Is Israel a strategic asset or a liability?

Greg Sclobete writes:

To be honest, I don’t know how huge a deal the revelations are in this Foreign Policy piece (and needless to say, these are allegations, not established facts). The short version – agents from Israel’s intelligence service are alleged to have disguised themselves as American CIA agents to hire terrorists to kill people inside Iran.

I think a good way to frame this is to ask: would Britain’s intelligence service do something like this? If the answer is yes, then Israel’s actions are in keeping with how international spy craft and subversion work among allies. If the answer is no, then the argument that Israel is key strategic asset for the United States becomes a lot less credible.

Daniel Larison adds:

 It’s not just the false flag nature of the operation that is bothersome. If the report is true, this operation involved a terrorist group that blows up civilians in mosques, and the perception that the U.S. was behind the group that did these things invited attacks on Americans. In addition to encouraging atrocities against civilians, the operation made it seem as if the U.S. were complicit in those atrocities. […]

Suppose instead that it was U.S. agents posing as Mossad who recruited Sunni terrorists to launch a series of attacks on civilian targets in southern Lebanon, which in turn invited Hizbullah retaliation against Israel. Wouldn’t there be a great deal of outrage about this if the roles were reversed? On top of that, what purpose could be served by such an operation except to slaughter civilians and sow chaos?

Good question. These days it appears as though both Iran and Israel are doing their best to keep up the impression of imminent war. Iran’s chest-thumping and Israel’s own bellicosity may be more hot air than anything. Both stir trouble, sow chaos, but does either really want war?

America is the helpful stooge in all of this. Either that or we’re doing our best to keep things from boiling over. Perhaps, in fact, those are one and the same. Either way, Iranian nuclear scientists are showing up dead; allegations that the Mossad is impersonating the CIA in order to hire terrorists are floating about; and Iran is saying damn the torpedoes and plunging ahead with its nuke program.

It’s hard to know how this would play out under a Ron Paul presidency. As Alex Knapp noted a while back, Paul wants us out of essentially all of our foreign treaties, and that would include our entanglement in Israel:

Let’s not forget that Ron Paul doesn’t just want to bring the troops home. He wants to pull the United States out of all international organizations and as many treaties as possible. He wants the U.S. out of the United Nations. Out of NATO. Out of the WTO. Out of the ICJ. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he opposes the Vienna Convention.

In other words, he wants the richest, most militarily powerful nation in the world to reverse its 200+ year tradition of strengthening international law as a means to settle disputes between nations without resorting to war. I’ll be the first to admit that the system of international law is weak and imperfect. But it’s a damn sight better than the alternative. The Founding Fathers didn’t put, in the Constitution, the provision that treaties trump Congressional statutes for nothing. They’re important for the wheels of diplomacy to keep turning. Pulling the United States out of so many international organizations will no doubt cause quite a few to collapse. What’s going to replace it?

Thinking about this again in terms of Israel only, while I think Americans need to disentangle and take a big step back from that conflict, it’s one of those precarious steps that you don’t want to make too quickly. That’s one of my own quibbles with Paul’s foreign policy – he may be right on the broad view that we’re far too entangled in the world’s affairs, but when it comes down to the particulars it all becomes much more complicated (notably, the same rule applies to shrinking the government; conservatives talk about wanting to shrink the size of the federal state but since they spend so little time actually caring about governance, it’s always Democrats who come up with detailed plans. See for example, Obama’s recent plan to consolidate agencies like the Small Business Administration.)

Israel has grown far too comfortable with a reliable friend in the United States. This would not be the first time they’ve done something like this, if the allegations are true. Something needs to change in this special relationship of ours.

Follow me on Twitter or FacebookRead my Forbes blog here.


Huntsman The Hawkish Owl

Huntsman's foreign policy record is too thin to know what he'd do in office.

Daniel Larison takes issue with my description of Huntsman and Obama as “owls” – a term I use to describe a realist foreign policy preference that is neither hawkish in the neoconservative sense or necessarily dovish:

I won’t rehearse the litany of all the interventions Obama has supported over the years, but suffice it to say I don’t think he fits the “owl” definition. Huntsman has less of a public record on these issues, which makes it a little harder to judge, but based on what we do know he has flatly opposed last year’s war of choice in Libya, he wants to wind down the war in Afghanistan, but he favors starting a new war of choice in Iran. This last one is so much more important and so completely wrong that it’s hard not to give it more weight. On Iraq, he took no public position on the war between 2002 and today, but he endorsed the most zealous pro-war candidate in the last cycle and criticized the withdrawal of U.S. troops and called for a residual force to remain there apparently indefinitely. Put another way, on the most important foreign policy issue of the last decade Huntsman professes to be agnostic or at least unwilling to revisit the debate, but based on how he is misjudging Iran it is fair to guess that he would have favored invading Iraq as well.

This is all true enough. I think Obama actually started out as an owl and moved in the hawkish direction over the years, culminating his move toward interventionism in the invasion of Libya and the assassination of Anwar Al-Awlaki. This is also what gives me most pause about Huntsman whose positions on Afghanistan and Libya were pretty good but, as Daniel notes, has made very loud noises about Iran.

Beyond the troubling nature of his Iran comments, Huntsman reminds me a little bit of a rightwing version of Obama. Obama seemed much better on matters of war and peace when he was on the campaign trail. In office he’s never stopped disappointing. Isn’t it just as likely that Huntsman will do the same, sounding a cautious note on various foreign threats and then pounding the war drum as loud as ever when the mullahs taunt him?

In any case, Daniel is correct – Obama is no owl, though I think his hawkishness is much less ingrained than many of his Republican rivals. He is a mildly hawkish technocrat who believes we can do small but important things through intervention. His administration also talks tough on Iran, but I don’t worry nearly so much that he’d actually go through with all-out war as I worry about a Romney or a Gingrich administration. Huntsman has too little a record on these issues to say with certainty.

Ron Paul and Gary Johnson are the only candidates who are firmly and reliably anti-war. But Obama, I’d wager, is still a more sober commander in chief than someone like Romney who, so far as I can tell, wants to revamp neoconservatism in ways that the Obama administration, however bad it’s been on continuing Bush-era policies, hasn’t even dreamed of. When it comes to Iran, Obama makes me nervous. The majority of his GOP rivals have me quite literally terrified.

What do we do when confronted with the threat of an Iranian war and the lesser of two evils? I can’t honestly say.

Follow me on Twitter and  Facebook. Read my Forbes blog here.


Republican Candidates Haven’t Learned The Foreign Policy Lessons Of The Past

Was Ike an interventionist?

“If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you’d like me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.” ~ Mitt Romney, the only man out of the two who has not killed Osama bin Laden.

Various readers and others have been quick to scold Andrew Sullivan over his defense of Eisenhower as a non-interventionist – and the greatest president of the 20th century. One reader notes that, “Eisenhower not only would have proceeded with Bay of Pigs, but was the final authority in the creation and structuring of the plot from the beginning. While the CIA and Dulles crafted the plans that led eventually to the idea of invasion, Eisenhower approved all of their machinations and saw that they were funded. Finally, the invasion idea itself was either concocted by Eisenhower or enthusiastically endorsed by him, and he and was prepared to persuade President-elect Kennedy of the invasion plan’s likely success.”

Others point out that Eisenhower involved the US in Lebanon and that the Eisenhower Doctrine pretty clearly states that intervention to halt or slow the spread of communism was legitimate. The doctrines states that intervention in another country is desirable if it is intended “to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of such nations, requesting such aid against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by international communism.”

Of course, in Andrew’s defense, those were very different times. Instead of the threat of an amorphous terrorism we fought a somewhat less amorphous communism that was embodied in two powerful enemies. Nuclear war was a new dark cloud looming above us.

Furthermore, Eisenhower didn’t have decades of failed interventions and botched, backfiring covert operations to guide him. Our current leaders should be aware of the shortcomings of interventionism in ways that Ike was not. We have the failure of Iran, Lebanon, Chile, Venezuela, Cuba, etc. etc. etc. to guide our hand. Ike had Korea, but he also had the success of WWII.

Commenter Nob Akitimo keeps asking for a detailed foreign policy post outlining my own positions. I will get him one. But for now, my tendency is toward extreme caution – not because it is necessarily morally wrong to intervene, especially in the case of genocide – but because we are fallible and short-sighted. The consequences of our actions can be inscrutable. We are losuy at managing our own domestic affairs and so, almost by definition, worse at managing the affairs of others. We risk, constantly, to overreach both in our military response and in our domestic response (think PATRIOT Act, water-boarding, warrant-less wire-tapping, etc.)

I am a realist (I call myself an owl) bordering on pacifist (maybe the lovechild of an owl and a dove), not because I don’t think we can wage a just war or because there isn’t moral justification to intervene in a place like Libya, but because we have such poor information about the future. In Libya, for instance, we can attempt to manipulate events, but there are too many wild cards. Even beyond the success of our mission there, we can’t predict the fallout, the eventual course that nation will take.

In Egypt, the overthrow of Mubarak is also the rise of fundamentalist Islamic Brotherhood and the likely end to peaceful relations with Israel. The dominoes keep falling every time we intervene and regardless of our intentions, noble or otherwise, where they fall is simply not up to us. Once upon a time I did believe in intervention as a way to promote peace and end the brutality of wicked men. Now I believe that in most places without cultural foundations to support peaceful democracy, wicked men will be replaced by other wicked men.

Once upon a time the world was full of possibilities. America was the super-power emerging from a World War that left our friends and enemies alike in heaps of rubble. We believed we could do anything, achieve anything, through a combination of commerce and force of arms. We were right about the former, wrong about the latter. And yet here we are so many years later watching men like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich talking tough about Iran, forgetting entirely the lessons of the power of peaceful, free trade to radically change the world for the better.

Follow me on Twitter and  Facebook. Read my Forbes blog here.