Today is the 4th of July, the day we celebrate American Independence and the American founding Fathers. Unfortunately, in the past several decades the leaders of the United States did not fully appreciate the views of American forefathers. Those initiators of “a more perfect union” witnessed the corrosive influence of religion on politics in Europe firsthand. As such, America’s founding fathers viewed the fundamental separation of religion and politics as sacrosanct. The Founders believed that maintaining the Separation of Church and State was more fundamental than giving every citizen the right to vote.
Yesterday, as a result of the actions of millions of Egyptians, a second revolution took place. One of the rebellion’s major goals was to try to guarantee Egypt remains a free and secular country. As history was being made in Egypt, the United States just sat, observing on the sidelines. One of the best tweets I read yesterday was: “10 million Egyptian have just taken down an Islamic Fundamentalist, but Uncle Sam, you don’t have to worry– the Egyptians have your back.” In fact, instead of welcoming the developments in Egypt, President Obama stated last night: “I have also directed the relevant departments and agencies to review the implications under U.S. law for our assistance to the Government of Egypt. “
The response of the U.S. administration regarding Egypt continues a failed foreign policy going back to the fall of the Shah of Iran– when the Carter Administration approved of and was initially supportive of the rise of the Khomeini regime, over the unelected Shah. The United States continued its mistakes in Iraq, in the Palestinian elections, and then again in Egypt, failing to understand that democracy and theocratic parties cannot co-exist(We have our own problems here, but that is an analysis for a different article). There cannot be a true democracy when religious leaders (who hold the keys to heaven) are instructing their followers how vote.
America’s blindness to the toxic mix of politics and religion resulted in muddied U.S. policy that has ultimately led to failure and disillusionment at home. In response to 9/11 – the most extreme act of fundamentalist Islamists– the United States has been actively and militarily engaged in the Middle East for the past 12 years. The apparent failure of those actions has brought about a fundamental change in American attitudes. I fear, neither the basis for these changes, nor the fact this transformation has taken place, are fully understood in Israel.
I came of age at the tail end of the Vietnam War. I saw the changes that war brought to America, firsthand. The failure of Vietnam War ended the feeling that America could achieve anything it set its mind to accomplish. The Reagan Presidency and the subsequent fall of the Soviet Union revived America’s confidence (at least to some extent). Today, it feels like the U.S. is back in the “post-Vietnam state of mind”. It has been 12 years since the horrific tragedy of 9/11. Though the government has successfully foiled a repeat of that immeasurably terrible calamity, there has been a realization that the price paid for achieving that protection has been high. In the 21st century, the Untied States has fought two wars; neither of which achieved their goals– despite their exceedingly high price.
In 2013, America is a very war weary country. The U.S. Army has been deployed in combat now for 13 consecutive years. At this point, the U.S. “time-in”, with boots-on-the-ground, easily eclipses the number of years during which America fought the Vietnam War – and also far exceeds the time span of any other war in American history.
The recent home front reaction to President Obama’s tepid decision to supply the Syrian rebels with arms is a case in point. From a strategic standpoint, nothing could be more clear– The U.S. should, without hesitation, do all it can to defeat the proxies of the Iranian regime. The United States has been involved in a low-level conflict with the Iranians ever since the American embassy was seized in 1979. The U.S.–Iran clash has never developed into open conflict (regardless of the fact that the Iranians were directly responsible for the deaths of many Americans in Iraq). There is no greater blow that could befall the Iranian regime than losing its one ally in the Middle East– i.e. Syria. Yet, the U.S. continually hesitated to act in Syria, despite the clear involvement of the Iranians on the side of Assad.
Even without a clear strategic mandate to intervene in Syria, the humanitarian mandate to act should have been sufficiently overwhelming–– (not to mention the clear “red line” set by President Obama regarding the use of chemical weapons.) After all these facts in evidence, the U.S. finally made the rather reserved decision to supply small arms to the Syrian opposition. Furthermore, the announcement of the U.S. action plan was not made by the President, but rather, by the U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor.
Even more telling, was the response of many American liberals to the U.S. initiative– liberals responded with a resounding chorus of opposition to the move. The liberal reaction was not based on concerns that the weapons may fall into the wrong hands. Rather, liberal criticism of the U.S. action in Syria focused their doubt of the moral right of America to intervene in the affairs of a foreign country. They also questioned the right of the President to act unilaterally. These dual concerns are almost identical to the issues raised in the 1970’s in the post-Vietnam era.
These days there are additional factors at work effecting American’s attitude toward further foreign interventions. The recent disclosures by Eric Snowden exposing the extent of government surveillance on private citizens has caused many Americans to question whether the price of the war on terrorism (levied in losses of personal freedoms) has been excessively high.
In addition, the effects of the “Economic Crisis of 2008” have yet to fade. Structural changes in the U.S. economy have imposed a new economic order on the United States– a shift that appears to be permanent. Today, many Americans question if the America’s future is as boundless as it once was. This new perceived economic reality certainly translates into a widespread decline in Americans’ willingness to bear the burdens of the world.
Finally, to return to my first point– The failure of American policy (at present) to develop even one western-style democracy, despite all of the effort and resources devoted to that mission, has been disheartening, to say the least. American policy, to date, has resulted in the democratic election of a series of theocratic regimes. U.S. policy has been deaf to the views of those people who would and should be America’s natural allies– the liberal secularists in each country. Instead, America has repeatedly preferred to embrace the theocrats elected by the masses. Leading that mistaken charge, in support of legitimately elected theocrats, has been President Obama, (who also seems to share the new American worldview of the limits of U.S. power.)
One could not imagine Barack Obama giving a Kennedy-like speech, calling on Americans to bear any burden for freedom. Obama’s misguided support of the Morsi regime showed a continued American failure to understand the region, and to ultimately ensure animus towards the U.S. by all sides.
So what do these new factors and changing trends mean for Israel? While opinion polls in the United States continue to show strong support for Israel, that support may not translate into any action in the future. America’s unwillingness to become involved in the Syrian Civil War shows America’s profound reluctance to be drawn into a new conflict. That reluctance has translated into a weakening of American influence in the Middle East. Israel has never depended on direct military support from the United States. However, Israel has always benefited from America’s strategic power in the region. The self-inflicted diminishing U.S. influence in the region weakens Israel.
Of course, there is also the “elephant in the room”– and that is Iran. There can be no question that the failure of President Obama to intervene decisively in Syria when the Assad regime crossed Obama’s clearly stated red line (i.e. electing to use chemical weapons) was greeted with relief in Teheran. Now, the President’s insistence that Iran will not be allowed “to cross the nuclear red line” carries much less weight than it did previously. The chance of Iran gaining nuclear weapons has undoubtedly increased, as a result of America’s weakness. These factors have clear implications for our future, and may possibly explain Prime Minister Netanyahu’s sudden enthusiasm to revive the peace process.
Most of Netanyahu’s critics are sure that he is only going through the motions to renew negotiations with the Palestinians, in order to avoid being blamed for safeguarding the status- quo. However, just maybe … is it possible that Netanyahu has come to the realization that with the rising power of the Iranians, and the weakening of the United States, it is in Israel’s strategic interest to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians– despite the risks? Is it conceivable that circumstances have influenced Netanyahu in the same way they influenced Rabin and Sharon to realize that it’s not in our interest to maintain the status quo?
Events in Egypt have presented a unique opportunity for both Israel and the United States. It is in our mutual interests to ensure that Islamists do not rule the Middle East. We can reach an accommodation with nations whose decisions are based on national interest, and not on religious imperatives. A tide may have turned in the Middle East yesterday, a tide that could even reach Gaza and replace Hamas with a secular government. Now is the time for creative diplomacy to sweep in and support that tide. America may be a tired giant, and we, may just be a tired small people who simply want to be left alone to worry about our cost of living. Unfortunately, the tide of history awaits no man or nation. We, and I say that as an American–Israeli have a chance to influence that tide, if we do not hesitate.