The following is excerpted from “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama” by Dennis Ross. Ambassador Ross has been directly involved in shaping U.S. policy in the Middle East, and Israel specifically, for nearly thirty years. He served in senior roles for several administrations, including as Bill Clinton’s envoy for Arab-Israeli peace, and was an active player in the debates over how Israel fit into the region and what should guide our policies.
U.S. POLICY TOWARD ISRAEL
Today, the relationship between the United States and Israel is extolled by American presidents. We take it for granted that presidents will stress their commitment to Israel and to the ties that bind us. But it was not always this way. Harry Truman faced enormous resistance within his administration to his decision to recognize the Jewish state. Similarly, selling or providing arms to Israel was taboo until President Kennedy decided to do so— again, a controversial decision within his national security apparatus. Later, during the first week of the 1973 war, Richard Nixon initially resisted Israeli near desperate pleas to resupply weaponry, following the major losses of aircraft and tanks the Israelis had suffered. Although Nixon eventually provided a massive resupply of arms to Israel, his decision had more to do with cold war concerns that Soviet weapons could not be seen to defeat American weapons than with any special relationship that existed between our two countries.
From the perspective of history, the relationship has clearly evolved. And to understand where the relationship is today and where it is going, particularly during a period of transition in the Middle East, it is important to understand why the relationship changed. To do so, I will examine the policy and approach of every administration since Israel’s birth. I will offer a narrative of the policy and the key developments in each administration, starting with Harry Truman’s. I will outline each president’s basic instincts or mind-set toward Israel and toward our policy in the region, as well as the basic assumptions that seemed to guide the national security establishment and senior officials about Israel and the region— and whether there was unanimity or division.
What will emerge from the review is remarkable continuity— not of policy, necessarily, but of arguments. Over and over again, we will see recycled concerns that too close a relationship with Israel will harm our ties to the Arabs and damage our position in the region. Until the 1990s, the fear was that we would drive the Arabs into a Soviet embrace. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the concern was that it would damage our relationship with the Arabs and make us targets of jihadist terrorism. The debates that center on these issues produced a pattern: when an administration is judged by its successors to be too close to Israel, we distance ourselves from the Jewish state. Eisenhower believed that Truman was too supportive of Israel, so he felt an imperative to demonstrate that we were not partial to Israel, that we were in fact willing to seek closer ties to our real friends in the region— the Arabs. President Nixon, likewise, felt that Lyndon Johnson was too pro-Israel. In his first two years, he, too, distanced us from Israel and showed sensitivity to Arab concerns. President George H. W. Bush believed his former boss, Ronald Reagan, suffered from the same impulse of being too close to Israel. He, too, saw virtue in fostering distance. And President Obama, at the outset of his administration, certainly saw George W. Bush as having cost us in the Arab and Muslim world at least in part because he was unwilling to allow any gap to emerge between the United States and Israel.
In none of these instances do we actually gain any benefit to our position in the region. Our influence does not increase; our ties with the conservative Arab monarchies do not materially improve. Neither is there any decline in those relationships during administrations that are putatively seen as being closer to Israel. Our ties with the more radical Arab regimes are not good, but then again— with the possible exceptions of the Kennedy administration’s concerted effort to reach out to Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Reagan administration’s support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War— they were never good.
Yet arguments that we must distance ourselves from Israel are not discredited when the predicted positive outcomes do not occur. Nor are these arguments discredited when the anticipated terrible consequences of drawing closer to Israel fail to materialize. With regard to the latter, when we
recognized Israel in 1948, or later when we sold arms to Israel and the Soviets couldn’t replace us in the area, and when the flow of oil from the region was not lost, no one questioned why these devastating outcomes did not happen. No one asked what was wrong in our assumptions about the dynamics of the Middle East. Remarkably, there seem to be few lessons ever learned.
These assumptions are obviously about more than Israel’s place in the region and its neighbors’ reactions to it. They also involve the perceived forces of change and whether and how we should relate to them. Late in the Eisenhower administration, the president signed a policy directive that effectively called for us to “accommodate” radical Arab nationalism. The assumptions that guided that posture are similar to the arguments in parts of the Obama administration in 2011 and 2012 that argued that the Muslim Brotherhood represented the wave of the future in the region and that our more conservative Arab friends were on the wrong side of history— and our policy needed to reflect that. In the late 1950s and in John Kennedy’s first two years in office, the logic of that policy was pursued and failed to deliver. Yet no one asked how or even whether the radical Arab nationalists like President Nasser of Egypt could alter their aims without betraying their very identity. The same may be true today with Islamists. It makes sense to take a hard look at these kinds of assumptions and evaluate them in light of what drove the radical nationalists in the past and what factors may drive the Islamists today.
If there was ever a time to rethink assumptions and gain a better handle on the dynamics that are likely to shape the Middle East, this is surely it. Because the American approach to Israel over time was generally derivative of our broad approach to the region, one way to rethink assumptions is to see which ones took hold, why they endured, where they were off base, and how they need to be changed. That is why I examine every administration from Harry Truman to Barack Obama and how each approached both Israel and the region.
Excerpted from “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama” by Dennis Ross, published in October 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright (C) 2015 by Dennis Ross. All rights reserved.