WASHINGTON, DC—A persistent theme at this month’s policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the weightiest and most influential of all the groups making Israel’s case in Washington, centered on President Barack Obama’s record on Israel in comparison with previous Administrations.
Vice President Joe Biden, who addressed the conference on Monday morning, was unequivocal.
“No President has done more to protect Israel than Obama,” he declared. (Interestingly, the applause that greeted this remark was noticeably more muted than that which followed Biden’s other statements, for example on the need to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.)
Many of the numerous tweets from the assembled crowd that conveyed each of Biden’s points noted that there was a massive elephant in the room, in the form of the recently confirmed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Hagel’s record of hostile statements towards the “Jewish lobby” (his phrase) and his queasiness about pursuing the military option with regard to Iran didn’t exactly boost the image of Obama as offered up by Biden, who prudently elected to leave Hagel out of his speech.
The debate about Obama’s friendliness to Israel has essentially been an exercise in number crunching. Partisans of the administration point out that securing Israel’s military edge is a key aim that has been acted upon: close to a billion dollars has been granted for missile defense, including the path-breaking Iron Dome system, along with $3.1 billion in aid last year, and the provision of bunker busting bombs that would presumably be deployed in any pre-emptive strike upon Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Those less sanguine about Obama’s record point out that this level of aid is hardly unprecedented. In 2000, as the Israeli-Palestinian grand bargain negotiated through the Oslo Agreement began to unravel with the second Palestinian intifada, the Clinton Administration provided Israel with $3.12 billion in aid—adjusted for inflation, that’s just over $4 billion in today’s terms. The Obama skeptics also argue that the current level of American aid to Israel was set in 2007 by the previous George W. Bush administration, following a 10-year, $30 billion military aid package agreed to by Washington and Jerusalem.
The bottom line is simply this: If the available data makes nonsense of the claim that Obama is an Israel-hating radical, it also shows that he’s nothing out of the ordinary. Yes, he’s had a frosty relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, but when has the U.S.-Israel relationship been smooth sailing? Ronald Reagan famously tussled with the Israelis over the provision of AWACs to Saudi Arabia, while George H.W. Bush expressed his displeasure with Israeli policy towards the Palestinians by threatening to cut off loan guarantees to the government of the late Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir.
Why, then, does anxiety persist in pro-Israel circles about Obama? Because, I would argue, his administration’s foreign policy can be encapsulated in a single word: equivocation. And it’s a problem that extends far beyond bilateral relations with Israel.
Take Syria. As Bashar al-Assad’s butchery continues without mercy, we long ago lost an opportunity to take charge of regime change by striking a deal with Syrian rebels, thus leaving the field open to Al Qaeda affiliates and other Islamist groups. (Contrast Obama’s dithering over Syria with the decisive French military intervention against Islamist terrorists in Mali.) Now there is a very real prospect that Assad’s weapons of mass destruction could fall into the hands of such groups, with potentially dire consequences for the security situation on Israel’s northern border.
Or take Egypt. When it comes to the Arab world’s historically dominant country, Obama and his foreign policy team have actively stoked the fiction that the new Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo can somehow be moderated.
Further afield, there is a clear lack of U.S. leadership everywhere from the Korean Peninsula, where North Korea’s communist regime is engaging in one of its periodic bouts of hysteria against the South, to Latin America, where a U.S. government delegation dutifully trooped to the funeral of Venezuela’s tyrant, Hugo Chavez, alongside President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Such displays fuel the fear that Obama doesn’t do enough to distinguish between our friends and our enemies, and that he takes our friends for granted while exaggerating the degree of goodwill on the part of our enemies.
Put another way, this administration does very little to promote constitutional liberal democracy—a system which, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant argued in the eighteenth century, is the best guarantor of “perpetual peace”—on a global scale. Its conduct of international relations is akin to the “talking cure” favored by relationship therapists: engage in dialogue, and everything will be all right.
That’s why I have no argument with those who say Obama is committed to Israel’s defense. My reservations stem from his over-cautious response to the myriad threats that face not just Israel, but other key allies of the United States as well. And with the main impact of sequestration hitting the defense budget, there is good reason to worry that the administration has made its peace with the decline of American power at precisely the time it’s needed most.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.