By Bret Stephens
Wall Street Journal
April 20, 2015
Recent conversations with senior Israeli officials are
shot through with a sense of incredulity. They can’t understand what’s
become of U.S. foreign policy.
don’t know how to square Barack Obama’s
promises with his policies. They fail to grasp how a president who pledged to
work toward the abolition of nuclear weapons is pushing an accord with Tehran
that guarantees their proliferation. They are astonished by the nonchalance with
which the administration acquiesces in Iran’s regional power plays, or in al
Qaeda’s gains in Yemen, or in the Assad regime’s continued use of chemical
weapons, or in the battlefield successes of ISIS, or in Russia’s decision to
sell advanced missiles to Tehran. They wonder why the president has so much
solicitude for Ali Khamenei’s political needs, and so little for Benjamin
In a word, the Israelis haven’t yet figured out that
what America is isn’t what America was. They need to start thinking about what
tempting approach is to wait Mr. Obama out and hope for better days with his
successor. Israel and the U.S. have gone through bad patches before—under Ford
in the 1970s, Reagan in the early ’80s, Bush in the early ’90s, Clinton in
the late ’90s. The partnership always survived the officeholders.
should it be different this time? Seventy percent of Americans see Israel in a
favorable light, according to a February Gallup poll.
The presidential candidates from both parties all profess unswerving friendship
with the Jewish state, and the Republican candidates actually believe it. Mr.
Obama’s foreign policy is broadlyunpopular and
likely to become more so as the fiascoes continue to roll in.
it’s different this time. For two reasons, mainly.
the administration’s Mideast abdications are creating a set of irreversible
realities for which there are no ready U.S. answers. Maybe there were things an
American president could have done to help rescue Libya in 2011, Syria in 2013,
and Yemen last year. That was before it was too late. But what exactly can any
president do about the chaos unfolding now?
wrote that there was a tide in the affairs of men “which taken at the flood,
leads men on to fortune.” Barack Obama always missed the flood.
president is marching us past the point of no return on a nuclear Iran and
thence a nuclear Middle East. When that happens, how many Americans will be
eager to have their president intervene in somebody else’s nuclear duel?
Americans may love Israel, but partly that’s because not a single U.S. soldier
has ever died fighting on its behalf.
words, Mr. Obama is bequeathing not just a more dangerous Middle East but also
one the next president will want to touch only with a barge pole. That leaves
Israel alone to deal as best as it can with a broadening array of threats:
thousands more missiles for Hezbollah, paid for by sanctions relief for Tehran;
ISIS on the Golan Heights; an Iran safe, thanks to Russian missiles, from any
conceivable Israeli strike.
second reason follows from the first. Previous quarrels between Washington and
Jerusalem were mainly about differing Mideast perceptions. Now the main issue is
how the U.S. perceives itself.
with Franklin Roosevelt, every U.S. president took the view that strength abroad
and strength at home were mutually reinforcing; that global security made us
more prosperous, and that prosperity made us more secure.
along came Mr. Obama with his mantra of “nation building at home” and his
notion that an activist foreign policy is a threat to the social democracy he
seeks to build. Under his administration, domestic and foreign policy have been
treated as a zero-sum game: If you want more of the former, do less of the
latter. The result is a world of disorder, and an Israel that, for the first
time in its history, must seek its security with an America that, say what it
will, has nobody’s back but its own.
it do this? By recalling what it was able to do for the first 19 years of its
existence, another period when the U.S. was an ambivalent and often suspicious
friend and Israel was more upstart state than start-up nation.
an Israel that was prepared to take strategic gambles because it knew it
couldn’t afford to wait on events. It did not consider “international
legitimacy” to be a prerequisite for action because it also knew how little
such legitimacy was worth. It understood the value of territory and terrain, not
least because it had so little of it. It built its deterrent power by constantly
taking the military initiative, not constructing defensive wonder-weapons such
as Iron Dome. It didn’t mind acting as a foreign policy freelancer, and
sometimes even a rogue, as circumstances demanded. “Plucky little Israel”
earned the world’s respect and didn’t care, much less beg, for its moral
the next American president will rescue Israel from having to learn again what
it once knew. Israelis would be wise not to count on it.