“So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.” – President Barack Obama, 19 May 2011
With that statement, president Obama started a firestorm of howls and complaints from the Right. No doubt the chorus grows as I write, but I’m not watching the news right now. Before launching into a discussion of the president’s speech (text and video here), let’s go back to the foundations of government and consider U.S. foreign policy in this case. (We will also, doubtless, touch again on the foundations of the Arab-Israeli conflict.)
The Role of Government
I hold that the role of government, in a democracy or any other government that is formed of, by, and for the people, is collective, organized defense of individual rights. We form governments to ensure that the rights of individuals are protected – those rights including life, liberty, and property (which derives from life and liberty).
The Basis of Foreign Policy
In such a context, we must hold that the basis of sound foreign policy ties back to defense of the citizenry and their individual liberties. That is, our foreign policy choices must be based in our need to defend the life, liberty, and property of U.S. citizens.
I have said on a number of occasions that I am willing to accept broad-sweeping, realpolitik arguments on foreign policy as it relates to life, liberty, and property. That is, constraining foreign policy to defense of individual liberties is not the same thing as isolationism. In WWII we would have saved lives and money had we taken a more aggressive stance against Germany and Japan before Pearl Harbor. (Hindsight’s 20-20, of course, and I don’t intend that statement to be a critique of Roosevelt or U.S. policies of the day.)
The Basis of Pro-Israeli Policies in the U.S.
So, what is the argument for the traditional pro-Israeli policies of the U.S. government? Originally I suppose it drew upon sympathies for Jewish survivors of the Nazi holocaust; but I suspect that is no longer a motivation. During the Cold War there we tended to hold that we should be allied with the lone democracy in the region (Israel); that they were the only country we could solidly count on to side with us if a regional conflict broke out. Alas, the Cold War has gone though. I the absence of these I can conjecture a number of possible motivations, of which I will list three.
Genesis 12:3. God told Abraham that He would bless the people who bless him (Abraham) and curse the people who curse him. Christians have long held that this extends to the Jews, and thus a nation does itself a service to side with Israel. On the Biblical merits, I think I agree – but I don’t think this is a basis for foreign policy (but I get ahead of myself).
Regional Interests. This one is always a tricky one. We’re always talking about “U.S. interests” in some very broad sense. I think usually it means oil, but this time maybe not. There is a modestly reasonable argument that jihadists are here to stay, and as long as Israel is around then they serve as a more ready target. Further, if Israel ever ceased to exist, then the jihadists would only be emboldened to press their successes and attempt to take down the U.S. (this is akin to the anti-isolationism argument – stay out there so long as there is a gathering threat).
Politics. While the above two are primarily “right wing” in their considerations, this one is decidedly “left wing.” A significant majority of American Jews are (i) consistent voters and (ii) liberals. Any left-wing president (or politician for that matter) runs the risk of alienating a portion of his base if he moves on anti-Israeli policies.
What I Think
OK, now that we’ve laid the groundwork, let me quickly tell you, dear reader, how I view the situation. I don’t buy the above three arguments – precisely because of what it means in regards to democratic governance.
I have said time and again that supporting welfare policies means using the force of government to appropriate from the wealth (and therefore the life and liberty) of your neighbors to spend money on the impoverished as you see fit. This is absurd, for the Christian. If you want to help the poor, you are free to do so with your own money any time you wish. To seize the property of others for your “benevolent” actions is criminal.
In like fashion, supporting a pro-Israeli U.S. foreign policy, which necessarily involves financial aid and the potential for military support, requires that we appropriate the property of our neighbors to support our foreign policy goals. This is absurd, and perhaps even criminal. If you want to support the nation of Israel, you are well able to open your checkbook and make a donation; or emigrate and join the military for that matter. You don’t have to force your neighbors to support them too.
If you support Israel from the Genesis 12:3 standpoint, then rest assured that God will honor your individual and personal efforts. (Side note, though, it seems hardly likely throughout the history of the Church that we have ever taken an aggressive stance on materiel support for Israel. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong … be warned though, the first invitation to “correct me” is usually a trap.)
If you support Israel from the “regional interest” standpoint, then let me add that oil should not be a strategic driver for foreign policy. If it is, then let us simply invade Saudi Arabia and take it all (it would cost less and profit more – and we are well able to do it). I’m not saying we should do such an absurd thing – but if oil is driving us then it could just as easily drive us to that conclusion. As for the jihadist argument, well, there may be something to it. It seems a bit of a stretch though.
And, if your support for Israel is political (to garner votes back home), then shame on you. Shame on you for using public funds and the lives of brave servicemen to further your political career. (Not that it doesn’t happen all the time.)
No, in the face of these, I actually do fall much closer to an isolationist (though I am not in principle). We ought to pull foreign aid funding from Israel and all of the surrounding Arab countries. Let them work out their differences on their own. We haven’t really helped.
As for the speech, I thought the 1967 borders remark was a bit ludicrous. Let me rephrase it for you: “Israel will give up a security buffer that it procured in one of the many wars where it whupped the surrounding Arabs. In exchange for surrendering massive swaths of controlled territory, Israel will get assurances that Hamas and others will stop firing rockets into Israel. Of course, the last few times they swapped land for peace they kept getting barraged with rockets … but this time it will be different. Honest.”
Honestly, Mr. president, how do you expect people to take you seriously? You just came out and said “Hamas has been attacking Israel relentlessly, and this must stop – by Israel capitulating.” How about making some unambiguous, detached and free-standing statements about Hamas’ rocket firing activities? How about condemning it apart from any comments on the rest of the peace process? If you can’t do that, I’m hard-pressed to view your policies as any more than “Israel, if you don’t give in, Hamas will keep attacking you … it’s your fault really, and they can’t help themselves, so you really ought to just get over your hangups regarding the 1967 borders and give in.”
The fallout tomorrow could be quite interesting. So far, we see that Benjamin Netanyahu has had a sharp rebuke for the president. This could go hot really quickly.
Now, personally, I’m quite pro-Israel. I just don’t think that must translate into interventionism on their behalf (or on the behalf of the Palestinians). I think we can stay out of it and have success. In fact, I think taking the U.S. and the international community out of the picture makes the implications and consequences of the peace process far more real – and thus it is far more likely to produce a solution.