She once personified high-minded liberal do-gooderness. But, these days, Samantha Power has a few new best friends: Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Bob Corker, and Saxby Chambliss. These and others in Power’s GOP fan club were the driving force behind her swift confirmation by an 87-10 Senate vote last Friday as the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. On Monday, Power presented her credentials to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and started work.
Power’s smooth confirmation is remarkable. Although a recent agreement with Democrats has eased the backlog, Senate Republicans have not been shy about dissing Obama nominees, holding up a dozens of judges, ambassadors, and others. Samantha Power, meanwhile, sailed through the process.
The reasons behind this full-throated support for Power from a significant Republican camp are telling. They point to an evolving U.S. foreign policy debate that calls for a rejiggered Israeli strategy on how to approach Washington.
In Washington of the 1990s and 2000s, conservative and liberal interventionists faced off across the aisle. Today’s interventions are closing ranks. The trigger is the rumbling of isolationism on both sides of the political spectrum. As isolationist stirrings come onto the scene, today’s American foreign policy debate is shaped less by party lines than by rival camps within the parties. On the left, pacifists and realists face off against liberal interventionists like Power. On the right, establishment realists and insurgent Tea Party isolationists sit opposite the remnants of neoconservatism.
In each party, a non-interventionist faction opposes an interventionist one. In Republican terms, the debate was most on display in last week’s face-off between Kentucky Senator Rand Paul (leader of the GOP’s non-interventionist camp) and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (an interventionist). The two colorfully traded barbs over the direction of U.S. foreign policy in what many saw as a preview of the 2016 campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination.
In this debate within each party, Israel has a stake. Over the past decade, Israel’s interests have often coincided with the interventionists’ platform. The toppling of Saddam Hussein, the containment of Bashar Assad, and—most importantly—the determination to stand up to Iran’s nuclear program, all were generally backed by neoconservatives and liberal interventionists alike. The ascendance of realists and, especially, isolationists could lead to U.S. pullback from the region, with hostile actors filling the void.
This process has already begun. In Syria, the flow of heavy Russian and Iranian arms threatens to tip the balance in favor of Bashar Assad and Hassan Nasrallah. The U.S. has lost ground in Arab regions of Iraq, which have become an Iranian sphere of influence. Even the Egyptian military—still an erstwhile U.S. ally—might now become increasingly dependent on Gulf monarchies and less so on Washington, as the monarchies have forked over some US$12 billion in aid compared to US$1.5 billion annually from U.S. coffers.
To a great extent, decreasing U.S. influence in the Middle East is the product of broader trends: the rise of Asia, fiscal angst in Washington, and (potentially) greater U.S. energy independence. Still, domestic politics matter. The worldviews of those sitting on Capitol Hill and, especially, in the White House will do much to determine whether the United States pulls back sharply or whether it continues to define its interests broadly and invest in affecting developments in the Middle East.
This is the policy debate that has brought together the John McCain wing of the Republican Party and the Samantha Power camp among Democrats. Their emerging cooperation points to an opportunity for Israel and its supporters.
Pro-Israel forces should form a broader alliance with the interventionists. Pro-Israel groups and the interventionists share many common interests—and, more importantly, have much to offer each other.
The interventionists have the ear of much of the U.S. foreign policy elite, an asset that, as always, could be useful for Israel. Also, an alliance with liberal interventionists could help Israel maximize its standing among Democrats. For their part, pro-Israel groups have a broad base of grassroots support—something an elite movement like foreign policy interventionism lacks. Coordination between the two groups could both advance joint interests and help each party to advance its own goals.
Of course, the Israeli government itself must remain above the U.S. domestic political fray. Pro-Israel groups, too, have an interest in avoiding alienating potential friends or provoking potential adversaries. Coordination and alliance must be done carefully and might be subject to operational limitations.
Still, Israel must not be indifferent to the emerging debate in Washington. That debate’s outcome will have significant effects on the future of our region. Fortunately, the debate also offers opportunities. We can forge new friendships that, in the end, could enhance Israel’s support in the United States yet further in the years to come.