Israel and America
Dennis Ross is a diplomat with an impressive bipartisan portfolio. With the exception of Bush 43, he has served every presidential administration since Jimmy Carter’s. A lifelong Democrat, he nonetheless worked on Bush 41’s campaign in 1988 but in 2008 voted for Barack Obama, who, in 2009, tapped him as his special assistant to “quarterback” Middle East issues.
He stepped down from that post after two years, and he doesn’t indicate herein whether he voted for Obama a second time. Ross is critical of Obama’s foreign policy in his fourth book, "Doomed to Succeed: The US-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama," but he finds fault with his predecessors as well. For example, he reports leaving the Reagan administration in “frustration over the dysfunctions of our Lebanon policy.”
In this well researched history Ross meticulously chronicles the bumpy ride that the two nations have taken together since 1948, when Harry Truman surprised virtually all of his senior advisers by recognizing the nascent state of Israel. The author points out that had Franklin Roosevelt lived to serve out his fourth term, the story may well have started differently.
Indeed, in the beginning there was great ambivalence in the official American attitude toward Israel. The United States didn’t sell arms to Israel until 1962 and the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit the White House was Levi Eshkol in 1964. When Israel, along with Britain and France, invaded Egypt in 1956 after that nation had nationalized the Suez Canal, President Dwight Eisenhower’s disapproval with swift and forceful. It came the week before the American presidential election.
Among the arguments that Ross advances is that while political pressure from Jewish Americans and lobbying organizations like AIPAC is manifestly much greater today, their blandishments rarely carry the day when US presidents decide that America’s interests lie elsewhere. The extraordinary but failed campaign to nix the nuclear deal with Iran is but the most recent example.
Ross sees that unprecedented effort by Israel and its supporters as an unfortunate aberration, writing: “The contrived Boehner invitation to [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress fooled no one and was a mistake.… [T]ies to Israel must remain an American interest – not a Republican or Democratic one.”
Ross clearly is a strong supporter of Israel, and has been criticized in some quarters as tilting too far in that direction – even while serving various presidents to advance peace initiatives in the Middle East. The theme he comes back to over and over again in this book is that American policymakers too often believe that creating distance between Washington and Jerusalem is a sure way to curry favor with Arab nations.
It simply isn’t so and has proven not to be so, but the tactic won’t die, according to Ross. Conversely, supporting Israel when the chips are down rarely brings the calamitous consequences that Arabists in the State Department, among others, have routinely predicted. Truman’s support for the partition of Palestine and his recognition of Israel, according to top advisers like George Kennan, was going to produce terrible ramifications for the United States. Their dire predictions did not come to pass, Ross points out, then or in later cases as well.
What American policymakers often overlook, Ross opines, is that Arab states have other more pressing concerns than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He cites Saudi Arabia, insisting that nation has been more concerned in recent years with America’s policy toward Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt than with Israel or the Obama administration’s latest peace initiative.
For all the ups and downs in the American-Israel relationship, it clearly has grown stronger over time. And while many European allies blame Israel for the lack of progress on peace with the Palestinians, Ross disagrees. He is pessimistic about current peace prospects largely because of Palestinian intractability and lack of commitment from America’s Arab allies, of whom he writes: “Yes, they want us to make it go away – provided we ask little of them.”
The author, who supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, is critical of Obama for not being more assertive in Syria, in particular for declaring a “redline” should the Assad regime use chemical weapons – and then not following through forcefully when that line was crossed. He writes that this unsettled our allies in the region, Israelis and Arabs alike.
Harking back to Richard Nixon’s support of Jordan against Syria in 1970, Ross writes that Obama needs to do “something similar” to shore up American credibility in the region: “to successfully set ISIS back in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere while also credibly building the Syrian opposition to Assad.” He goes on to add a caveat to that statement: “My point is not to argue for such a shift in American policy per se, though I do believe some demonstrations of effective American power are needed in the Middle East and elsewhere.”
This book is both thoughtful and largely even-handed. It also provides an important eyewitness account of the history it analyses. It would be fair, however, to expect the author to do what he censures others for not doing: learn lessons from the results of policy decisions that achieve unexpected (and unfortunate) results. In 2003 Ross insisted that invading Iraq would achieve a number of goals, among them “laying the foundation” for “establishing a peaceful, stable, democratic government in Iraq; and contributing to the democratic development of the wider Middle East.” If the author has has had any second thoughts about his support for such action, we don't hear about it in this book.