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The Ukraine-Israel foreign-policy fairy tale

As an expanded NATO turns 75, concern about the Jewish state’s security doesn’t neatly fit into the mindset of an alliance solely focused right now on the war in Ukraine.

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) speaks to reporters room after the CNN Presidential Debate between U.S. President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump, at the McCamish Pavilion on the Georgia Institute of Technology campus in Atlanta on June 27, 2024. Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images.
Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) speaks to reporters room after the CNN Presidential Debate between U.S. President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump, at the McCamish Pavilion on the Georgia Institute of Technology campus in Atlanta on June 27, 2024. Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

This week, the United States is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with a gala summit in Washington, D.C., that will be attended by a host of world leaders. Among them will be Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who hopes to use his presence there to remind the Americans and the European nations represented at the gathering about the threat to the West from Iranian terrorism and missile development, as well as its nuclear ambitions.

He’s not likely to have much success. And that’s not just because he’s from a non-NATO member state overshadowed by representatives of the expanded roster of the alliance that now numbers 30 European nations, plus the United States and Canada. The problem for Israel in this conclave is that since Russia illegally invaded Ukraine in February 2022, NATO has become almost solely focused on the brutal war there, which continues to consume Western aid and arms with no end in sight. Despite not being formally a combatant, the alliance has taken a position of strong support for Ukraine and imposed sanctions on the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin, though, to date, those economic measures seem to have hurt the West as much as Moscow.

Still, for a lot of American supporters of Israel, the NATO anniversary is an excuse to assert that the campaign being waged against Kyiv by Moscow is part of the same struggle as the Iranian-backed war on the Jewish state by Tehran’s Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthi allies. In this formulation, the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel were just another incident in a global conflict that amounts to a second Cold War that matches an axis of China, Russia and Iran against the West. They’d like the cheerleading for NATO to somehow morph into a broader consensus on behalf of efforts to bolster Israel’s defensive efforts against its enemies.

A new ‘Cold War’ against a different Axis

That’s the same argument made by the Biden administration and some of its establishment Republican allies who tied funding for Israel’s efforts to fight Hamas since Oct. 7 to the far larger outlays to Ukraine. They added lesser amounts aimed at bolstering Taiwan as well as some “humanitarian” aid to Palestinians in Gaza that will almost certainly be stolen by Hamas.

The problem with this formulation is twofold.

One is that Russia’s designs on Ukraine have nothing to do with the Islamist war on the existence of a Jewish state.

The former is a struggle rooted in Russia’s quest to recover its past glories as a Tsarist and Soviet empire, coupled with its troubles coming to terms with a Europe that has united against it even before the current war was launched. The latter is an entirely separate conflict in which Islamist intolerance for the idea of Israel has merged with Western leftist intersectional ideologies about race driven by an international movement rooted in antisemitism.

There is some overlap between the two, as well as China’s quest for world domination since Russia depends on Beijing’s support, and is willing to cheer on Iran and its allies to discomfit the West. But the notion that the same international alliance rallying to the side of the Ukrainians is willing to be as supportive of Israel is simply untrue. Assuming that all of the nations of the West or even the Democratic Party would see the situation this way—as the events of the last nine months since the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust have made painfully obvious—is an incorrect assumption.

But there is another equally important problem. Those seeking to align Israel’s existential struggle with that of Ukraine and worries about China need to take into account the brutal facts of life about American foreign policy in the 21st century.

No longer the ‘arsenal of democracy’

The United States may want to think of itself as being, as it was in the last century, the “arsenal of democracy.” Yet as a result of the globalization of the world economy and the rise of free trade agreements in the 1990s and the first years of the 21st century, America’s manufacturing capabilities—arms, ammunition, and military-related products and technology among them—have been reduced to a shadow of what they once were.

This led to a massive decrease in the cost of most consumer goods and created a great deal of wealth both for Americans and those living elsewhere. It also has meant an equally massive loss of manufacturing jobs overseas and harmed working-class Americans in a host of ways that are rarely felt by those in the credentialed elites who have profited from this turn of events. The American working class was left behind by not just Wall Street and manufacturers who told them to get jobs in service industries that are either low-paying or meant for those with college degrees that they lack. They’re also shortchanged by an educational system that has contempt for skilled trades and seeks to funnel everyone, whether qualified or not, into higher education. That has created a windfall for colleges and universities selling increasingly worthless degrees tainted by woke ideology at exorbitant prices that are subsidized by the government while doing the country little good.

Along with the social cost of globalization is an inconvenient fact that those who think the United States can simultaneously indefinitely fund and supply a war in Ukraine, as well as maintain Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge over its foes—not to mention any hope of aiding Taiwan’s efforts to defend its independence against China—are ignoring.

Simply put, the United States lacks the capability or the workforce to do all three things. Absent a major shift in American trade, industrial, educational and economic policies that would displease Wall Street (and which most of the same people who are gung-ho supporters of Ukraine also oppose), there is little or no chance that it will be able to do so for the foreseeable future. The amount of munitions that have been poured into the furnace of a World War I-style trench warfare stalemate in Eastern Ukraine has drained America’s military resources and made it difficult for Israel to obtain the arms it needs, even if the Biden administration were not slow-walking deliveries to pressure its government to make concessions to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.

Post-Soviet delusions

This notion of a world neatly divided into an axis of evil and allies united by democracy appeals to a wide variety of people, including traditional conservative foreign-policy hawks, supporters of Israel and those who have come to believe that Putin is the new Hitler. That became especially true following the spread of the myth about Russian interference deciding the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It all harkens back to the simpler world of the Cold War in which Americans could, with good reason, regard all of their foreign-policy efforts as part of a zero-sum game. The sole goal then was defeating Soviet communism, which was as much an ideological struggle for global domination as one focused on Russia’s quest for an expanded empire.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, American foreign policy has floundered. It was first fixated on a “peace dividend” and delusions about the “end of history.” The unrealistic fantasies of the Bill Clinton administration gave way to the post-9/11 world in which the George W. Bush administration had to deal with Islamist terrorists that saw themselves at war with the West. Focusing on that threat was necessary, but it spawned a different delusion about the ability of the United States to spread democracy abroad, which came to grief in failed generational wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That, in turn, gave way to the very different delusions entertained by the Barack Obama administration and then that of Joe Biden (interrupted by four years of a more realistic approach by Donald Trump that was abandoned after his defeat in 2020) in which policymakers imagined that they could appease Russia, and especially Iran, to the point where they could end America’s foreign conflicts.

The war in Ukraine, however, has given rise to a belief in a new unified theory of foreign policy, with many supporters of Israel seeing it as an opportunity to tie concerns for Israel’s security to broader worries about the influence of China and the revival of Russian aggression.

Living in the past

The creation of NATO and the Marshall Plan (named for U.S. Secretary of State Gen. George Marshall) were the crowning achievements of the administration of President Harry S. Truman. They set in motion the events that would first frustrate the imperial ambitions of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet regime, and then lead to the collapse of Russia as a superpower and the defeat of international communism 40 years later under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan.

While the war in Ukraine has shown that NATO still has its uses, its expansion in the last decades has transformed it from an initial conception in which America would essentially defend the nations of a war-torn continent that needed to be rebuilt. In its current configuration, in which the United States still bears the lion’s share of the costs of defending wealthy nations that have profited enormously from not having to spend much on their own militaries, it no longer makes much sense. Indeed, if one looks at NATO costs in this way, it’s clear that Western Europe has always gotten far more money in U.S. aid than Israel has ever received.

Trump enraged the foreign-policy establishment by pointing out that Europeans could not go on being freeloaders. He was correct, as even some on the left are now prepared to admit. But as this week’s show in Washington illustrates, NATO is still something of a sacred cow and the establishment does not tolerate any deviation from the notion that it may not be criticized or that it must change.

Yet the real concern here is that by blindly going along with the conventional wisdom being peddled by Washington insiders about NATO and the Ukraine war, supporters of Israel are making a huge mistake.

While Americans should support Ukraine’s independence, the notion that it makes sense to persist in giving Kyiv a blank check while not pushing for a negotiated end to the war with Russia is unsustainable. Those who want to link Ukraine and Israel say it’s as unfair to make Ukraine understand that it cannot get back Crimea and the Donbas, which Putin invaded in 2014 (when virtually no one in the United States cared about Ukraine), and agree to a peace settlement on those terms as it would be to force Israel to make further attempts to trade land for peace. Yet the two situations are not alike. Ukraine is far larger than Israel, not truly democratic and there is no international movement bent on its destruction based on Islamist doctrine and leftist ideological reasons. With continued Western support, Ukraine can survive and thrive alongside Russia now that the standoff in the war has shown that neither side can get everything it wants. Israel, on the other hand, knows it cannot rely on international guarantees or aid to defend it if it makes suicidal concessions for the sake of pleasing the West.

More to the point, supporters of Israel need to be open to the arguments of those Americans who are pointing out that the United States needs to pick and choose its battles, and that backing Israel while seeking to end the Ukraine war is the only sensible and achievable course of action.

A realistic foreign policy

That was the conceit of a major foreign policy address of Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) back in May, which deserves renewed scrutiny now that he’s reportedly on Trump’s shortlist for the Republican vice-presidential nomination.

Vance is viewed as among the leaders of what critics term an isolationist “America first” wing of the GOP. But he sketched out a view of the world that was far from isolationist and, in fact, called for an aggressive stance towards Iran and China. That he chose to deliver it at a gathering organized by the Quincy Institute, a think tank that is hostile to Israel, was significant because he laid out a vision of American interests in which Israeli security was prioritized. That must have discomfited his hosts as much as it should reassure friends of Israel.

Above all, Vance has acknowledged the truth about America’s limited capabilities. Saying that “foreign policy is not a nursery rhyme,” he said that the war in Ukraine had to be settled with a compromise while Israel should be helped to defeat its Hamas enemies. That’s correct, in part, because not every conflict is over something important to the United States.

Insisting that Ukraine should have the territories it lost in 2014—and which it has no chance of ever getting back, no matter how many hundreds of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars are poured into the effort—isn’t a vital American interest. And that is true no matter how much some Americans love morbid fantasies about a weak contemporary Russia somehow resembling the far more powerful Soviet Union of 40 years ago.

By contrast, defending the existence of Israel and thwarting the ambitions of Iran is a vital American interest. And choosing between the two is all the more necessary since the foreign-policy establishment is writing checks to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan—not to mention the needs of the U.S. military—that current American resources can’t cash.

If America is to overcome the challenges of China and Iran in the future, then it’s going to have to involve economic changes that will return it to a position that can make it an arsenal for democracy. In the meantime, supporters of Israel need to consider that embracing the sort of realistic approach advocated by Vance will be far more in their long-term interests as well as those of America, regardless of which party wins the White House in November. An attempt to piggyback Israeli security onto a NATO celebration and a Ukraine war to which the Jewish state’s interests are tangential will never work in the long run. It will only lead to further disappointments where Israel’s needs are always treated as secondary to those of Kyiv and European nations that are more interested in appeasing antisemites than in solidarity with a democratic Jewish state.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

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