Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Friday, June 21, 2002
Catch-up blog today.

First item: Had an exchange with a friend on the following subject: should the United States formalize our alliance with Israel. Here are my thoughts on the subject:

What are alliances? What purpose do they serve? Alliances are formal relationships between states. They are contracts that impose mutual obligations. They may be tactical or strategic, limited or broad in scope, like most contracts. The reason for a formal rather than an informal relationship is that formality cements and deepens common interests that already exist. It creates a level of trust that allows closer cooperation than would otherwise be the case. Thus, the formation of NATO did not create the common interests that existed between America and the nations of Western Europe, nor was cooperation predicated on the existence of such an alliance. But formalizing that common interest made possible deeper ties; among other things, it made possible the subordination of the military forces of several countries to a single, unified command.

A second purpose of an alliance is that it communicates commitment to the ally and to adversaries. An alliance commits a power's prestige to the fulfilment of its formal commitments. The willingness of a power to extend such commitments enhances the power's prestige; presumably it would not commit its prestige lightly, and therefore its willingness to commit is a sign of confidence and strength. But a commitment also constrains the power; once committed, a power cannot renege without serious consequences. Thus, the American commitment to Vietnam strengthened America's position in the Cold War, convincing a wide variety of potential opponents that opposing America would be potentially costly. Our failure to sustain that commitment dealt American prestige a massive blow, one from which, really, we have never yet recovered. There is still a perception that the American people cannot sustain a long, difficult war, particularly if the nation's survival is not clearly at stake. Many of our current difficulties have a partial root in that perception, reinforced in small ways by the American retreats from minor engagements like Beirut and Somalia.

So, what would be the purpose of an alliance with Israel? We already have a strong community of interest, and we already cooperate in a variety of ways. Israel served as an American arms conduit during the latter days of the Cold War, and continues to serve as a vital source of intelligence in the region. Israel has a strong military that America can count on to support it if called upon. Moreover, it has one of the few vibrant military cultures among developed nations, and is one of the few first-world countries with a growing population. It is also a genuine nation-state, with a strong sense of national purpose, both of which make it a more reliable ally than a country actively seeking to disestablish itself, as many of our European allies are. Israel is nonetheless substantially dependent on the United States, relying on America for military and economic aid (though, truly, Israel would do well to wean itself of both), as well as on diplomatic support in a world otherwise inclined to see the nation destroyed. In its hour of greatest distress - the 1973 Yom Kippur War - Israel depended on American resupply for its very survival, after suffering a devastating surprise attack by the armies of Egypt and Syria.

Would an alliance enable us to deepen our ties? Yes. An alliance with Israel would give America the opportunity to base American soldiers there. It would allow us to explicitly train together and, potentially, to call on Israeli troops in conflict. Our intelligence services could work even more closely together. It would enable us to deepen trade ties. But really, all these things could be achieved without an explicit alliance. Would an alliance tie Israel more closely to the United States, assuring that we would never lose her services to another power? Yes, but this is not a terribly likely scenario in any event. Where would Israel go to? And why would Israel turn to a U.S. adversary unless the United States had already severely compromised her security through neglect?

So the primary reason for an alliance would be the second reason. America would commit its prestige to Israel, and would declare to Israel's adversaries that America is in the Middle East to stay, and on America's terms. And America would have joined its cause to Israel in an explicit way, making its enemies America's enemies. The latter is already true to a great extent, but it could no longer be diplomatically finessed once an alliance is explicit.

Israel is not the only state in the world whose future existence can be questioned. Canada and Britain, Italy and Belgium could break up peacefully, as Czechoslovakia did. Innumerable African countries could do so less peacefully, as Yugoslavia did. Pakistan could be shattered by war, broken up into a collection of mini-states, most of them wards of India or Iran. India or China could collapse into civil war, and Russia could suffer further division of itself. North Korea could be absorbed into the South; Taiwan could be absorbed into China, or could break away and become independent. A key message delivered by an alliance with Israel would be: this country is here to stay. So long as we treat Israel as a mistress rather than a wife, the world knows that, on some level, we are always ready to drop her. This encourages Israel's enemies both to behave belligerently towards Israel and to pursue diplomatic strategies to separate Israel from America rather than to attack America directly.

Or, rather, in addition to attacking America directly. The decisive factor in the whole question for me is that there is a division of labor in the Middle East between purported moderates and radicals. All are anti-Western, but they play a good-cop/bad-cop game to try to separate America from its natural allies: radicals attack the allies, moderates convince us that only they can control the radicals - that our support for our allies plays into the radicals' hands, and that the way to support the moderates is to distance ourselves from our natural allies (thereby achieving the radicals' aims). By allying with Israel, America would be putting an end to that game. Radicals would no longer need to convince anyone that America was unalterably allied with Israel; the case would be made. And so, so-called moderates would have to make their choice: side with the radicals against America, and risk destruction from abroad, or side with America against the radicals, and risk destruction from within.

The case against forcing this choice is that it will be expensive. Some will choose wrong, and side with the radicals; we will thereby have increased the explicit number of our enemies. Moreover, once you put your prestige on the line, you cannot take it back. The CATO-oids are suspicious of alliances for good reason. Commitments are irrevocable. If you spend this credit wantonly, you will extend your commitments beyond your ability to satisfy them, and the collapse will cause far worse damage than would have been sustained by refraining from the commitment. But the costs of ambiguity grow daily, not only for America but for Israel. Everyone in the Middle East already believes we are allied with Israel - indeed, they console themselves that they could never have been defeated by Israel alone, and that it was only American involvement that cause Arab defeat. What they are less convinced is whether this alliance can be broken. And they are inclined to believe that violence against Israel and America will be more likely to break the alliance than strengthen it. They are wrong in this, and one way to signal that they are wrong - and, hopefully, to deter them from siding with the crazies who don't care - is to put our prestige on the line.

There is another argument for forming an alliance which I should probably touch on, though it is an argument I don't like. Some would argue that you an alliance can serve the purpose of controlling the weaker ally. Thus, America's alliance with Japan deters Japanese militarism (it is claimed). America's friendship with Egypt is similarly supposed to restrain Egypt from direct hostilities against Israel. The British used to say that the purpose of NATO was to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down. That alliance also helped to moderate hostilities between member states, most notably Greece and Turkey. The Clinton Administration strongly adhered to this notion of an alliance; Clinton seemed to feel, for example, that by bringing the Palestinian Authority under America's security umbrella, that entity's terrorist impulses could be tamed. We have seen that this is not the case, and the reason is that an alliance cannot create a community of interest where one does not exist. But this could work theoretically in relation to Israel. Thus, if America were looking to impose a solution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the form of an Israeli withdrawal, the offer of an American alliance would be a substantial sweetener to get Israel to agree to such a deal. Effectively, American deterrence would be substituting for Israeli deterrence, since the latter would be badly eroded by a withdrawal under fire. I think this would still be a bad move for America and for Israel, because America's deterrent would be badly dented as well by any deal that appeared to reward Palestinian terrorism. Nonetheless, it's one argument made for an explicit alliance.

The main reason I resist this logic is that an alliance aimed at stabilizing a volatile situation can backfire. Extending commitments makes you vulnerable to the tail wagging the dog. Let's take the example of Taiwan. Were the United States to offer an unconditional guarantee to defend Taiwan, this would surely strengthen the faction in Taiwan that supports declaring independence. But a declaration of independence raises the real possibility of a Chinese attack to reverse the decision. Arguably, then, a strong American commitment could unleash forces on Taiwan that would ultimately drag the United States into a war we had hoped to deter. Pakistan is another example. We're trying to maintain alliances with both Pakistan and India, because both are very useful in our current war. But any commitment we make to Pakistan encourages them to continue their support of cross-border terrorism in Kashmir, sure as they are that the United States will intervene to prevent Indian retaliation. We've created a moral hazard where our ally feels more comfortable escalating than they would if they did not know that America was behind them. With respect to Israel, the greater risk is that Israel would be less vigilant about having a forward defense, knowing that the United States will prevent the country from being overrun. This gives Israel's enemies an incentive to be more aggressive, particularly about terrorism, knowing that the United States will only retaliate after substantial provocation, and that with lesser provocation they can count on the United States to restrain Israel. (A similar dynamic obtains in Kashmir with respect to our relationship with India.) If America is not willing to fight Israel's war, or back Israel in fighting theirs, then an explicit alliance could make war more likely rather than less.