This post is a week late in coming, since I had planned on writing it last Friday until the O&Z equivalent of the moon landing happened when Israel and Turkey patched things up and relegated today’s thoughts to the sidelines. On President Obama’s arrival in Israel last week, Andrew Sullivan wrote a post titled Barack Obama vs. George Washington in which he juxtaposed Washington’s famous “passionate attachment” farewell speech in which he warned about making entangling alliances with Obama’s speech at Ben Gurion airport after landing in Israel. The relevant Washington passages that Andrew quoted are as follows:
The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest…
So likewise, a passionate attachment of one Nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite Nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest, in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite Nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the Nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained; and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens, (who devote themselves to the favorite nation,) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.
Andrew then quoted Obama, who said, “So as I begin this visit, let me say as clearly as I can –the United States of America stands with the State of Israel because it is in our fundamental national security interest to stand with Israel. It makes us both stronger. It makes us both more prosperous. And it makes the world a better place. That’s why the United States was the very first nation to recognize the State of Israel 65 years ago. That’s why the Star of David and the Stars and Stripes fly together today. And that is why I’m confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, it is forever – lanetzach.”
Andrew’s commentary on this was that Washington would have regarded Obama’s statements as “deeply corrosive of foreign policy and domestic governance” and that this is the primary reason we may be headed to war again in the Middle East. In other words, the relationship with Israel is harmful because the U.S. should be avoiding eternal alliances or unbreakable relationships per Washington’s exhortation, and his words are just as relevant today as they were when he delivered them in 1796.
To my mind, there are two big problems with this line of reasoning. First, the notion that anything uttered about foreign affairs in 1796, when both the world and the U.S. position in it have changed so much, is to be taken as absolute gospel to be followed in 2013 is preposterous. The U.S. has gone from being a relative backwater to being the world’s preeminent hegemonic power, communications and transportation technology have revolutionized the way states interact, the dangers that states face have been transformed in ways that would have been unrecognizable in the 18th century – much as the dangers states will face 100 years from now are probably not being accurately predicted today – and diplomacy looks nothing like it did in Washington’s day. That is not to say that Washington’s warning is useless by any means, but not updating it or putting it into context based on the 21st century world seems foolhardy.
Furthermore, Andrew himself recognizes this fact when it comes to nearly every other aspect of politics, culture, social transformation, legal theory, and philosophy. To begin with, he describes himself as a Burkean conservative, a philosophy which expressly takes into account the fact that the world is constantly changing and that principles are therefore not immutable but need to be updated. In Andrew’s own words:
Burke’s fundamental point is that everything in society is contingent and that change must always begin with what came before and is most successful when it works inferentially from that tradition rather than being imposed from outside according to abstract theories or texts. Tradition is also a very expansive term. An American can reach back deeply into the American past and resurrect an ancient tradition and make it fresh again – thus appearing to be quite radical, while still fitting into the definition of a Burkean conservative. It is always up to the statesman at any period of time to make a prudential judgment about what change is good and what isn’t.
Hence, to a liberal who wants a clear and timeless theory about what makes something just or unjust, right or wrong, Burke looks unprincipled.
This does not mean that a Burkean conservative cannot look to Washington’s statement and determine that it is still relevant, but Andrew has not gone through that process in his writing. Instead, he takes it as an article of faith that Washington’s words are timeless and that any policy that contradicts those words must be inherently bad. What is so striking about this is that in his advocacy for marriage equality, Andrew appeals directly to Burkean conservatism – and rightly so, in my view – to make the case that traditional morals in this area should have no bearing on government policy today. I have little doubt that George Washington would have been opposed to gay marriage had someone suggested the possibility to him; if he had given a speech warning about the evils of marriage equality and warning about its potential to corrode traditional notions of family, Andrew would correctly dismiss it as being a product of a far different era. Yet when it comes to foreign affairs, no such discernment is evident in Andrew’s discussion of whether 200 year old advice on how the U.S. should interact with other states needs some updating.
Second, Andrew’s quotes from Washington’s speech are truncated. Here is the paragraph that follows the one with which Andrew ends, and the concluding line:
As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the Public Councils! Such an attachment of a small or weak, towards a great and powerful nation, dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter…
The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.
It is clear from this passage that Washington had a very specific fear in mind, which was the attachment of the U.S. as a small and weak nation to a larger more powerful nation, as that would make the U.S. little more than a satellite or client state of its stronger ally. Washington also saw no reason to have relations with other states for purposes other than commercial ones, which made sense in an era in which the U.S. was protected by two oceans and had little need for security alliances or to take defense considerations into account. All that mattered was trade, since the rest was irrelevant. In this light, taking Washington’s warning as an iron rule makes even less sense, and applying it to Israel – which is the smaller and weaker state in this relationship and not the other way around – stretches the boundaries of absurdity. While there is certainly a conspiracy theory crowd that would argue that Israel is using its influence, in Washington’s words, “to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the Public Councils,” I don’t think Andrew is quite there. Washington was concerned given the U.S. position in the international system at that time, but as the world’s strongest country, if anything his advice should now be flipped on its head. The U.S. simply cannot avoid making entangling alliances with countries; indeed, the entire post-WWII order created by the U.S. is predicated on the assumption that we will be doing exactly that. I understand why using Washington’s words as a way to bash the U.S.-Israel relationship seems attractive, but it rests on a number of extremely shaky fallacies.
There are plenty of arguments to be made about why the U.S. should distance itself somewhat from Israel. I do not agree with them, as I think the U.S. benefits from the relationship in many ways that its benefits outweigh its drawbacks, but there are cogent debates to be had. Referring back to a 200 year old speech that assumed a very different place in the world for the U.S. is not a serious argument though, and that goes doubly for someone who is so eloquent in his advocacy of throwing out traditions and practices that no longer apply to changed circumstances.
Can you talk a little bit more about some of the benefits the US receives from its strategic alliance with Israel? Some of them seem self-evident (security, technology, etc) but are rarely unpacked in a comprehensive manner. I would love to hear your extended take on it.
The biggest one is intelligence. The Mossad is generally viewed as having better human intelligence assets in the region than any other country, and the CIA and the Mossad have tight links. There is also lots of military cooperation that takes place, including Israeli tinkering with U.S. military hardware and adapting it for different situations. Some people also point to Israeli real-time testing of American-made weapons, like the Patriot and Arrow systems, although I think that one is a bit overblown. Finally, there’s a sort of passive benefit of keeping Israel close and in doing so stopping extensive sales of Israeli weapons systems to China, which the U.S. has shut down in the past because it has so much leverage with Israel.
Examples: Anti-IED armor for vehicles was from Israel and, when put it vehicles, saved many American lives. Iron Dome was technology the US wanted for itself & Israel was a good testing ground and setting for native engineers to make adjustments.
Another general advantage that has become important for the US is the medical expertise that is developed and is picked up by the United States (particularly with the close links between US hospitals & Israeli doctors). If there becomes a full-on war zone in Israel the medical research will fall apart and the United States loses out
I was going to ask the same thing: what are all these suposed benefits we reap from Israel, especially with the end of the cold war? And their is a passionate – at least irrational – attachment. We do not even publically hint at Israel’s blatant violation of international conventions we are bound to uphold. Our image as a fair and humane power has suffered immensely because of our unqualified support for Israel. The security of Israel, while perhaps of interest to us, has nothing to do with the secutiry of the US. She is not useful as a military ally because her presence outrages virtually every non-European nation. And I realize that you refuse to believe there is much connection between the zionist lobbies and our foreign policy – how then does one explain this frequently harmful (to the US) yet always praised alliance, esp when our ally is busy insulting us and ignoring our interests? Am I missing something here? My field is antiquity, but as an historian I am at a loss to explain this unique phenomenon without reference to domestic concerns and the fear of being labeled anti-semite. Hit me with the explanation.
I think you are overstating some of this. It is not true that we do not even publicly hint at Israeli bad behavior; a quick Google search will turn up repeated condemnation of Israeli settlement building across administrations. It is also not true that Israel’s presence “outrages virtually every non-European nation.” Many countries in Europe do not like Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, but if you think that they detest Israel’s very existence, I am curious where you get your news from. I also have never stated that AIPAC and similar groups aren’t powerful or that they don’t impact U.S. policy, but their role is enormously overstated given public opinion that massively favors Israel over the Palestinians. I published a long article on this issue in Security Studies in 2011 – please email me and I’d be happy to send it your way.
OK, I got a bit carried away and you were right to question my sweeping generalizations. I must think as an historian rather than the polemicist always trying to burst out. Israel does that to me. Sure, send me your piece – I enjoy your stuff.
The U.S.-Israeli relationship does carry some strategic benefits, but these benefits needn’t come with the almost uncritical adoration the U.S. affords Israel. Sullivan is perfectly right to use George Washington’s words in this manner. No matter the era or international system, it is never good for one country to become so infatuated with another that politicians cannot criticize said country without being attacked. Nor is it good to declare we will stand with another country no matter what and will even back them if they start a war. His warnings about becoming a slave to passions and true patriots being smeared with suspicion (Hagel) still ring true today.
You mention U.S. criticism of Israeli settlements but leave out that these words have almost never been backed up by any kind of punitive action (Bush I is the only exception that comes to mind). On the contrary, the Palestinians go to the UN to receive statehood and the U.S. immediately cuts their funding and pulls out of several UN bodies.
I also take issue with your comparison to gay marriage. Using tradition as an argument against gay marriage is misguided it espouses no reasons for the ban other than things have always been done this way. To the contrary, Washington is giving specific reasons why an irrational attachment to foreign nations is bad (attachment overcomes reason, enables foreign influence, ruins America’s ability to project a virtuous example, will lead to unnecessary conflict, causes the nation to part with things it should keep etc). These are serious problems no matter the composition of the international system and America’s place within it. There is still no good reason to afford Israel uncritical praise and declare our alliance with them is eternal. How would Mossad-CIA cooperation be jeopardized if the U.S. actually backed its anti-settlement rhetoric with words, especially since it appears that Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs are more dovish than the politicians? Why doesn’t security cooperation have to be accompanied with unbreakable bonds?
Sullivan may want to make a point analogous to the one Washington made but that does not excuse taking Washington out of context and using it as purported authority for a quite different point. As the full context makes clear — and as one could see from similar points made in the Federalist Papers — there was a concern in the early Republic that the U.S. focus on trade and not become entangled in Europe’s political disputes. None of what Washington said has anything to do with whether a particular alliance in a very difficult part of the world 200 years later is wise or should be calibrated differently.
Moreover when one considers the neighborhood one has to consider the potential for other country’s misreading the strength of the alliance that is intended by the United States. See, e.g., Erdogan and his periodic Zionism is the root of all evil while Sudan — Sudan of all places! — does no wrong.
The notion that Obama has shown Israel uncritical adoration is strikingly at odds with the largely negative reaction to Obama over his first term. Much of the Israeli reaction is in fact attributable to U.S. criticism of settlement activity as an impediment to achieving peace and which is repeated much more often that any U.S. criticism of the “right of return” which (from an Israeli perspective) is certainly impediment to achieving peace.
But this criticism of settlement activity has not been backed up by any pressure. Military cooperation continued, intelligence sharing continued, foreign aid continued, U.S. protection at the UN continued etc. The Israeli dislike of Obama’s first term was a ridiculous overreaction to his quite reasonable observation that settlements destroy the chance for peace, not evidence that the strength of the relationship fundamentally changed. And I don’t understand the point you are trying to make with Erdogan and Zionism. What does the U.S.-Israeli relationship have to do with Erdogan making anti-Zionist statements for domestic political reasons?
The Israeli ‘overreaction’ was a response to far more than talk of settlements – GWB also spoke of settlements as counter-productive and indeed obtained assurances from the Israeli government that it would not create any more. The reaction was cumulative based on the behaviour of the Obama administration, but particularly in response to the public demand that Israel freeze all settlements which forced Abbas himself into the position where he could not negotiate without such a freeze. That, in addition to fundamentally misunderstanding the Israeli perspective by inferring that Israel’s creation was merely the result of the Holocaust, as well as comparing the experience of the Palestinians to that of African American slavery. From that point on, his popularity took a massive hit and continued to struggle. It is only now that he has rectified those two major errors.
Settlements do not destroy the chance for peace; they impact upon it. Just as the Palestinian claim of the right of return impacts on the chances for peace. The point made about Erdogan was to the effect that the US position re Israel is not presented simply for a US or Israeli or Palestinian audience but is made in light of positions taken by other states in the region. Turkey’s hostility towards Israel under Erdogan has certainly been of concern to Obama — see recent events — and, I expect, presents another reason for the manner in which the US position is stated.
Harping on settlement activity as the key issue, or a uniquely importyant issue, without regard to the numerous other issues that have to be addressed by both sides for peace to be achieved accomplishes little beyond righteous indignation. The practical effect is to make it less likely for the Palestinians to enter into direct peace talks. (Please note I am not saying settlements are not an important issue or that they should be ignored.)
Israel stopped horizontal growth because of the Bush administration. Pressure does work IF applied intelligently.
For example, if the US pressured Israel to subsidize movement away fro the Eastern edges of the settlement blocs, the Israelis would respond. If they insisted on only 1 or 2 Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that could have new housing units, with the others frozen, Netanyahu would probably oblige.
Abu Mazen demanded a settlement freeze because he felt the lack of one was a major reason why Oslo and the Path to Peace failed. Obama did not force that demand on him, it was his idea. And the settlement “freeze” can hardly be described as such, considering it exempted East Jerusalem, buildings essential for normal life and buildings whose foundations had already been laid. And despite the brouhaha over settlements, Obama continued to defend Israel at the UN, bail out their diplomats when their Egyptian Embassy was attacked and provide generous military aid. So yes, “overreaction” is an apt description. Can you please direct me to the comments regarding the Holocaust and slavery? I don’t remember those remarks.
My point in bringing up settlements was to illustrate an issue that the U.S. claims harms the peace process but does nothing about because Israel is the culprit, in comparison to their quick and punitive actions against the Palestinians for going to the UN for upgraded status. It was not to suggest that settlements are the only obstacle preventing a peace deal.
Regarding Turkey, yes, U.S. statements on Israel are intended for a global audience, but U.S. support for Israel is a long-standing policy that predates both Erodgan as premier and Erodgan the anti-Zionist. Even when the Israeli Foreign Ministry describes the relationship as “perfect”, the U.S. proclaimed the eternal and unbreakable nature of the relationship.
Great blog. I read it often.
I must disagree with your basic line of rebuttal here, however:
Washington’s argument was essentially timeless – states should base their relations on self-interest only. The analogy to same-sex marriage does not hold because that is a only an issue in a specific time and context.
Were Washington to have referred to relations with specific states, in specific context, that would be an argument we should dismiss or at least temper with the context in which he argued. But he did not.
Another 18th c thinker once offered that Canada was a few worthless acres of snow: Surely true only in that time. But Voltaire’s “Superstition sets the whole world in flames; philosophy quenches them” is surely as true today as ever.