So, Robert Gates is peeved with Israel. And why not? American defense and foreign policy leaders have done so well in handling the Middle East over the past few years! It’s only sourpuss Israel that spoils Washington’s track record, right?
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who left the job earlier this summer, has supposedly complained about Israel being an ungrateful ally. According to blogger Jeffery Goldberg, Gates said during one of his last meetings with senior officials that not only is “Netanyahu ungrateful, but he is also endangering his country by refusing to grapple with Israel’s growing isolation and with the demographic challenges it faces if it keeps control of the West Bank.” The US had “received nothing” from Israel on peace diplomacy in return for the many Obama administration upgrades in US-Israel security cooperation, Gates reportedly said.
Gates’ gripes are unsubstantiated on three levels. But I think that they also mask a deeper American failure and fatigue – that goes far beyond Israel.
First of all, Gates knows full well that recent upgrades in US-Israel intelligence sharing and weapons development are to America’s benefit as much as Israel’s. Israel is not being “handed-out favors” for which it is ungrateful. Secondly, the Obama Administration has ramped up such security cooperation mainly for its own reasons – to hold Israel back from attacking Iran. In other words, to handcuff Israel. Thank you very much.
Thirdly, the notion that Israel (Netanyahu) has not budged on diplomatic matters is simply wrong, even infuriating. Netanyahu’s embrace of the two-state solution, his unprecedented settlement freeze, and willingness to relate to the 1967 lines rubric – are callously dismissed by Gates as non-consequential. Note that the Palestinian Authority which get half a billion dollars in American aid and which has crudely stiffed American diplomacy for the past year – doesn’t seem to annoy Gates. So I think the disrespect runs the other way around: It is Gates (and Obama) who are being churlishly ungrateful towards Netanyahu.
I suspect that there is more to the picture. The pique supposedly expressed by Gates (– take it with a grain of salt when a Netanyahu-bashing journalist is the source) is a veneer under which lurks American strategic fatigue and multiple policy failures across the Middle East. Bashing Israel is but a weak cover for the sorry Obama/Gates record.
You see, Israel needs a strong America, engaged and projecting power in the Middle East, especially at this time of great political instability. A strong and confident U.S. posture in the region is critical to confronting the growing power of Iran and radical Islam. Israel is incessantly reminding America that it needs to be America.
But what if the United States doesn’t want to lead? What if the U.S. is downsizing its involvement in the region? What if America is befuddled by a confused foreign policy prism? What if the Obama-Gates leadership is peeved at Israel for pushing it to go beyond its own ideological comfort zone?
That, I fear, is the case. The current American administration seems to have no clue how to deal with the Mideast, even as successive Arab regimes crumble and the regional architecture cries out for direction. Worse still, America wants out of the Middle East: out of Iraq; out of Afghanistan; and to a certain extent, out of Israeli-Palestinian affairs, too. The U.S. certainly has no zitzfleish, or stamina, for truly confronting a nuclear Iran.
And it’s not just strategic fatigue. It is hard to shake the feeling that Obama no longer wants to project American power in the Middle East also because he no longer believe in the justness of doing so. Obama’s difficulty in openly identifying with American exceptionalism is well known. He seems embarrassed by, and has often apologized for, the exercise of American power.
Now add policy confusion to this strategic fatigue and ideological indolence. From the burst of American military activism in Libya to its lack of activism against Assad of Syria. From its abandonment of Mubarak in Egypt to its misguided attempt to block Saudi intervention in Bahrain. From its coddling of Erdogan to its brutishness towards Netanyahu. All this reinforces the view that Washington has become both confused and unpredictable – which is even more frightening than a tired superpower.
So, lecture-not Israel, Mr. Gates, about being an insufficient team player, when your starting line-up and win-loss record is so poor. The frustration can legitimately run both ways.
* Originally published in Israel Hayom newspaper on September 6, 2011.