Israel's Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren got himself into a bit of diplomatic hot water recently when Ha'aretz reported that in a private briefing of foreign ministry officials he described the U.S.-Israel relations as at their all-time nadir, after a "tectonic rift" between the two countries. The report was doubly embarrassing for Oren. For one thing, no Israeli government wants to admit to a rift with its most important ally. Second, he had just given a long interview to the Jerusalem Post, in which he downplayed reports of tensions between the U.S. and Israel, and, in general, stressed the solidity of the relationship.
Oren hurried to deny the remarks attributed to him by Ha'aretz. He denied speaking of a "tectonic rift." Rather, he said, he had described a "tectonic shift" in America's entire foreign policy thinking – of which its relationship with Israel was only a by-product, not a direct target.
I'm inclined to accept Oren's account. First, on textual grounds – "tectonic shift," is a common phrase, using a well-documented natural phenomenon as a metaphor; the phrase "tectonic rift," does not, as far as I know, exist. Second, Oren is far too bright not to have known that anything said to a private briefing to Israeli diplomats would be leaked immediately, and therefore he was unlikely to have directly contradicted his publicly expressed views of approximately the same day.
That said, I also don't think it very much matters from Israel's point of view: the tectonic shift in American foreign-policy thinking is quite disastrous enough for Israel, even if the consequences for Israel are only indirect. The central element in that tectonic shift is President Obama's ambivalence about American leadership in the world and discomfort with America's superpower status. That reluctance to lead is reflected in a much greater insistence on acting primarily through supra-national bodies such as the United Nations, which are viewed as conferring legitimacy on actions that unilateral action cannot.
Unfortunately, democracies constitute a minority of the member nations of the United Nations. But that does not trouble President Obama, as it did his predecessor, since he has made it clear that the image of America as a beacon of liberty to the world exercises little appeal for him. Thus he offered only the most belated and lukewarm support to protestors in Iran, after that nation's rigged election. And he reneged on American promises to provide anti-missile defenses to nascent Eastern European democracies, bordering Russia, in order to cultivate better relations with the Russian bear.
Finally, the President is a great believer in the power of talk and making nice to sway the course of nations. Thus, his outreach to various tyrants in Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. As Morton Zuckerman puts it, "[Obama] is one of those people who believe that the world was born with the word and exists by means of persuasion, such that there is no person or country that you cannot, by means of logical and moral argument, bring around to your side." That point of view necessarily plays down the force of religion and cultural differences – the President has frequently called upon the peoples of the world to cease defining themselves in terms of their differences – and assumes that virtually everyone acts according the same rational calculus.
Each of these shifts and their corollaries has obvious implications for Israel. An America bent on getting along with everybody else, rather than leading, will inevitably be more distant from Israel simply because most nations are unsympathetic to Israel and not too keen in appreciating the threats under which Israelis live. And if getting along means making the United States subservient to the United Nations, the situation is even worse, given that much of the U.N.'s apparatus functions largely to delegitimize Israel.
If America no longer believes in itself as exceptional or sees its mission as promoting freedom worldwide, then its ties with Israel as another beacon of freedom and defender of the values of civilization, in a decidedly uncivilized region, will be diminished accordingly. The affinity that most Americans have traditionally felt for Israel has much to do with a vision of both nations as "chosen" people, with a mission to advance common values.
ONE ASPECT OF THE TECTONIC SHIFT deserves particular attention: the Obama administration's refusal to define radical Islam as a primary threat to the United States. The new National Security Strategy document pointedly omits any reference to radical Islam. At most, the document concedes that the United States confronts a "loose network of violent extremists." But it will not describe the glue binding the members of that loose network: Islamism, i.e., the variant strains of Moslem Brotherhood ideology, which proclaims Moslems have no nation other than Islam, and world-wide dominion is its goal.
At most, the Obama administration describes the network of violent extremists as "Al Qaeda and it affiliates." But this is to return to the law enforcement mode of combating terrorism – round up the bad-guys or kill them. Al-Qaeda is just one of numerous Moslem Brotherhood offshoots that share a common ideology, not a command structure. Focusing on Al Qaeda ignores the true nature of the enemy. When more than 50 Ugandan soccer fans were killed by terrorist bombs while watching the World Cup soccer final, few doubted that the perpetrators would be Islamists, imitative of Al-Qaeda's tactics but not under its direction.
The law enforcement model partly explains the Democrats preference for the war in Afghanistan as the "good war" (to the extent that was not just a rhetorical device to attack President Bush, without appearing weak on defense.) Yet Afghanistan has proven even more intractable than Iraq, while the country's strategic value to the United States is infinitesimal compared that of Iraq.
In this reluctance to face the world as it is, and not as they would like it to be, the Obama administration is well within the mainstream of Western intellectual discourse. Paul Berman, author of the recently published The Flight of the Intellectuals, describes some of the things that it is no longer respectable to say in better company: (1) Islamism is a modern political tendency, which arose in a spirit of fraternal harmony with the fascists of Europe in the 1930s and 40s; (2) Nazi inspirations have visibly taken root among present-day Islamists, notably in regard to the demonic nature of Jewish conspiracies and the virtues of genocide; and (3) By inducing intellectuals to maintain a discreet and respectful silence on these awkward matters, the Islamist preachers and ideologues have succeeded in imposing on the rest of us their own categories of analysis.
The lengths the Obama administration has been prepared to go in refusing to see the forest would be laughable were the consequences were not so serious. Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Tex) tried to get Attorney-General Eric Holder to admit that their Islamist beliefs might have motivated, Major Dr. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Ft. Hood assassin of 13; Faisal Shahaad, the Times Square bomber; and the x-mas day bomber. In round after round of questions, Holder kept repeating that people have many possible motivations, until Smith finally gave up in exasperation. The 80-plus page report issued by the Pentagon on the Fort Hood massacre made not one mention of Dr. Hasan's radical Islamist beliefs, despite his calling out Alla-hu Akhbar before launching his assault. The report claimed that "religious fundamentalism alone is not a risk factor" for such mass slayings, to which Charles Krauthamer responded, "It is the only risk factor."
One would like to believe that when the President and his advisors are alone in the room they are slightly more in touch with reality, and simply don't want to rile up the Muslim world by stating the obvious. The evidence, however, is to the contrary. Those who do not follow Sun-Tzu's first rule for military success, "Know the enemy," will not taste victory. The President's anti-terrorism czar John O. Brennan has, for instance, pointed to moderate tendencies within Hizbullah, citing the fact that Hizbullah's ranks include "lawyers and doctors." What does it tell us that the anti-terrorism czar appear blissfully unaware that most of Islam's arch-terrorists in recent decades – "Islam's Nowhere Men" brilliantly captured by Fouad Ajami in a May 10 Wall Street Journal piece – have been Western-educated products of the upper middle-class backgrounds, many of them doctors.
A recent Red Team report prepared by U.S. Military's Central Command (CENTCOM) argues that the United States should reach out to Hizbullah and Hamas, which are described as primarily "pragmatic and opportunistic." While the Red Team is charged with providing a contrarian view, and does not represent current American policy, that such views have prominent advocates in the U.S. military is truly ominous, for it shows a complete failure to grasp the power of religious ideology in general, and of Islamist ideology in particular.
The current U.S. administration's refusal to acknowledge that Islamism is central to many of the greatest threats to America has obvious consequences for Israel. Downplaying religion in general as a motivating factor, makes it hard for American policymakers to understand why it is so hard for the Palestinians to modify any of their positions. Instead the Palestinians positions are treated as nothing more than rhetorical posturing about which they are not serious. As a consequence, American policymakers do not comprehend how far away peace really is, and how unrealistic it is to expect its achievement to depend primarily on the nostrum of negotiations. A second consequence of the persistent downplaying of Islamism as a threat is that Israel is no longer viewed as on the front-line of a struggle that threatens the entire West.
Finally, the ignoring of theology made it impossible for the Obami to understand how slight were the chances of Iran responding positively to any blandishments and an American open hand. Nor have they fully comprehended the danger of a nuclear Iran, ruled by a theology of Islamic expansionism. Iran's increased prestige in the Moslem world following the achievement of a nuclear capability will give a boost to all Islamist groups and bolster the Islamist narrative of Islam ascendant.
President Obama's foreign policy has been largely predicated on a desire to reach out to the Moslem world. Both the "engagement" with Iran and the refusal to discuss Islamism as an enemy partake of that desire, as does the distancing of the administration from Israel (last week's positive atmospherics notwithstanding). Ironically, however, these steps have terrified America's strongest allies in the Arab world. The Sunni states have spoken with one voice in urging a firmer policy towards Iran.
Though those states bear no love towards Israel, they have nevertheless been frightened by the administration's attempts to put daylight between Israel and the United States, which for them calls into question for them American resolve and credibility. Mort Zuckerman quotes a renowned Asian leader as stating at a recent dinner party, "We in Asia are convinced that Obama is not strong enough to confront his opponents, but we fear that he is not strong enough to support his friends." When the Sunni states look at the administration's distancing from Israel, they wonder the same thing.