In a recent CNN appearance, Obama administration official David Axelrod answered a question about American-Israeli relations with the reply that it is the U.S. interest to guarantee “the long-term security of Israel and the region.” It was a standard, boiler plate answer and undoubtedly intended as such: Axelrod, after all, is not a foreign policy expert. It was, however, the kind of bland response that obscures the real nature and complexity of American interests in the region and leads to entirely contradictory policy advocacies in the United States, especially about Israel.
What exactly is the American interest in the Middle East?
Unsurprisingly, the answer is that the United States has multiple interests, depending on the country and part of the region about which one is talking. Those interests, however, boil down to two basic items: the security of Israel and access to Middle Eastern petroleum. Part of the debate over policy is about which of those priorities is the most important, and the overall policy one advocates may well derive from the answer one gives to that question. As a practical matter, however, the answer is both, and one can scarcely survive politically advocating one but not the other. In fact, however, those making policy do, at least implicitly, elevate oil or Israel to the first order of importance, with consequences for overall policy.
To try to achieve these sometimes contradictory priorities, the bottom line is that U.S. policy is best served by regional peace. Peace within the region means an end to the active Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would remove Arab-Israeli anomosity from center stage of regional dynamics. If Israel and its neighbors were no longer at loggerheads (admittedly no easy task), there would be muchless resistance to the United States, which is seen among the oil producers as pro-Israeli or, at a minimum, so politically entrapped by pro-Israeli (which is to say pro-Likud) forces as to be difficult to reach accommodation with. Whether Muslim advocacyc of the Palestinians is sincere or hypocritical is not the point; the point is that the Islamic states support the need for a Palestinian settlement (which means a sovereign state), and they are bound to oppose anyone who is (or appears) to oppose the establishment of such a state.
In the United States, the effort to bring about a peace in the region has had two contradictory paths. During the Bush administration, the neo-conservatives held sway, and their answer was democratization of the region. Invading and converting Iraq was the centerpiece of that effort. The idea was that if democracy took hold in a linchpin state like Iraq, it might spread more broadly until it encompasses the region. Were the area to democratize, the argument goes, then animosity toward Israel would also disappear, since political democracies do not fight one another. This position is, as one might guess, held most firmly by those who place primary emphasis on the Israeli part of security. The length and unpopularity of the war and the election of non-neo-con Obama has sidetracked this emphasis. It may work in Iraq and beyond, but who knows?
The other argument starts with Israel and the Palestinians and argues that until a viable solution to the regional problem must begin with an equitable (read one acceptable to the Palestinians) solution to the West Bank. The reasoning is that a solution is necessary so that less radical states in the Islamic Middle East can reduce their animosity toward Israel. The heart of this approach is the two-state solution (a separate Israel and Palestine), which the Obama administration advocates. Although many of its advocates would not openly admit this, this position implicitly argues access to petroleum as the premier U.S. interest.
All of this, of course, is much more complicated than the Axelrod quote or, for that matter, the lingering holdover from last week’s mini-brouhaha between the Netanyahu and Obama regimes. It can, and often does, manifest itself in quite different policy advocacies between the U.S. and Israel. If one starts from the assumption that Israeli security trumps broader and more abstract regional security, then one may well back the current government in Tel Aviv and even the growth of West Bank settlements. If one believes regional peace is the necessary precursor to Israeli-Palestinian peace, one is more likely to favor the two-state solution.
The objective, at least from the viewpoint of the United States, is an enduring, stable peace in the region. The question is which approach best moves in that direction. It becomes a highly emotional question because the worst possible case outcome could be the survival of Israel, and given Twentieth Century history (the Holocaust), that possibility must be guarded against with vigor.
The debate is currently at best a standoff. Americans disagree with other Americans on the proper course, some Israelis and some Americans agree or disagree with other Israelis and other Americans on the proper course, and the Islamic states have their own preferences as well. It is not anywhere near as simple as supporting the “long-term security of Israel and the region,” but I suspect David Axelrod knows that. Let’s hope the American people do as well.
Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations and national security topics. This essay was originally published at his blog What After Iraq?