Does U.S. Support for Israel Make America Less Safe? Edward Luttwak Says No

Does supporting Israel make America less safe? Edward N. Luttwak argues U.S. interventionism in Arab and Muslim lands generates far more anti-American sentiment.

Tsafrir Abayov / AP Photo

Does supporting Israel make America less safe? Edward N. Luttwak argues U.S. intervention in Arab and Muslim lands generates far more anti-American sentiment.

What was ponderously presented in Thaddeus Russell’s recent article on The Daily Beast as "The Question"—"Does the existence of Israel make Americans and Jews safer?"—has no relevant answer. That would not be so if the U.S. had remained an inoffensive stay-at-home power along the lines of Austria or Tonga—but for its support of Israel. Actually it has been frantically interventionist in Arab and Muslim lands since before 1945, many years before it first supplied weapons to Israel in 1968, organizing coups in Syria by 1949, landing troops in Lebanon by 1958, and is even now occupying the Mesopotamian heart of the Arab world while simultaneously warring against militant Islam in Afghanistan—where U.S. generals rather comically keep telling us who is and who is not a "true Muslim.” If and when the U.S. adopts a stay-at-home policy instead of spending borrowed money pursuing unconsciously colonialist fantasies in Muslim lands, the many American Christians and few Jews for whom little or nothing matters in foreign affairs but for Israel will be able to argue the issue with the pragmatists.

I am quite convinced that the Iraq War of 2003 was a trillion-dollar error that provokes far deeper anti-American hostility.

Even then, there would be a problem because pragmatism keeps failing when it comes to Israel.

In 1948, the five-star Army General George C. Marshall was America's ultimate military expert, as the "organizer of victory" in Churchill's phrase. At the time, he was also Truman's secretary of State, and it was in both capacities that he vehemently opposed the recognition of Israel. Others might have done so because of anti-Semitism, but not the forthright and never malevolent Marshall. It was just that he was convinced that the Arabs would defeat the outnumbered Jews, forcing the United States to intervene to try to evacuate the survivors—an impossible task given the utter lack of geographic depth. To defend them would have been utterly impossible—at the time, the chaotically demobilized U.S. Army could barely muster tiny garrisons for Occupied Germany and Japan. That is why he told Truman to his face that it was totally wrong to create false expectations by recognizing Israel.

Thaddeus Russell: Does Israel Make Us Safer?When the first Israeli ambassador to Washington, Abba Eban, eventually secured an appointment to see him, Marshall flatly refused any arms sales, pointing out that by the time any deliveries could be funded, authorized, packaged and shipped Israel would no longer exist anyway. It was thus under a total U.S. military embargo that Israel fought its first and longest and most perilous and most costly war.

All the details have long since been published, but I first heard the story in 1969 from Dean Acheson, Marshall’s successor as secretary of State, while working as an assistant to his Committee to Maintain a Prudent Defense Policy. By then the Israelis had sensationally won their 1967 war against more heavily armed Arab forces in just six days, but Acheson did not denigrate Marshall's opinions of 1948; he merely noted that war is the great contingency that often upsets the most reasoned expectations—including, in 1969, the American certitude of victory in Vietnam. Besides, Acheson noted that he had been just as opposed to Israel's recognition as Marshall had been, and while the Jews had indeed fought very well in 1948 and 1967, Israel's immediate future was very bleak.

Acheson, too, was anything but an anti-Semite and quite free of malevolence. It was just that in 1969 the armed forces of the United States and its overall military spending were disastrously overcommitted in Indochina, while the Soviet Union was launched on the immense military aggrandizement that would generate its numerical superiorities of the 1970s—and wreck its economy by the 1980s.

As Acheson saw it in 1969, the disastrous development for Israel was that the Soviet Union was focusing its efforts specifically in the Middle East, had chosen to side entirely with the Arabs, and was delivering hundreds of combat aircraft and thousands of battle tanks to Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. At the time, the U.S. armed forces had been so seduced by the seemingly recurrent malpractice of "counterinsurgency" that jungle boots were all the rage while the country's total output of battle tanks was only some 60 per month—and there were NATO armies to supply as well.

While the de facto U.S. arms embargo on Israel had finally been lifted in 1966 with the promised future sale of some light combat aircraft, the U.S. simply could not supply the mass of heavy weapons that Israel needed so very urgently—and besides, its very weak, mostly agricultural economy of 2.5 million people could not possibly support the required armed forces anyway.

In the meantime, the Soviet Union would conquer the Middle East politically, because the U.S. was both distracted by the futility of Indochina and incapacitated by its inability to cut off relations with Israel, as the Soviet Union had done. Acheson was a man of immense wisdom—he ridiculed "counterinsurgency" as the colonialism of uniformed fools—but he too was contradicted by events: Not entirely perversely, the Arabs, with Egypt in the lead, soon concluded that Moscow could do nothing for them because it did not even have diplomatic relations with Israel, let alone any influence over its government. Nor had the mass of Soviet weapons changed the military balance after all, in spite of some hard fighting in 1973.

But when another 20 years had passed in 1989, Israel was indeed almost overwhelmed by the Soviet Union, because its downfall was followed by the arrival of almost a million immigrants into Israel—the equivalent of more than 50 million for the contemporary United States. Committed to accepting all immigrants, including a great mass of old people who needed immediate pensions, the Israelis tried to borrow the money they needed to build housing, schools, and all the rest for immigrant flood.

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Given the widespread expectation that Israel's already weak economy would sink further, with hyperinflation a distinct possibility, only a U.S. guarantee could induce banks to lend the money. But President George H.W. Bush, though certainly no anti-Semite and far from malevolent, flatly refused any loan guarantee unless the Israeli government would agree to stop building new settlements in the West Bank and Gaza—the perpetual U.S. demand till now.

Everybody assumed that Bush 41 would have his way because of the very urgent need for funds, but Israel's prime minister at the time was the most imperturbable of men, Yitzhak Shamir—former member of the Stern Gang and post-1948 armed secret operative, next to whom the current, supposedly "right-wing" Bibi Netanyahu, commando officer and all, is a peace-freak pussycat. He simply refused to take Bush 41 seriously, while being entirely calm about it. Hence there was no U.S. loan guarantee until August 1992, when the accommodating Yitzhak Rabin replaced Shamir a few months before Bush himself would fail to gain reelection (in part because of evangelical and also Jewish pro-Israel opposition). But by then instead of collapsing, the Israeli economy had started its transformation into its present mode of rather fast growth, generated by an expanding spectrum of high-technology innovations. The overall result is that Israel’s population has increased by more than 10 times since 1948, but its economy has increased by almost 100 times—and today's financial challenge is not to search for loans but the excessive rise of the Israeli currency.

Almost two decades have passed since then, so it is just about the right time for another set of pessimistic theories about the future of Israel, and very negative assessments of its impact on U.S. interests. It is perhaps because of his formidable intellectual credentials (even his ultra-long, utterly unoriginal field manual is published by the Chicago University Press!) and status as a be-medaled war hero presumptive that the marvelous sense of humor of General David Howell Petraeus has gone unrecognized. Yet consider the sheer hilarity of his recent remarks: "Enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the area of responsibility.... Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples [in the region]."

Now if I had made that statement, it would still be highly debatable—Egypt blockades Gaza fully as much as Israel, and no Arab government does anything for the Palestinians but for small handouts (though still much more than Turkey's $1.08 million in 2009). Nor is Israel even minimally implicated in the current epidemic of Muslim violence that afflicts the Philippines, Thailand, India, Algeria, Nigeria, Sudan…). More than debatable therefore, though certainly not funny. But Petraeus was then the commanding officer and enthusiastic advocate of both America's war in Iraq that has ravaged the very heart of the Arab world—and of America's war against the uber-Muslim Taliban, who still very evidently retain widespread support in and beyond Afghanistan. It is the "counterinsurgency" doctrine of Petraeus that replaces the merely physical violence of bombing and shooting with the far greater intrusion of trying to capture and transform the very culture of Afghanistan. Even Osama bin Laden, whose early denunciations were all focused on America's violation of the Muslim holy land of the Arabian Peninsula (and the abolition of the caliphate, and the loss of Muslim Andalusia), soon learned to talk of not-necessarily-Muslim Palestine instead, when he realized that Western media simply assumed that it must be his first concern. So too no doubt the Pakistanis tell Petraeus that they would stop double-dealing in Afghanistan if only the U.S. would finally stop that new housing in Lower Beer Yacov or whatever.

I am not sure about that—the evidence of 1948, 1969, 1989, and all the years in between and since undermines any certitudes about Israel. But I am quite convinced that the Iraq War of 2003 was a trillion-dollar error that also provokes far deeper anti-American hostility, as does the Petraeus/Obama surge whereby we now spend $7 billion per month in the quixotic attempt to transform wife-beating Muslim Afghans into proto-New Englanders. As compared to that, Israel/Palestine is old hat, and at most a peripheral irritant.

Luttwak, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is author of the recently published The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.