OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

Why the White House turned on Israel

The rift is all about the U.S. State Department’s desire to reassert control.

Exterior of the U.S. State Department's Harry S. Truman Building in May 2024. Credit: Linda D. Epstein/U.S. State Department.
Exterior of the U.S. State Department's Harry S. Truman Building in May 2024. Credit: Linda D. Epstein/U.S. State Department.
David Wurmser. Courtesy.
David Wurmser
David Wurmser, Ph.D., an American foreign-policy specialist, is a Fellow at the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy. He served as Middle East adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

The chattering class in Israel is struggling to understand American behavior. They ask: How did the United States go from supporting Israel in the first days of the war with Hamas in Gaza to essentially shielding the terror organization? The Israeli right asks: What happened to the Americans? The left asks: What has Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu done to destroy U.S.-Israel relations?

I believe I have some insight into this. I held a senior policy position at the U.S. State Department for several years. Afterwards, I was a senior advisor to the vice president from 2001 to 2007 and then to the Trump administration’s National Security Advisor John Bolton. I also served a decade in the Pentagon as a senior intelligence officer. I have learned a great deal about the mentality of these bureaucracies.

It is important to understand that the U.S. State Department is not a foreign ministry. It is a super-bureaucracy with domestic as well as foreign functions. Its power over foreign policy far outstrips that of other countries’ foreign ministries.

The Biden administration’s National Security Council is ultimately a political body, but it is not opposed to State Department policy, which is increasingly pushed by younger staffers and senior figures aligned with progressive ideology. There are also the professional foreign service officers who have invested their entire careers advancing foreign policy paradigms that are now collapsing.

The NSC lacks a vast bureaucracy of its own. So, it outsources the drafting of policy to relevant bureaus. On foreign policy, this is almost always the State Department. As in any large organization, the person tasked with drafting the policy defines the policy. Everything that follows is a reactive revision, not a reset.

Intelligence agencies control and distribute information, including the information made available to the president. Thus, they also exercise significant power. But ever since the tenure of George Tenet as CIA director, the intelligence agencies have become active in the implementation of policy as well.

This is problematic because if intelligence chiefs are shaping policy, the objectivity of the information and analysis provided by their bureaucracy is called into question. How objective can the bureaucracy be when administration policy contradicts that on which the intelligence chief has staked his reputation?

Currently, Bill Burns serves as CIA director. He is a career foreign service officer who embodies the outlook and operational methods of the State Department. Since the Department of Defense under this administration, unlike past administrations, is weak in terms of policy formation, the CIA’s functioning and culture are not fundamentally different from those of the State Department.

So, what is this culture? It is well known that the State Department is more “Arabist” than pro-Israel. But over the last several decades, State Department officials’ real motivation has been to exercise control. Proud, powerful nations like Japan and India often complain about this, as do many other countries.

The State Department’s desire for control is not very ideological. It is largely based on two factors.

First, the U.S. foreign service has looked up to the British Foreign Office, which traditionally put a premium on maintaining control over the British Empire, for over a century. Second, the Cold War and the U.S.’s global policy of containment demanded alliance discipline.

Thus, all State Department polices offer a “grand bargain” to U.S. allies: Surrender some or most of your defense sovereignty and freedom of maneuver in exchange for U.S. protection. The promise of superpower backing is difficult for any nation to dismiss. So, the “grand bargain” became the hegemonic modus operandi for the State Department’s relationships with U.S. allies.

How does this explain the U.S. shift from overwhelmingly friendly to Israel in the aftermath of Oct. 7 to overtly hostile?

To a State Department official, losing control over U.S. foreign policy and the policies of foreign governments is the most unnerving prospect imaginable. A State Department officer will often seek to maintain or reassert control by championing a policy or nation he himself does not like so that control, usually through drafting the resulting policy, falls to him.

I myself saw this in action. Whenever the NSC’s Principals Committee—composed of the relevant cabinet-level officials minus the president—displayed a strong policy preference, State Department officials would rapidly adopt policies they abhorred in order to be tasked with drafting the policy. They could then slowly manipulate the policy back to their preferred position.

For example, in a 2003 Rose Garden speech, President George W. Bush clearly stated that the United States could not deal with any Palestinian leadership tainted by terror or corruption. By 2004 to 2005, this had become the “Roadmap for Peace,” a plan to build a Palestinian state around the corrupt PLO and Mahmoud Abbas.

Bruce Reidel, the NSC’s senior director for the Middle East, had given the task of drafting this policy to none other than Bill Burns, who was then the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, and his team. I saw this same phenomenon take place on Iran policy in 2003 to 2004, though I cannot write about this in detail because it remains classified.

So what happened regarding Israel?

Basically, the consensus in Israel that the U.S. government was emotionally, materially and, most importantly, conceptually on Israel’s side after Oct. 7 is wrong. In fact, the Biden administration never abandoned any of its Oct. 6 delusions. Quite the opposite: It saw the possibility that Israel would demolish the paradigms on which U.S. policy’s house of cards is built as a major threat. The administration was terrified that Israel would take actions that demolish the “two-state solution” paradigm that involves a PLO-run Palestinian state. It also feared that potential Israeli escalation against Hezbollah and then the Houthis would threaten the paradigm that holds that the United States must reach a regional strategic condominium with Iran.

At the same time, the Biden administration understood that Israel had been deeply wounded and thus was likely to lash out, preempt and act decisively and uncontrollably. As a result, the administration’s immediate policy imperative became how to re-establish control over Israel’s actions. True to State Department tradition, it decided to co-opt Israel—to act more pro-Israel than Israel. This was intended to win confidence and establish influence over Israeli actions, and then, over time, slowly bend Israel back into the paradigm.

A reasonable argument can be made that President Joe Biden himself acted out of friendship. In fact, he probably did. But those of us living in Washington have seen for years that conclusions cannot be drawn from any presidential statement under this administration until one sees how the State Department and NSC spokesmen clarify it as real policy. Often, they do so in direct contradiction to what the president said.

Indeed, White House Spokesperson Jen Psaki once famously said that one should wait for the administration’s spokesperson to tell you what official policy is rather than rely on what the president says. In other words, Biden is not the prime shaper of operational policy.

Unfortunately, Israelis—both left and right—never appreciated that the administration’s initial embrace was never genuine. It was designed to place a warm blanket over Israel so it would calm down, pause and return to controllable strategic dependency.

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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