The Long View

The Middle East needs more Israels.

Timing is to politics what location is to real estate -- it's just about everything. For years, advocates of the idea that Israel is an albatross around America's neck, not an asset to U.S. strategic interests, were mainly has-been politicians (like Paul Findley) or disgruntled ex-diplomats (like the late George W. Ball). They wrote books with titles like They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel's Lobby and The Passionate Attachment: America's Involvement with Israel, 1947 to the Present, but they were so "yesterday's news" that they found little traction among America's policy-media-cultural-university elite, which may have sympathized with some of their arguments, let alone among the broader American public, which rejected their reasoning out of hand.

Then, in 2006, two credentialed political scientists, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, struck gold with an essay, followed soon by a book, laying the faults and failures of U.S. Middle East policy at the doorstep of a nefarious "Israel Lobby" -- with a capital L. Their timing was impeccable. They appeared on the scene after the initial patriotic outburst following the 9/11 attacks had dimmed and with the "mission accomplished" moment of America's Iraq expedition a faint memory, at a time when many Americans (if they were concerned with such issues) were trying to understand what went wrong, to misappropriate Bernard Lewis's apt question, in America's relations with Arabs, Muslims, and the broader Middle East. The fact that some of these professors' fundamental arguments were prima facie ludicrous -- like the idea that Israel and its allies advocated for the U.S. invasion of Iraq (Iran, maybe, but certainly not Iraq!) -- did not stop some serious people from taking their book seriously. Out in the heartland, support for Israel never wavered, but along the Acela corridor, where support for the U.S.-Israel relationship has long been weaker, cracks began to appear.

History, however, proved itself more powerful than political science. The seismic events the world has witnessed since the Tunisian revolution have not only changed the political map of the Middle East, but they have done much to silence those attached passionately to the idea that nothing so enrages Arabs as America's friendship with Israel. In fact, as we now know, it is the corruption, venality, torture, and inequality of Arab governments, not Israel or U.S.-Israel relations, that enrages Arabs so much that they are willing to fight and die to change their reality. America will indeed have to adjust accordingly, but not because a core theme of U.S. foreign policy -- ties with Israel -- was judged to have been either a reason for or a cause of the Arab uprisings of 2011.

In this context, Michael Oren's brief, powerful, and trenchant essay comes -- as did "The Israel Lobby" essay five years ago -- at precisely the right time. With history shaking governments throughout the Middle East, a political earthquake having virtually nothing to do with the still-important task of resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, now is the moment to drive a nail deep in the heart of the misdiagnosis of the ills of American's Middle East policy presented by the line of thinking from Ball to Mearsheimer. And, accomplished historian that he is, Oren does this with thoroughness, wit, and attention to detail.

If anything, Oren -- currently Israel's ambassador to the United States -- understates the case for Israel's value as a strategic asset to America. For example, his diplomatic mantle prevents him from discussing at length the unique contribution Israel has made to counterproliferation, i.e., its raids on nuclear facilities in Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007). There has been much armchair-quarterbacking about the wisdom of these attacks, but it does not really take a Metternich to realize that the Middle East -- and U.S. interests -- are better off without either Saddam Hussein's clan or Bashar al-Assad's wielding nuclear weapons. And Oren's diplomatic politesse prevents him from banging his fist on the table to remind Barack Obama's administration that now is precisely the time to bolster America's remaining allies in the Middle East, especially the limited number that are democratic allies (still, ahem, one).

Last July, in a debate with another realist making the case for Israel-as-a-liability (Chas W. Freeman), I argued that "what we really need in the Middle East are more 'Israels' -- not more Jewish states, of course, but more strong, reliable, democratic, pro-American allies.... The absence of those sorts of allies is precisely what has gotten us into such deep trouble over the past 30 years." I hope that the Arab Spring produces a few more Middle Eastern states that are "strong, reliable, democratic, pro-American allies" -- and I believe there is a chance that this may eventually come to pass. In the meantime, as Oren persuasively argues, Washington should be wise to do everything it can to strengthen and protect the only one it has.

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Don't Judge the G-20 by Its Summits

Take the long view instead.

Writing on his blog, Daniel Drezner questions whether friendly discord within the G-20 is indeed a constructive thing, as I argue in my recent Deep Dive piece, "Seven New Laws of the G-20 Era." Specifically, Drezner contests that the global public has no patience for such discord, that the issues most commonly discussed in the forum require solutions -- not just discussion -- and that the G-20, a relatively young group, lacks the institutional credibility to withstand perceived friction among its members.

The G-20 is not just a summit meeting of leaders. The G-20 has a very active track, which has been in existence since the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, of at least biannual meetings of finance ministers and central bank presidents. In addition, G-20 deputies and G-20 sherpas often meet to advance the agenda for the leaders. More than that, as a result of the activities in the finance ministers/central bank presidents track, there is now a network of senior officials continuously active not only in preparation for G-20 meetings, but also in dealing with crises and unexpected challenges.

What this means is that the new, more inclusive configuration of major economies from every region of the world that constitutes the G-20 is a process -- communicating, consulting, and even, on good days, coordinating among 20 countries, not eight. The G-20, in other words, is not an event.  

The question that will determine whether the G-20 becomes a "dead forum walking" is not whether major agreements are reached at every summit, but whether the global financial system is safer and more stable, and whether the global economy is growing more rapidly and sustainably -- as a result of the G-20 process.

The jury is still out on that, but looking at the process rather than G-20 summits alone for the answers is the right place to look.

Compared with the less diverse, more like-minded G-8, the G-20 should be expected to have differing perspectives and conflicting views. Reading the other six of the seven "laws" I proposed, one can get a feel for how this diversity creates a different climate in the G-20 and how these new dynamics could make for a fluid diplomatic context that can benefit the United States and other countries: Ideology, prior alliances, and regional blocs have less salience; pragmatism, flexibility, and substance have greater roles, potentially.

But the role of the press is a crucial issue. Leaders can't lead unless they are seen to lead. What the public sees and what it understands about international efforts to reconcile policy differences depends not only on what leaders do but also on what the press highlights. If the press plays up policy conflicts at summits as the main story, then leaders aren't seen as leading but as disagreeing. As Drezner writes, "the only thing the public will digest from G-20 deadlock is that leaders can't agree." This is indeed true if that is all they are given to see. It's also precisely why we need to dig deeper when we talk about the G-20 in the public space.

After the Seoul G-20 summit, a group of think-tank experts, including me, surveyed the press coverage in national newspapers in capitals of a dozen G-20 countries. In contrast to the international press, which highlighted discord among G-20 leaders in Seoul, national press coverage in G-20 capitals was more balanced

Several national leaders explained to local media what had gone on behind the scenes in Seoul. The extent of progress was highlighted, country leadership by the G-20 committees was recognized, and in some cases the linkages of international positions to domestic politics were explained. This showed a much more robust relationship between the G-20 leaders and their publics than we had found in any of the previous surveys of four other G-20 summits. This occurred despite the higher degree of policy divergence in Seoul -- or maybe because of it. Perhaps national leaders felt a need to differentiate themselves from the international headlines to avoid getting linked to the policy conflict story line.

The issues go deeper than appearances and spin, as Drezner suggests. The issues go to whether an experiment in global diversity at the leaders level can take root as a new form of political process. The issues are hard global problems -- with domestic consequences -- and policy differences need to be addressed in a mature, serious way that engages all the various channels of the G-20 and other international bodies.

Ultimately, Drezner is right; "the G-20 rises and falls with its perceived [my emphasis] effectiveness." Let's hope both officials and the press work toward that end. But let's give G-20 officials time and not look for miracles at each and every summit.