February 7, 2006

Am I the Only One Who Noticed?

The Blogosphere is agog with discussion of the Cartoon Kerfuffle. It's a great subject, because it has everything, and may indeed be a fateful moment in the history of this century.

Another fateful event seems to have slipped by without many noticing it. President Bush has made an explicit public commitment that the U.S. would defend Israel, at least if confronted by Iran:
In an interview with Reuters, Bush said he is concerned about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "menacing talk" about Israel, such as his comments denying the Holocaust and saying Israel should be wiped off the map.

"Israel is a solid ally of the United States. We will rise to Israel's defense, if need be. So this kind of menacing talk is disturbing. It's not only disturbing to the United States, it's disturbing for other countries in the world, as well," Bush said.

Asked whether he meant the United States would rise to Israel's defense militarily, Bush said: "You bet, we'll defend Israel."
This statement is unprecedented, as far as I know. Although President Nixon did come to Israel's aid in 1973's Yom Kippur war with Egypt and Syria, this aid was limited to an improvised airlift of military supplies, supplies has been the limit. The official Israeli line has always been that it does not want American boys to risk their lives to defend Israel, although it is grateful for military aid and cooperation, even if the latter is occasionally marred by bizarre incidents such as the Israeli sinking of the U.S.S. Liberty and espionage in Washington.

Now, however, without even a bow to Congress and with no public discussion, President Bush has committed this country to an entangling alliance that seems intuitively unwise, even foolhardy. The question is why?

It is hard to know. The Buchananites will no dobut mutter about the dark influence of "neocons" (for which substitute "Zionists" or just "Jews") in the Administration. Others may point to "Christian Zionism," the belief among many evangelicals that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land is a harbinger of end time events and in the light of the divine covenant with the Jewish people, is a religious duty.

On this theory, Iranian President Ahmadinejad's apparent belief in the imminent return of the Twelfth Imam is met by Christian apocalypticism, while those Jews who have not been seduced by the siren song that the very dead Rabbi Schneerson is the Messiah may also await the coming of that miraculous figure, "though he tarry."

But I digress. Was Bush inspired to make his commitment by the half-truth that Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East, and thus secular ideology alone mandated his public commitment to her defense? On this theory, secular ideology trumps religious zeal as an explanation for the commitment.

Of course, American diplomatic incompetence has contributed to at least two wars in which we got involved defending allies. Before the Korean War,the conventional wisdom has it, Dean Acheson, then Secretary of State, appeared to let on that South Korea was not within the protected zone of U.S. allies. The hapless Ambasadress to Iraq, April Glaspie. supposedly helped trigger Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing U.S.-led Gulf War, by implying to Saddam that we might look the other way if he did seize Kuwait. Perhaps Bush regards an Iranian or Iranian-inspired attack as a genuine risk, and U.S. involvement inevitable, and made his statement to deter the mullahs.

A variant on this explanation is that whatever our original reasons for supporting the creation of the state of Israel--Harry Truman's Jewish partner talked him into it, it was a way to avoid importing Jewish refugees from World War II, it was an instance of our desire to dissolve the British Empire--our national prestige is now tied up with the policy, and we might as well face up to it and warn off potential attackers whose attack might involve us. In short, in for a penny, in for a pound.

It is unlikely that Bush took this step to gain Jewish political support, and if he did, he'll have to wait a long time. Jews are still in their majority yellow-dog Democrats, and are far more likely to oppose the war in Iraq than most other groups. Marginal increases in Jewish support are unlikely to prove decisive, and are also unikely to emerge from a statement that received little publicity, in any event. Some Jewish political contributors may be motivated by Israel policy, but Jews are less motivated to vote by Israel policy than many believe.

All of this speculation about motives must remain speculation.

Whatever the reason, from the point of view of American national interest, the pledge seems unwise. There's a meme shared by some on the Left and among Zionist propagandists, that Fortress Israel is a friendly aircraft carrier in the Middle East, created or at least sustained to protect oil and other interests in the region. This meme seems like perfect nonsense. Israel seems rather a sinkhole for American money and arms (although there is talk that the U.S. has been secretly using airbases in Israel for many years). Supported at a far higher level than any other U.S. ally, Israel was a liability in the first Gulf War (it could not participate in the coalition because the Arab states would not accept it, and had to be cajoled into not responding to an Iraqi Scud missile barrage), and its making available bases for training and other purposes during the second Iraq War was secret, even if not a well-kept one.

The strongest argument for supporting Israel is that we have been doing so for decades, and to renege would be a sign of weakness. Thus Bush's statement ratchets up an ongoing commitment.

Having fought four major wars since 1948, and possessing its own fringe of religious maniacs, Israel seems a risky candidate for a public commitment.

The unwisdom of this expansion of the U.S. commitment to Israel, however noble its inspriation, seems manifest. The risks are high, and the likely rewards, material ones, anyway, are few.

Whether the commitment was or unwise, this event seems to have made few waves. Everyone's talking about the cartoons.

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