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.

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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.

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