Opinion // The Cold, Hard Realist’s Case for Israel
The United States doesn’t need to get into a discussion of “shared values.”
by Marshall Breger
Why does America support Israel, really? There have always been two answers, based on two separate lines of analysis. Some people will tell you that America supports Israel based on America’s cold, hard national self-interest—an approach known as realism or, more colorfully, Realpolitik. Others insist that the strongest basis for American support of Israel is the two nations’ “shared values” of democracy, pluralism and respect for human rights—values usually associated with notions of foreign policy idealism (or, as some would call it, neoconservatism).
The realist urge in American politics has a long pedigree, going back to President John Quincy Adams, who argued that America “does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and liberty of all” but the “champion and vindicator only of her own.”
Most American politicians, including presidential candidates, have always liked to present themselves as hard-headed realists on foreign policy. Before 9/11, ironically, even President George W. Bush talked the realist line, arguing as a candidate for a “humble” foreign policy and against “nation-building.” Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders tend to realism—they are cautious about a U.S. military role in the Middle East and even in the Ukraine.
And yet the presidential campaign, particularly the recent Republican debate, offers a feast of idealist rhetoric on Israel. Marco Rubio declared in Houston, “I will be on Israel’s side every single day because they are the only pro-American, free enterprise democracy in the entire Middle East.” Ben Carson echoed, “You know, they are a strategic partner for us, but also recognize that we have a Judeo-Christian foundation, and the last thing we need to do is to reject Israel…”
Most pro-Israel activists (in particular the hard-liners) prefer this line and believe that realism bodes ill for Israel. AIPAC is one of many voices arguing that the primary basis of U.S. support for Israel is “shared values.” But the current focus on realism is not the threat to Israel that many in the pro-Israel community fear. Actually, the opposite may be true.
Of course, what the candidates, Republican and Democrat, really want to do—with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders—is to have it both ways. They want to be realists when it serves their needs and idealists when it is in their interests—to promote democracy in select countries (idealism) but argue that it’s for hard-headed reasons of national interest (realism). And as a practical matter, it can be hard to draw a clean line between the two positions: When we pressure Israel to make peace, for instance, is it in service of our shared values or of the American self-interest in a more stable Middle East? Many would say it’s both.
Before he left the national stage, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told us that we should not be the world’s policeman but that we should be the world’s leader. While he didn’t define “leader,” the implication is that realism allows selective engagement: A realist would have the United States intervene abroad only when it is clearly, on a cold-blooded analysis, in America’s national interest. In short, he would “know when to hold them and know when to fold them.”
And it is here that American Jews fear the consequences of foreign policy realism. They have read (or more likely read about) the intellectual broadside of two preeminent realist scholars, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, in their 2006 article “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” While Mearsheimer and Walt’s most controversial thesis—that the pro-Israel lobby drove the United States into the Iraq war against its own national interest—was wildly overblown, their underlying argument is more troubling: that our pro-Israel policy is driven by domestic politics and not our true foreign policy interests.
But the truth is that there is a robust realist argument to be made for U.S. support for Israel—a strategic anchor of stability in an increasingly volatile region, particularly in the era of ISIS. However, the “realist” case has to be laid out concretely, not just trotted out as an unassailable assumption, as American politicians tend to do.
A realist justification for American support for Israel is primarily justified by Israel’s geopolitical position in the region. That’s why we have committed ourselves to protect Israel’s qualitative military edge, providing around $3 billion in annual military aid, supporting the Arrow and Iron “domes,” working together on the Stuxnet cyberwarfare effort against Iran, and many more efforts.
But what distinguishes realism is that this support need not necessarily extend to Israel’s domestic posture—within or beyond the Green Line. It does not require that the U.S. government (or American Jews) support Israel’s religious monopoly that discriminates against Conservative and Reform Jews or approve of its treatment of Bedouin in southern Israel or of Israeli Arabs in northern Israel. Nor does it necessarily stretch to support for settlements or for the different legal systems and standards of justice within and beyond the Green Line.
The Israel of today is radically different from the Israel in our memories of 40 years ago—more insular, more nationalist, more Jewish than democratic. Pro-Israel groups in America tend to deny this or gloss over it, but they don’t have to. You can support Israel on the basis of realism and still critique its settlement policy and its Likud-led domestic policies. One can imagine a situation some day when the divergence of Israeli and American values could become so great as to undercut our national interests in some fundamental way, but that day is far from here. For now, the realist case for Israel as an island of stability remains strong even to those who wish Israel would do more to live up to our “shared values.”
Marshall Breger is professor of law at Catholic University.