Blame America First . . .


Ramesh Ponnuru

America is guilty. America is always guilty. Even when it’s attacked. So it appears, at least, to a certain type of commentator. When the Towers fell, when the Pentagon was pierced, when thousands of our countrymen were slaughtered — the America Last pundits were there to explain how we had brought these calamities on ourselves. We were attacked, they explained, because we had angered the world. Had we not walked out of the Durban conference? Had we not spurned the Kyoto Protocol? Osama bin Laden, environmentalist in a hurry.

What has drawn the most fire, of course, is America’s alliance with Israel. Critics of that alliance, on both the left and the right, have argued that but for it we would never have been attacked. The bluntest statements have appeared in the British press. In an article for the Observer called “Who Will Dare Damn Israel?” Richard Ingrams wrote that “the undeniable and central fact behind the disaster [is] that Israel is now and has been for some time an American colony.” Also in the Observer, Edward Said blamed America’s “support for the 34-year-old Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.” Similar views, more obliquely expressed, have appeared in the American media.

It follows from this position that America cannot defend itself from terrorism without disassociating itself from Israel. The thesis was expounded at length in Salon, a liberal online magazine, by its executive editor, Gary Kamiya. “We must pressure Israel to take the concrete steps necessary to provide justice for the Palestinian people,” he wrote; we must demonstrate to Islamic states “that it is a new day, that Israel is not the tail that wags the American dog.” Otherwise, we will never enjoy peace.

A more modest version of this view has found a home in the Bush administration, especially in its State Department: We must push Israel toward peace with Arab countries in order to get those countries to join our war on terrorism.

All of these supposed connections between the September 11 attacks and American policy toward Israel are extremely dubious. It is almost certainly not the case that we could have subdued our attackers’ wrath by forsaking Israel; we will probably not win friends by doing so now; and it is very unlikely the case that we must make “progress” on the Arab-Israeli conflict to fight terrorism.

Let’s start with bin Laden’s motives, about which we need not speculate. He had his declaration of jihad against America published in February 1998. (This is the document in which he declared, “To kill Americans and their allies, both civil and military, is an individual duty of every Muslim who is able.”) His bill of particulars against America mentions, first, the U.S. “occupation” of Saudi Arabia. On his deathbed, the Prophet Mohammed is said to have demanded that only Muslims dwell in the holy land of Arabia; the American presence — a presence that we do not maintain, please note, for the purpose of protecting Israel — is therefore a desecration. (The idea of killing random people to protect the holy land is, however, a modern innovation rather than orthodox Islamic doctrine.) Bin Laden’s second complaint concerns our policies against Iraq. Only then does the declaration turn to “the petty state of the Jews” and “their occupation of Jerusalem and their killing of Muslims in it.”

The radical Islamists’ broader quarrel is with American power: not with the uses of that power, but with the fact of it. We are infidels. And we are liberal, capitalist, modern, powerful, and rich; therefore hated. Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the point well when he wrote in the aftermath of the September massacres that the Islamists do not hate the West because of Israel; they hate Israel because of the West. They call us, not Israel, “the Great Satan.”

Obviously, our friendship with Israel increases the hostility of Arabs and Muslims toward us. But short of abandoning Israel altogether, what are we to do about that? It is not as though American policy has been simply and unequivocally pro-Israel. Soviet arms protected the infant state in 1948, while America imposed an embargo. America stopped Israel (along with Britain and France) from toppling the Egyptian regime in 1956, and stopped Israel from pushing for further military victories at the end of the 1973 war. Camp David was, in part, an American bribe to get Israel to return the Sinai to Egypt; and a deal between Egypt and Israel would probably have been easier to conclude had Jimmy Carter not insisted on addressing Palestinian grievances too. The Reagan administration joined the rest of the world in condemning Israel for bombing Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear plant in 1981; a year later, it helped rescue Yasser Arafat from the Israelis in Lebanon.

During the Gulf War, Washington vetoed Israel’s plans to protect itself from Iraqi missiles. In the early 1990s, the first Bush administration worked to bring down Yitzhak Shamir’s government because it was deemed too intransigent toward the Palestinians; in the late 1990s, the Clinton administration worked against Netanyahu’s government for the same reason. There is good reason to think that it was American pressure that brought Israel in 1993 to Oslo and thereafter kept it participating in the “peace process” inaugurated there.

The point is not that America has been anti-Israel, which would be an absurd contention. It is that Kamiya’s counsel that it is “time for America to start throwing its weight around . . . with Israel” comes much too late. Israel does not wag the American dog. A policy of pressure on Israel would not be a bold departure from past policy. It would be more of the same. And it is worth noting that none of these calibrations of American policy have bought us any credit among those who hate us (nor, for that matter, have our military interventions to save Muslims’ lives in Bosnia and Kosovo).

For decades, many of us have preferred to pretend that Arabs’ demands of Israel were moderate and reasonable, and that we could appease them with moderate and reasonable policies of our own. But it should now be clear for all with eyes to see that their hostility to Israel is not primarily about settlements on the West Bank or even the occupation (what’s left of it). They oppose the Jewish state’s existence. Their solution to the “Arab-Israeli problem” is the final solution: Israel’s destruction. As long as Americans are an obstacle to that dream, it will be held against us.

Yet the fundamental problem in the Mideast is not the existence of the Israeli state. It is the despotism of the Arab states. There is not a market democracy in the bunch. These states are corrupt and brutal. They are theocracies, or precarious autocracies, or secular totalitarian states: tyrannies all, deniers of freedom, republics of fear, enemies of civility and human flourishing. (The outlines of another such state can be seen in the Palestinian Authority.) They are governments that make constant war on their own peoples. They cannot make peace because they are not at peace themselves.

There may be occasions when America can ally with some of those states, as we did during the Gulf War. On these occasions, there is no need to mollify public opinion in the Arab world — whatever “public opinion” would mean in this unfree context — by pressuring Israel. A decade ago, a lot of people suggested that there had to be “linkage” between the Israeli-Palestinian and American-Iraqi conflicts: We would have to address the former to win the latter. The U.S. largely resisted the demand for linkage, with the significant exception of barring Israel from participating in the coalition against Iraq. As it turned out, the linkage worked the other way: Having won the war, America was in a better position to force the PLO to the table. (That we made a mess of things once this occurred does not invalidate the point.)

The Arab states responded to power used with resolve. Later, they responded to American weakness. America’s position in the Mideast slipped as it became clear that we were not serious about ending the Iraqi threat — and that Israel was tiring of its permanent war footing. To turn away from our ally now would be regarded, too, as weakness.

And rightly so. It is one thing to make a case on the merits that our foreign policies should be changed. Perhaps we should end our alliance with Israel. Perhaps we should remove our troops from Saudi Arabia, or lift the sanctions on Iraq. But not under duress. A policy designed to keep from offending people who might be inclined to attack us is a policy of preemptive capitulation to terrorists. In his address to Congress, President Bush explained why the terrorists kill: “With every atrocity they hope that America grows fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking our friends.” The terrorists’ hope is the frank advice of those who would have us back away from Israel because of the September 11 attacks.

Dishonorable in principle, such a policy would also fail in practice. There would be no obvious stopping-point to it. Having seen terrorism accomplish its objectives in the Mideast, why should North Korea not use it to make us withdraw our protection from South Korea? Beijing could sponsor terrorism until we let it swallow Taiwan. In the past, Puerto Rican independistas have resorted to terror. Etc. Shall we capitulate to them all?

Here, then, is the true strategy being recommended to America: Curl up and die.