Saturday, August 8, 2009

Would Dumping Israel Help U.S. Relations with the Arab/Muslim Middle East? The Surprising Answer is: "No." Here’s Why

By Barry Rubin

One amazing thing about bad ideas or analytical myths about the Middle East is that they never die, they just get recycled.

Here’s a simple little thought experiment you can do in the privacy of your own home without requiring the purchase of any special equipment or the use of any scarce natural resources.

Imagine that the United States completely abandons Israel, not that the Obama administration is going to do that, but imagine. No aid, no diplomatic support, or let’s just say a hugely reduced relationship.

What effect would it have on U.S. relations with the Arabic-speaking world and Iran?

Take your time. Because your immediate answer might be: they would improve to a huge extent.

But that’s not true. Sure, the popularity rating of President Barack Obama and of the United States would probably climb a dozen points or so, maybe more.

Yet, remember, the popularity of any given country is of virtually no importance in international relations, even in democracies. On one hand, governments make foreign policy; on the other hand, national and material interests set the agenda to a large extent.

So even if you would say that I’m understating the change, it still would be far less than an unreflective analysis—even by a pretend regional expert, perhaps especially by regional experts—would put it.

Now let’s take a closer look.

Consider a list of Arabic-speaking regimes generally considered friendly to the United States, by the low standards of the region at least: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and United Arab Emirates. You can add Yemen if you want.

What more would they do for a United States that was not considered by them to be pro-Israel? Would they drastically lower the price of oil? Be more helpful to America in countering Iran? How precisely would the regimes act in a way beneficial to U.S. policy?

Remember that they would still be very constrained in their relations with the United States for lots of reasons:

America would still be a Western, non-Muslim, non-Arab, very strong power and as such mistrusted and not widely liked. These are societies which are not afraid, even in this “enlightened” age, to make rather clear their distaste for the “other.”

Then, being anti-American would still be very beneficial for them, as they would still need a scapegoat—without Israel would need one even more without Israel—for their own failures and shortcomings.

At the same time, the opposite would also hold true: the regimes know that being more pro-American (Western, non-Muslim, non-Arab superpower that it is), would bring cries of “Traitor!” from their Islamist opponents and from much of their own public, conditioned as it has been by decades of anti-Americanism.

Oh, and what about all that history. They would still demand—even more loudly, having sensed American weakness—reparations and concessions for past years of U.S. support for Israel and all sorts of other American regional policies.

As noted above, there would be a strengthening of a number of factors which would maintain high levels of anti-Americanism and reluctance to move closer to the United States.

For example, radical Islamist forces, strengthened by their victory over Israel, or at least U.S. support for Israel, would press the regimes harder. If they did succeed in wiping Israel off the map, the former territory and ample assets of that former Jewish state would be turned into a base of operations and resources for those trying to overthrow the remaining regimes still friendly to America.

The existing regime would then have to face the prospect of being brought down and replaced by still more energetically anti-American governments or, in trying to avoid that, must seek to appease them by proving their own militant, nationalist credentials, among other things this would mean not cooperating with the United States.

And, ironically, by abandoning one ally, Israel, the United States would seem to be a less reliable protector to Arabic-speaking states. If Washington could throw Israel under the bus, how long will it take for the United States to sell them out also?

As for the enemies, well, they would remain enemies. That list includes: non-Arab Iran, Libya, Sudan, and Syria. They would not say, “Those Americans are really great! They finally dumped Israel!”

They would say: “America is in decline. It is only a matter of time until it falls. The United States is weak and fears us. Let’s redouble our efforts to overthrow the traitorous puppet regimes and expel U.S. influence from the Middle East! ”

Oh, wait! They already say that. But they’ll say it even more. The fact that America is seen by them as the main barrier preventing them from taking power in every Muslim-majority state—and possibly moving on from there to world conquest—is still enough to keep their enmity red-hot. A nuclear-armed Iran would preen as the leader of these forces which, while exaggerated, is enough of a reality to propel Iran into being the most powerful regional power.

So while it looks good at first glance, dumping Israel is not going to solve even a reasonable portion of America’s problems in the region. Such a move would generate a lot more instability. As for Arab-Israeli peace, well that wouldn’t be on the agenda any more. Why bother making peace with a country you believe is about to be exterminated.

Now, if America’s dumping Israel isn’t going to greatly improve US. Prospects in the region, or the welfare of the region in general, do you think that stopping construction on settlements will do so? Making speeches about how much one respects Islam? Renaming the “war on terrorism” as the “war on al-Qaida and its allies?”

Let’s face it—even if Western policymakers won’t—there are no easy ways out of the Middle East’s problems and conflicts

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