Iran, Russia and China. And they, too, are playing off our timeline, so have little incentive to strike deals with us.

Establish alternative supply routes.  Even with the 2009 opening of routes through Russia and Central Asia, three-quarters of all supplies still come through Pakistan; that would be impossible to replicate, exorbitantly expensive even if we could (recall Russia egging on former Kyrgyz President Bakiyev on during negotiations over Manas airbase), and an obvious choke point of diplomatic retaliation by Pakistan.  

Cease CIA cooperation with ISI.  If we continue to be dependent on Pakistani intelligence "for access to the region," it seems they must have more operational latitude than we do, so cutting off cooperation with the ISI would diminish our ability to collect and act on intelligence.  If we haven't diversified our intel relationships, it's probably because we cannot, not because the benefits of it never occurred to the folks at Langley.  Our fundamental goals may be incompatible, but if ten years into the Afghan war, we're still relying on the ISI, cutting cooperation could significantly degrade our intelligence -- even before the ISI started working harder at achieving that effect.

Doubling down with India.  The India-U.S. relationship has strategic potential, but we're a long way from having the government-to-government relationship that could sustain the kind of pressure involved in countering Pakistan with India in Afghanistan, especially since that agenda is already crowded with our aspirations for India to work with us, the Australians, Japanese and others to "manage" China from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.  The difficulties encountered implementing the nuclear agreement suggest we may be nearly as far in time from a reliable India-U.S. partnership as we are from a strong civilian government in Pakistan. 

Convince Beijing not to take advantage.  Hard to imagine that Beijing would resist filling the void a breach in our relations with Pakistan would leave and instead "pursue approaches that complement ours rather than continuing to provide unqualified support" to Islamabad.  China was essential to Pakistan's nuclear program, has close links to their military (facilitated by our cessation of assistance after Pakistan's nuclear test) and needs help infiltrating its Muslim separatist groups.  Moreover, their values-neutral mercantilism will appeal to the corrupt elements in both Afghanistan and Pakistan exasperated with us.  

Acknowledge our complicity.  In "taking a hard look at our own history in the region," Dan cautions that our own policy choices in the 1990s and beyond contributed to the problems we are now facing.  There's much to that, but it will be moot in the storm of anti-Pakistani sentiment sweeping Congress after Admiral Mullen's testimony.  It's the president's job to do what is in our country's interests when Congress overreacts, and to make the case for the funds necessary to conduct important policies even when they are running into the wind of Congressional opposition.  If the president doesn't step up and make the case that we have no better option, Congress is likely to remove the one option of the administration's current policy.

A final thought.  Americans often forget how much sympathy there is internationally for countries that feel pressured or abandoned by the Unites States.  When we have a problem, we focus American effort on countries we had been comfortably ignoring until that time -- like Pakistan before and after 9/11.  Isolating Pakistan once again would reinforce the impression of the U.S. as an unreliable ally to countries we are courting to manage the rise of China and other problems.  

ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images