The Corner

Why Americans Support Israel

Ross Douthat has enmeshed himself in a multi-front conversation about Israel and the Israel lobby sparked by a somewhat silly counter-factual – What if Gaza was full of Jews?

In Ross’ latest post he’s dealing with the question (raised by Megan McArdle) of whether, or really how much, American-support for Israel can be chalked up to ethnic loyalties and the influence of the pro-Israel lobby. I’m hardly going to dispute that ethnic loyalties among American Jews is a big factor, or say that AIPAC isn’t powerful. But I’m somewhat surprised, or rather dismayed, that words like “democracy” and “ally” don’t enter the conversation at all.

If Italy or Australia or even France were besieged by non-democratic states and stateless terrorists, I would argue that America should support each and all of them every way practical. That doesn’t mean I think America should go to war every time a democracy is threatened, but I do think America should be more than — better than — merely neutral. And, guess what? As a broad generalization, that is America’s policy. That is why we support South Korea. That is why we offer protection for Taiwan. That is why non-democratic nations are never invited to join NATO. We may have arguments about how this policy is implemented but the consensus over this point is deep and bipartisan. Many self-described “realists” think this is all nonsense or ill-advised, which is just one reason I have such contempt for so many self-described realists.

Now of course, this isn’t a hard rule in every instance. We supported South Korea and some other countries before they became full-fledged democracies. But that support was always in the context of a larger struggle against tyranny (AKA the Cold War) and American pressure was far more often than not pointed in the direction of greater democratization. We haven’t been perfectly consistent about this policy, but we’ve become more consistent over time, and rightly so. The great current exception is how we deal with other regimes in the Middle East. We don’t push them toward democracy, largely because of oil politics and our desire for “stability.” I think this was a mistake in the past, but given where we are now, I’m not sure I would want to enforce our principles too aggressively. Hamas’s electoral victory shows that democracy absent a democratic culture can be a ticket to one-man one-vote, one time.

In the case of Israel, sure, I have my ethnic sympathies, but I have never made arguments for Israel based on any of them. And, truth be told, most supporters of Israel don’t make “ethnic” arguments either (which is a big hole in McArdle’s analogy to the IRA). Israel’s critics acribe such motives to Israel’s supporters, sometimes accurately to be sure. But not nearly so often in good faith. They go after the putatively ethnic motives of Israel supporters in order to avoid the public arguments of Israel supporters. That’s not good.

I think all of these points applied to American support for Israel from the beginning, but they seem particularly more relevant since 9/11. It seems just absurd to talk about Jihadism and terrorism as real or even existential threats to America and then, in a blink of an eye, argue that Israel is in the wrong. Now I do realize that the folks who tend to think Israel is the malefactor are also more likely to think the war on terror and the Jihadi threat are overblown or silly (or, of course, Israel’s fault). Indeed, in the case of at least some bloggers, it increasingly seems that the more anti-war on terror you become, the more hostile to Israel you become as well. But the point remains just as valid from where I sit: Israel deserves American support not so much because it’s Jewish, but because it is a democratic ally besieged on countless fronts by undemocratic and often barbaric forces and apologists for same.

Update: From a reader:

i’m afraid i’m coming around to the glenn reynolds formulation that it’s not that these folks are ‘anti-war,’ it’s that they’re on the other side…

…even if one accepts that israel is a grievously flawed state that makes strategically foolish decisions and treats its arab population with all the warmth and support that the south treated

america’s black population in 1962 – which i do don’t! – i would still wonder why anyone anywhere would believe that hamas, hezbollah and/or iran represents a ‘better’ alternative in terms

of human rights, economic opportunity or personal security…

…at its core, israel is about values and actions americans respect and admire…at their core, what are the values and actions of hamas, hezboolah and the mullahs’ iran?

it’s sickening and gives lie to ‘never again’…yeah, right…

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