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Mar 21st, 2010

A Third Muslim-World War?

“Never allow a weak ally to make decisions for you.”

Image: Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu speaks during a joint news conference in October 2009 with Secretary of State Clinton in Jerusalem
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a joint news conference with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009. (Photo credit: Pool / Reuters)

By Christopher Dickey
Newsweek logo
Web Exclusive
March 18, 2010


Back when Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was elected Israel’s prime minister for the first time, in 1996, a Jordanian political scientist with a grim sense of humor said the only way to describe him was like a villain out of an old Western: “He’s a lyin’, cheatin’, deceitin’ son of a bitch!”

The Obama administration, without using quite such colorful language, might be inclined to agree. As Aluf Benn, the respected diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper wrote in these columns recently, when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel last week, he “had come to offer not just friendship, but support (and protection) against Iran — Israel’s greatest bogeyman — in exchange for a few concessions from Netanyahu. Instead, he got a finger in the eye.” …

But the problem as Benn presented it was more complex than that: a combination of brinkmanship and blackmail in which Netanyahu’s government makes veiled threats to attack Iran, or not, depending on how much pressure it feels on the Palestinian issue.

U.S. military planners have little doubt that an Israeli air campaign against Iranian nuclear facilities would provoke Iranian retaliation against Saudi Arabia and other major oil producers allied with the United States. American efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which border Iran, would come under threat. And there would be no way that any U.S. administration, after so many decades pledging undying support for Israel, could make a convincing claim in Muslim eyes that it was not complicit in the attack.

One of the cardinal rules of realism in international politics — and Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both pride themselves on their realism — is “never allow a weak ally to make decisions for you.” Political scientist Hans J. Morgenthau wrote in his classic Politics Among Nations that great powers “lose their freedom of action by identifying their own national interests completely with those of a weak ally.” And for all its bluster, Israel is, at the end of the day, a tiny country with a population smaller than that of New York City.

“Secure in the support of its powerful friend, the weak ally can choose the objectives and methods of its foreign policy to suit itself,” Morgenthau warned. “The powerful nation then finds it must support interests not its own and that it is unable to compromise on issues that are vital not to itself, but only to its ally.”

Netanyahu wants to make sure that his priorities are America’s priorities on many issues. So he and his supporters argue that if they’re forced to make concessions that would create an independent, viable, contiguous Palestinian state, Israel would feel so insecure that it would have to attack Iran to protect itself — no matter what the implications for Americans and their men and women in the field. …

As reported by Mark Perry at Foreign Policy, back in January a briefing prepared for the American Joint Chiefs of Staff by senior officers at the U.S. Central Command under Gen. David Petraeus reported “a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel,” that the leaders of the many Arab governments in CentCom’s area of responsibility were “losing faith in American promises,” and that “Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region.”

Humiliation, weakness, and vulnerability go hand in hand, and Netanyahu seems intent on dishing up all three to the Obama administration lest he himself be made to look like “a sucker,” according to Benn.

This sort of attitude isn’t new. Netanyahu summed up his core thinking in his 1993 book, A Place Among the Nations: Israel and the World, when he said it was naive for Israelis to believe that “Arabs loathed war as much as they themselves.” He derided Israelis who thought of peace as “a kind of blissful castle in the clouds, a Jewish never-never land in which the Jews will be able finally to find a respite from struggle and strife.” …

Even a dozen years ago, the American public was largely passive about Middle East issues. Congressmen proclaimed undying support for Israel, and their constituents asked few questions. Now, with America involved in two wars in the Muslim world, that’s not the case. …

But the decisive voices may belong to America’s generals. Are they ready to have Bibi Netanyahu’s vision of war-without-end dictate endless wars for American troops? The answer, almost certainly, is no.


3/23/10 Update

Obama to hold first meeting with Netanyahu (AP, March 3, 2010) — President Barack Obama is meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Tuesday at the White House — his first meeting with the Israeli leader since the recent spat over Israel’s announcement of new housing construction for east Jerusalem. However, the afternoon meeting will be closed to reporters, an unusual choice when hosting a close ally and a sign that suggested the rift may not be entirely healed. … Full story


Related reports on this site

Iran Claims Israel Plans Attack on Nuclear Sites (June 27, 2010)

McCain: ‘Pull Trigger’ on Iran (April 15, 2010)

Obama Demands Access to Nuke Site (Sept. 26, 2009)

Bush Nixed Israeli Plea to Hit Iran (Jan. 11, 2009)


FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — March 21, 2009

IMAGE: Iraq demonstration
Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr burn an American flag during an anti-U.S. demonstration Friday, March 20, 2009 in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad marking the sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. (Photo credit: Karim Kadim / AP)

Iraqis Mark 6 Years Under U.S.

One-year retrospective: One year ago today, I reported that American flags were set on fire to chants of “No, no for occupation” as followers of anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr marked the sixth anniversary of the Iraq war, which had already cost hundreds of billions of dollars – with an ultimate price tag in the trillions — dwarfing the original Bush administration estimate of $2.4 billion.

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