Israel: Between Iraq and a Hard Place

The intensifying crisis of Iran’s nuclear program is bringing into sharp relief the problems created for Israel by the radical foreign policy of the Bush administration. In a world filled with nations and movements hostile to Israel, the United States has long been Israel’s big brother. What happens when big brother shows bad judgment? That is the roller coaster on which supporters of Israel find themselves in the last two years of this most unusual administration.

All along, Israel has seen Iran as a major adversary, perhaps the most serious one in its region. Iraq was also a problem, but a lesser one. America also watched Iran with great concern. To many practically minded Americans, the Saddam Hussein regime provided a convenient if ugly method to keep Iran in check. With a hostile and secular Iraq on its border, Iran lacked the freedom of opportunity to spread its wings in the region.

This pragmatism helped explain why previous Republican administrations leaned toward Iraq during the bloody Iran-Iraq War in the early 1980s. Who do we think armed Saddam Hussein and forgave his many trespasses against human rights in the interest of a regional balance of power?

When the Bush administration came to power in 2001, Israel seemed to be in good hands. Intense rhetorical devotion to Israel and a decision not to challenge Israeli policy were certainly welcome in Jerusalem. Few understood, however, the extent to which many of the Bush people were driven by an intense urge to overthrow Saddam Hussein, dating back to the overruling of their drive to take Baghdad in the first Gulf War. Maybe this new approach would work, thought many supporters of Israel. Maybe the Americans were right that this would create a movement toward pro-Western, pro-Israel regimes in the region. The removal of an evil dictator could strike a blow for democracy and freedom.

The bravado of the Bush foreign policy group, however, was not backed by the ability, experience or adaptability of previous presidencies in foreign policy. Imbued with a sense of their own historical destiny and the rightness of their cause, the Bush crowd made a hash of Iraq, and through their stunning incompetence opened the door to expanding Iran’s influence in the region. Unilateral arrogance and belligerence weakened America’s standing in the world, and temporarily robbed Israel of the benefit of pro-American admiration abroad. The United States of course, has never been universally loved outside its borders, but it was held in high regard in many places. And this high regard has been a bulwark of Israel’s strength.

The Bush group now confronts the challenge of an emboldened Iran. But Israel’s friends are watching America’s leadership with a more jaundiced eye than before the Iraq War. Some are torn. One of the most notable nouveau skeptics is Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist who helped bolster the case for war against Iraq, in part because he hoped it would lead to a more moderate Middle East friendlier to Israel. At the time, he hoped optimistically that the Bush people knew what they were doing. Now he has swallowed a most bitter pill, as he noted in a recent column:

“If these are our only choices,” Friedman wrote, “which would you rather have: a nuclear-armed Iran or an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites that is carried out and sold to the world by the Bush national security team…. I’d rather live with a nuclear Iran. As someone who believed — and still believes — in the importance of getting Iraq right, the level of incompetence that the Bush team has displayed in Iraq, and its refusal to acknowledge any mistakes or remove those who made them, makes it impossible to support this administration in any offensive military action against Iran.”

But not all erstwhile supporters of Bush’s foreign policy have learned such a lesson, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who has blindly embraced the Bush foreign policy team. Returning from a trip to Baghdad in late 2005, he extolled the wisdom and flexibility of the Iraq policies of the administration, went on Fox News to attack fellow Democrats for not getting behind the commander-in-chief and found himself quoted by the president as one Democrat who really gets it. (This lovefest is not helping Lieberman’s among fellow Democrats in his reelection campaign.) Lieberman, apparently, would be delighted to follow Bush’s lead on Iran policy. If Friedman has spit out the Kool-Aid, Lieberman can’t seem to drink enough of it.

One must hope that the choices are not as stark as those offered up by Friedman: a catastrophic war even more destructive than Iraq or a stand down by the world’s leading power in the face of Iran. Nor does Lieberman’s suspension of disbelief inspire much confidence. The crowing Iranians seem to have concluded that the administration is so weakened that it can be challenged easily, but that does not take into account the peculiar inward-turned and self-regarding nature of the Bush group. They are capable of taking action with or without public support; they might even believe that confrontation would increase their public support. Wars often start because of such mutual misperceptions.

America is still Israel’s most reliable friend. Simply put, America must succeed. It cannot be weakened. Somehow, we must reconnect to the American tradition of muscular diplomacy, of using strength to avoid, not seek war. That is all that Israel’s friends have ever asked for. Negotiation backed by strength, will and determination are likely to provide a way out of the crisis. With luck, the Bush administration will figure this out and earn the support such a policy could generate at home and abroad.

At the end of the day, it will be up to Republicans to bring some sense to the foreign policy of the United States during the worrisome remaining years of this administration. The Bush administration does not regard Democrats as worth listening to (although they are happy to use people like Lieberman to their purposes as long as he extols their policies). They also don’t listen to many Republicans, especially if they are associated with the more restrained foreign policy of the president’s father. But the Republican leadership’s reluctance to set any professional standards for this administration’s foreign policy must come to an end.

How, for example, should the president deal with the rambling 18-page letter he received from Iran’s president? How can such reluctant powers as Russia and China be brought on board a coalition to confront Iran and resolve the issue?

Navigating the narrow channel of dealing with Iran is going to take skill, wisdom, and strength. Those who have those qualities should not fear to raise their voices. And they should not settle for being heard in private.

If not them, who?

If not now, when?

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at California State University Fullerton.