Don't Criticize Obama for Being Too Rational About Israel

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The president is coming under fire for an attitude toward an ally that ought to be standard fare in statecraft.

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Writing in Foreign Policy, Aaron David Miller sketches a short history of America's relationship with Israel, summarizing some of its low points, like "Dwight Eisenhower's threat to sanction Israel after its 1956 invasion of Sinai, Richard Nixon's threat to do the same if Israel didn't attend the Geneva conference in 1973, the flap between Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Menachem Begin over the president's 1982 Middle East peace initiative, and George H.W. Bush's war with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over settlements." This context is welcome given the frequency with which conservatives suggest that President Obama's attitude toward the country is uniquely combative.

Miller goes on to argue that America is nevertheless at another low point in our relationship with Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu's flaws are acknowledged to play a part. "He's an ambivalent leader pulled by party, tribe, and family on one hand, and by the need to be loved and successful on the other," Miller writes. "His policies, particularly on settlements and peacemaking, seem half-hearted and tentative." Then it comes time to discuss Obama's role in the relationship: "I've watched a few presidents come and go on this issue, and Obama really is different. Unlike Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama isn't in love with the idea of Israel. As a result, he has a harder time making allowances for Israeli behavior he doesn't like. Obama relates to the Jewish state not on a values continuum but through a national security and interest filter."

Is that supposed to be a bad thing?  

"My sense is that, if he could get away with it, the president would like to see a U.S.-Israeli relationship that is not just less exclusive, but somewhat less special as well," Miller states. So the ostensible problem isn't that he dislikes Israel, or disrespects it, or isn't attuned to its perspective, but that he'd treat it as "somewhat less special." Is the relationship supposed to be a romance? The frequency with which words like "special" enter these conversations that confound me. I desire Israel's ongoing security and prosperity, and recognize the uniqueness of the threats to it. But I don't want security and prosperity for Israel any more than I want it for Japan, France, Taiwan, Britain, Poland, Mexico, New Zealand, and India. Why would I? All are democratic peoples.

The fact that President Obama wants to treat Israel like lots of other democratic allies, and has no special emotional attachment to Israel, is treated as if it is self-evidently problematic. I take a different view, one that President Washington articulated in his farewell address. Said Washington:

A passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.

It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.

President Obama maintains a relationship with Israel that is closer than what Washington recommends. Even so, his alleged lack of enthusiasm earns him regular criticism from the right. It's perfectly fine that conservatives like Mitt Romney have utterly abandoned the notions of American foreign policy that were prevalent among the Founders. But it would be nice if they acknowledged that they are in fact the ones who are departing from the oldest American traditions, and agitating for a hegemonic U.S. presence in the world that the Founders never envisioned.

That they are also insisting that emotivism is preferable to rationalism when it comes to Israel. I insist that cool rationalism is always preferable in foreign policy, and is not at odds with staying true to our values.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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