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OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

Reason, reasonableness and realpolitik

Under the Biden administration, important foreign policy interests are being sacrificed to domestic politics.

U.S. President Joe Biden addresses the nation from the Oval Office about the response to the recent Hamas invasion of Israel and Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine, Oct. 19, 2023. Photo by Oliver Contreras/White House.
U.S. President Joe Biden addresses the nation from the Oval Office about the response to the recent Hamas invasion of Israel and Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine, Oct. 19, 2023. Photo by Oliver Contreras/White House.
Martin Sherman
Martin Sherman
Martin Sherman spent seven years in operational capacities in the Israeli defense establishment. He is the founder of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a member of the Habithonistim-Israel Defense & Security Forum (IDSF) research team, and a participant in the Israel Victory Project.

Foreign policy is really domestic policy with its hat on. — Hubert H. Humphrey

Under the Biden administration, U.S. foreign policy appears afflicted by several perturbing defects. Indeed, it seems to suffer from both a lack of general strategic perspective and of sound theater-specific understanding. Moreover, the administration appears to be heavily influenced by extraneous factors that have no discernable relevance to the pursuit of American interests.

The crucial goal of military success

This was starkly illustrated recently by the sharp changes in the administration’s tone towards Israel regarding the protracted battle against Hamas. Immediately after the Oct. 7 massacre, the Biden administration appeared to be staunchly supportive of Israel’s right to self-defense. But as the fighting dragged on, the U.S. began to adopt a more critical attitude, particularly towards a possible assault on Rafah. The administration seemed to be conditioning any support for a Rafah operation on plans to ensure the safety of Gaza civilians who fled to the southern Gaza Strip under Israeli directives.  

For Israel, the takeover of Rafah is essential to its success in its battle to eradicate Hamas. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently declared that sending ground troops into Rafah is crucial to meeting Israel’s war aims. Biden warned him that Israel should not conduct a military operation there without a “credible and executable” plan to protect civilians.

Incubator of terror

Underscoring the problems with this is the recent daring Israeli special forces rescue of two elderly hostages. The hostages were being held in Rafah—among civilians—precisely because of U.S. opposition to Israeli military action in the city.

It is difficult to understand the underlying rationale of the Biden administration’s policy twist. This is particularly the case regarding Hamas, which, after all, is the antithesis of all the values the U.S. purports to cherish. Hamas is indisputably a tyrannical, homophobic, misogynist organization freely elected by the Gaza public. The approval it won in opinion polls taken in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7 proves that the Gaza public is not so much a victim of its elected leaders as the crucible upon which Hamas was formed and the incubator from which it emerged.    

What lies behind the administration’s perverse and seemingly paradoxical switch to pressuring Israel, the U.S.’s only like-minded regional ally, into negotiations with an entity whose very raison d’être is Israel’s destruction?

The answer lies outside the realm of foreign policy. It is connected to domestic politics and the current fabric of the Democratic Party.

Most of the ideological energy among Democrats comes from the radical “progressive” wing of the party. This far-left bloc harbors considerable animosity towards Israel and commensurate sympathy for the Palestinians. It is likely the fear that supporting Israel could alienate this electorate, thus undermining the party’s fortunes in the upcoming presidential election, that is driving the administration’s about-face.

A geopolitical pivot

Another case of a self-destructive policy is the administration’s approach to Azerbaijan. This central Asian country is not only a strong ally of Israel—being one of Israel’s largest energy suppliers and purchasers of arms—but is profoundly important to U.S. strategic interests as well. A former U.S. national security advisor remarked that Azerbaijan is one of the world’s “geopolitical pivots” and key to U.S. interests.

In the wake of the recent fighting that resulted in the dissolution of the former Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh), relations between Washington and Baku have soured. Last November, reportedly under heavy domestic pressure from the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), the U.S. initiated hostile legislative and administrative acts. The former prohibited U.S. military aid to Baku for two fiscal years. The latter placed Azerbaijan on the State Department’s Special Watch List (SWL) for alleged religious intolerance, opening up the possibility of economic sanctions.

These actions appear somewhat heavy-handed. Azerbaijan is a Shi’ite Muslim majority country that is resolutely secular, pro-Western and relatively free of religious bias. Indeed, a recent Jerusalem Post article referred to it as a “model of interfaith harmony, where the nation embraces and protects the Jewish community.”

America’s linchpin

In terms of realpolitik self-interest, Washington has a strong security interest in deterring threats from Iran and Russia, as well as limiting Islamic extremism.

Azerbaijan has proved a willing partner in all these areas. Baku has given U.S. energy companies access to Azerbaijani energy reserves and supported U.S. military campaigns in the Middle East. Moreover, Azerbaijan’s geostrategic position in Central Asia prompted one prominent strategic analyst to describe the country as America’s “linchpin” in the region.

Azerbaijan’s strategic pipelines (see here and here) and considerable energy exports reduce Western dependence on Russia. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has praised Azerbaijan as a “reliable, trustworthy partner” in Europe’s attempt to break its reliance on Russian energy supplies.

The history of the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict is complex and blame is not always easy to apportion fairly. However, it would appear that both reason and realpolitik should spur Washington to reconsider its punitive approach towards Baku.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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