Obama and the Israel lobby: Quo vadis?

Has AIPAC lost its mojo? Does Obama's reelection prove that the Israel lobby is getting weaker, and that he can return to Middle East peacemaking with new confidence and resolve? It's no secret that Obama has a frosty relationship with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, fueling GOP hopes that Israel would be a wedge issue that would attract lots of Jewish voters and donors. At least one prominent hardline Zionist, Sheldon Adelson, spent tens of millions of dollars trying to buy the election for Romney, and he got bupkis for all that cash. So now that Obama's got a second term, will he blithely ignore AIPAC et al and pursue an even-handed approach to the Middle East peace process?

Don't bet on it. For starters, the election didn't show that the traditional "status quo lobby" was substantially weaker. Why? Because Obama caved to these groups a long time ago, and there was hardly any daylight between him and Romney on this issue. As the Obama campaign repeatedly emphasized, they had been extraordinarily supportive of Israel from Day One: providing increased levels of military aid, expanding various forms of security cooperation (including joint operations against Iran), and providing diplomatic cover in the United Nations and elsewhere. Obama dropped his early insistence on a settlement freeze and eventually gave up on the peace process. The only thing that Netanyahu didn't get from Obama was a war against Iran, and plenty of top Israeli officials didn't think that was a very good idea either. Given that there wasn't much difference between Obama and Romney on Israel, therefore, American Jewry stuck with its long-standing liberal preferences and voted overwhelmingly for Obama and the Democrats.

But the election is over, and the second term beckons. Won't Obama be tempted to secure a legacy as a peacemaker (remember that Nobel Prize?), and go back to his original vision of "two states for two peoples?" I don't think so. Conditions in the region aren't propitious: Israel continues to drift rightward, Netanyahu is overwhelmingly likely to be reelected, and the tumult of the Arab spring is bound to make everyone more cautious (and with good reason). The Palestinian Authority is less and less popular, and even if he wanted to, Mahmoud Abbas could never persuade his followers to accept the one-sided Bantustan arrangement that is Netanyahu's idea of a "Palestinian state." Obama doesn't have to run for re-election again but Congressional Dems do, and they'll put the same pressure on him in 2014 that they did in 2010 if he tries to force Netanyahu to abandon his vision of "greater Israel." The bottom line: No U.S. pressure on Israel, and thus no chance for a deal.

If you're Barack Obama, in short, this just doesn't look like a smart place to invest a lot of time, effort, and political capital. Plus, my hunch is that he's going to try to secure his legacy by "nation-building" here at home, not by pursuing the elusive grail of Middle East peace. For that matter, if he decides to spend any political capital in that part of the world, it will be on Iran, not Israel-Palestine. Meanwhile, Congress will reflexively vote the aid package and sign whatever goofy letters and resolutions that AIPAC dreams up. Politicians and policy wonks will continue to pay homage to the "special relationship," lest they come under fire from the lobby and its various watchdogs and smear artists.

Which is not to say that nothing has changed, as Steve Rosen argues here. Public discourse on this topic is more open than it used to be, some journalists have become largely immune to intimidation, and the role of the lobby in stifling peace efforts and promoting a military approach to Iran is now plain for all to see. J Street has been more equivocal than some of us might have hoped, but it can take some pride in helping escort Islamophobes from office and getting some pro-peace candidates elected. Writers like Peter Beinart have bravely spoken truth to those with closed minds and closed eyes, and even some stalwart defenders of Israel seem increasingly troubled by where it's headed.

But I don't see a sea-change; at least not yet. AIPAC and its allies don't get everything they want, of course, but they can still put real limits on what the president and his advisors are willing to try. We still have not reached the point where politicians are willing to openly acknowledge that a normal relationship would be better for both countries than the current special relationship of unconditional U.S. support. You didn't hear Obama, Romney, or any other major candidate say anything like that in 2012, which tells you that fear of the lobby remains a potent political force. That's not good for us, but it's even worse for Israelis and Palestinians. Which is why I'd be delighted if the next four years proves me wrong.   


National Security

Why the United States should help China get more involved in world affairs

Now that the election is over we can get back to thinking about the future, and that includes thinking about China under its new leader, Xi Jinping. Last Sunday the New York Times ran a provocative piece suggesting that Xi's close ties with the Chinese military will make him a "force to contend with." The article also quoted a a Chinese academic, Jin Canrong, saying that Washington needs to make room for China's rising power. In his words: "China should shoulder some responsibility for the United States and the United States should share power with China." U.S. elites won't like it, he says, but "they will have to accept it."

Well, count me as one member of the U.S. elite that would like to see China shoulder more burdens (emphasis on that last word). Instead of focusing lots of effort on confronting China directly, a smarter strategy would be to saddle China with the same sort of burdens that U.S. elites have so eagerly taken on in recent years. How about letting Bejing try to fix Afghanistan, or encouraging them handle a post-Assad mess in Syria? Or perhaps China can show its diplomatic mettle by dealing with the Somali pirates, global narcotics traffickers, and the recurring crises in Sudan. Not to mention North Korea.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying we should helping China gain lots of influence in places that are of vital strategic importance, though we ought to recognize that we won't be able to prevent China from gaining influence as its power rises. Rather, I'm saying that smart great powers pass the buck to others when they can (including their allies) and try to maneuver potential adversaries into taking on costly burdens that bring few benefits. During the Cold War, the U.S. wisely invested in rebuilding and protecting the industrial areas of Europe and Japan, and wisely forged close ties with a number of Persian Gulf oil producers. It erred by squandering resources on a lot of minor conflicts in the developing world; fortunately for Americans, the Soviet Union followed suit and wasted money it didn't have on its own feckless clients and profitless quagmires (e.g., Afghanistan).

The lesson for today is obvious: the outcome of a future Sino-American rivalry will be partly based on which country manages its economy best (because that it is the ultimate source of national power). It will also depend on which state can elicit useful support from other important countries.  But it will also be affected by which nation gets stuck defending allies that aren't worth much and which one gets bogged down trying to solve intractable and costly problems in places that ultimately don't matter very much in geopolitical terms. Winning the competition to stick others with costly burdens requires more brains than brawn, and a capacity to spot a quagmire before you're in it. The United States used to be pretty good at that, and it's a skill we would do well to rediscover in the years ahead.