The Obama Doctrine and How America Is Disengaging From Israel

Forget the candidates' AIPAC love-in. With the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, they’re all in basic agreement with Obama: pulling back from the Middle East is crucial for America’s future.

Don Futterman
Don Futterman
President Barack Obama shown at a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office in May 2011.
President Barack Obama shown at a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office in May 2011.Credit: AP
Don Futterman
Don Futterman

The Obama Doctrine, Jeffrey Goldberg’s remarkably candid delineation of the reasoning behind President Obama’s major foreign policy decisions in the April issue of The Atlantic, should be required reading for all Israelis and supporters of Israel.

Obama says outright that the importance of the Middle East to the United States is declining because fracking and other energy sources drastically reduce American dependence on Middle East oil. What he does not say so openly, although it would seem to logically follow, is that if the Middle East matters less overall, Israel’s strategic value as an intelligence and military asset to the U.S. could remain, but would likely diminish. How much will Americans be willing to spend to protect the “only democracy in the Middle East” if they become less invested in this region in general?

Is the Middle East worth it anymore?

Goldberg quotes Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, saying that Obama believes “that overextension in the Middle East will ultimately harm our economy, harm our ability to look for other opportunities and to deal with other challenges, and, most important, endanger the lives of American service members for reasons that are not in the direct American national-security interest.” America doesn’t have boots on the ground to protect Israel, but it spends a lot of money and political capital to maintain the alliance.

The signal moment in foreign affairs, according to Goldberg, was the August 30, 2013 decision not to attack Syria when Syrian President Bashir Assad used Sarin gas to kill 1400 civilians. This was after Obama had warned that the use of chemical weapons was a red line that would change the “calculus” and the “equation.” According to Obama’s critics, as quoted in the article, he sacrificed America’s “national security credibility” – showing the U.S. to be weak and lacking the stomach for armed conflict, while Russia’s subsequent role in resolving the chemical weapons crisis enhanced Russian credibility in the region.

Obama believes that U.S. power is best demonstrated by the ability to get what you want without resorting to military force. Rather than “precipitating” America’s decline, as the foreign policy establishment hollered, Obama is proud of his decision, and sees an overall pull back in the Middle East as crucial to America’s future.

The Middle East: Morgue of Obama's good intentions

It’s far from where he began. Obama started his presidency determined to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to extend America’s hand to the Islamic world. In explaining the rationale behind his historic Cairo speech, Obama said: “My argument was this: Let’s all stop pretending that the cause of the Middle East’s problems is Israel.” He was seeking Palestinian statehood, but was also hoping to get “Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting—problems of governance, and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity.”

To his chagrin, the Middle East dominated his presidency more than he would have liked and with less to show for it; from the killing of Osama Bin Laden, to the Arab Spring to the disintegration of Libya, Iraq and Syria, the rise of ISIS, the repeated negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians which led nowhere, and the deal that was completed, with Iran.

Along the way, Goldberg explains, Obama attempted to challenge existing orthodoxies of the Washington foreign policy establishment, including the “prominent foreign-policy think tanks” which Obama saw as “doing the bidding of their Arab and pro-Israel funders.” Goldberg reports that Obama “questioned often harshly, the role that America’s Sunni Arab allies play in fomenting anti-American terrorism,”; he distrusted the Saudis from the outset, because of their financial sponsorship of anti-Western extremist Wahhabi Islam across the Sunni Muslim world.

Is Israel worth it anymore?

But according to former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta, Obama also “questioned why the U.S. should maintain Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge, which grants it access to more sophisticated weapons systems than America’s Arab allies receive.”

The pro-Israel Obama-bashers will say this shows the president’s commitment to Israel was not locked-in. But whatever intellectual exercise he conducted with Panetta, it’s clear what he decided to do: Obama increased military aid to Israel to unprecedented levels, along with intelligence sharing and coordination. If we consider his vetoes as needed at the UN Security Council, and his efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama should obviously be considered a staunch supporter of Israel. All this despite the constant barrage of anti-Obama rhetoric from the Likud-Republican alliance, which started from day one of his first term.

Obama told Goldberg, “It would be a moral failing for me as president of the United States” not to defend Israel,” and he has lived up to those words. On Iran, Obama has taken a gamble, but he believes he has made Iran less dangerous, benefitting Israel directly. Obama’s greatest weakness may be his inability to trumpet and take credit for his accomplishments regarding Israel, or for that matter, in any arena.

A singular antipathy: Obama and Netanyahu

Obama’s singular antipathy toward Prime Minister Netanyahu stems from his belief that Netanyahu has been capable of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians but lacks the courage to do so. Netanyahu would not take risks for peace that might expose Israel to additional security threats, but primarily he would not take risks that might endanger his own political future. This is not news, and since most Israelis don’t like Netanyahu either, it’s not hard for us to understand Obama’s attitude, but it makes for uncomfortable reading to hear it spelled out so plainly.

Obama is ending his second term repulsed by the vicious tribalism and chaos characterizing numerous Arab and North African states, and exasperated by Israeli stalling tactics. He sees little hope for change in the Middle East and is frustrated by how much energy his administration has spent on trying to help nations that cannot or choose not to help themselves. With reduced dependence on Middle Eastern oil, Obama has been leading a U.S. turn away from the Middle East toward Asia – seen as the key to America’s financial future.

Goldberg calls Obama “Spockian,” in his ability to rationally assess costs and benefits, and not to get caught up in the emotions of the moment, no matter how high pressured. But this term also applies to Obama’s failure to feel the public’s emotional temperature, to communicate through the political exercise of arousing and manipulating passions, or for that matter, to make the effort to clearly explain his thinking, as he does, at long last, in this article.

The next president won't stray far

What’s to come? Even if the next American president accepts only parts of the Obama Doctrine, he or she will be far less disposed to investing the resources or political capital currently spent on Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan and Egypt and focus more exclusively on reining in ISIS, Iran or the Saudis.

The chaos around us has already proven Obama’s point that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not the cause of internal tensions in Arab and North African countries. But the lack of progress on the peace front coupled with our declining strategic importance will likely deter the next President from attempting to resolve Israel’s differences with our Palestinian neighbors.

His successor will certainly give Obama’s arguments a serious hearing, and will likely adhere to his course more closely than he or she is willing to admit during campaign season.

The candidates echo Obama

There are echoes of Obama’s calls for Western and Arab allies of the U.S. to share more of the defense costs and operational burden in Donald Trump’s recent New York Times interview; less elegantly stated, but not entirely different. Bernie Sanders is not likely to call for increased military intervention in the Middle East. Ted Cruz has his evangelical rah-rah Israel side, but also his isolationist side. Hilary Clinton is an internationalist like Obama, although more interventionist, and in Obama’s view, less of a realist regarding the limits of American power. But her track record as secretary of state in this region was hardly stellar.

As president, Clinton would seem to be the least unpredictable of the lot, but she could also go several different ways. She could serve up the “Israel is right” pap she delivered to please the AIPAC-Likud crowd in Washington. She could go back to pushing the two-state solution, although she’s given no indication that she has any new ideas on how to bring that about. Or, like Obama, she could say: “We like you, but we tried that already. Let’s do something else, somewhere else.”

Right now, the candidates are competing to prove their allegiance to Israel, but if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict drove President Obama to despair, it’s easy to imagine a President Trump or Cruz or Sanders deciding to cut their losses and go beyond the Obama Doctrine; to be big, to be strong, and to stay at home. The Jewish community and Israel’s evangelical allies would be upset, but most Americans wouldn’t lose too much sleep over it.

Don Futterman is the Program Director for Israel for the Moriah Fund, a private American Foundation, which works to strengthen democracy and civil society in Israel. He can be heard weekly on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast.

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