American isolationism: Will Israel adapt?

Introduction: Whether due to the constraints of the long-term recession/Congressional Tea Party veto, or a strategic global shift to counter the perceived emerging “China Threat;” whether, as I have written in the past, America is returning to Isolationism as described in the Debka article referred to below; whatever the reason Israel will be facing new challenges and uncharted challenges in an increasingly hostile local and extended global environment. The visit by Ron Paul warned of a cut-back in American financial assistance. If a purportedly “pro-Israel” American politician is warning in cuts to financial assistance concurrent with America reducing, possibly withdrawing from the region: Is Israel attending to the warning, preparing for the change? 

Whereas in his first term as president, Barack Obama opted for “leading from behind” in international military operations, he enters his second term… by expanding this step-back precept into American isolationism proper…” 

Background: For several years there have been repeated hints that America is in retreat from the Middle East. Nor did it begin with Obama but evident at least since 2003 and the Bush administration. Of course Bush was less obviously in retreat since he launched two wars, and what kind of American “retreat policy” does that represent? No, to get a more realistic read of Bush’s real intentions one needs look beyond his wartime cabinet to his post-invasion choice of military leadership; his consistent avoidance at any cost of conflict with Iran. No provocation was sufficient to provoke a military response: not when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’-Quds Force was providing funds, weapons and training to insurrectionists attacking US forces in Iraq. Not even when US generals went on record complaining that Iran was even providing leadership for insurrectionists in combat against American forces. Following is a partial transcript of an interview given by then U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker and General Petraeus on 27 September, 2007, released by the Department of Defense: 

Crocker: “Iran’s role is harmful. There are no two ways about it… They are supporting radical militias… supplying the explosively formed projectiles that target our troops as well as Iraqis. And they are playing a destabilizing role. 


Petraeus noted that … “an element of the Iranian Republican Guard’s Corps known as the Quds Force has provided training, equipment, arms, funding and, in some cases, even direction to terrorists in Iraq.“ 

If Bush avoided dealing with open Iranian aggression which cost  more than 4,000 Americans lives and approximately one trillion borrowed dollars, what surprise that, in the end, he hid behind that convenient if dubious 2007 National Intelligence Estimate conclusion that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program three years earlier? And so Bush left dealing with the problem to his successor. 

According to the Debka report the Pentagon is represented as criticizing Obama’s retreat from the region, that “top US military experts [are] leveling sharp criticism at the White House’s policy of non-intervention in the Mali conflict,” this would be a dramatic about-face from a decade-long DOD posture under Gates/Mullen and Poindexter/Dempsey, civilian and military chiefs under two presidents. From those military leaders the only words heard whenever military force was raised regarding Iran was, “Hell no, we wont go”! Reason provided: undefined “unforeseen consequences.” 

The Evidence of America’s now-accelerated retreat from the region is not difficult to see once the blinders of America–as-superpower are removed. Debka seemed convinced of America’s retreat to isolationism in December, 2012, with Obama ordering the USS Eisenhower strike group and the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group to withdraw in face of possible risk from Syrian chemical weapons (saran gas dominated the press for weeks). 

“The USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier and the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group and its 2,500 marines were recalled after being stationed on the Syrian coast, allegedly in preparation of potential military invasion.


“The USS Eisenhower, which has the capacity to hold thousands of men, joined the other warship during the first week of December, ready to launch an American-led military intervention “within days” if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were to use chemical weapons against the opposition, Time reported. But as the violence escalated in the past few days, the warships took off and headed back to the US.”

I already pointed to Bush’s aversion to regional conflict post-Iraq; with Obama the evidence all but screams to be recognized as US policy. 

Easiest starting point is Obama’s outstretched hand to Iran followed by years of failed negotiations, each to be followed by new invitations to return to talks without penalty (in fact reward, since the president sweetened successive invitations by accepting Iran’s previous exit-demands). Should a non-military solution have been sought, yes. But a response to obvious stalling tactics should have been followed by punishment, not reward. Instead serial rejection and serial concessions, a farce of cat and mouse with a roaring mouse and a the cat increasingly appearing a paper tiger, increasingly losing face with successive comprise. And the weaker America negotiated, the more the superpower appeared weak, convinced Iran to harden its position, gained prestige in the region. Negotiating with the US was a god-send, a win-win proposition for the Islamic Republic.  

Obama’s response to Iran’s nuclear program is emblematic of the weakness behind his assertion of a policy based on “leading from behind.” Conflict aversion is not leadership. And to make matters worse the president was not averse to acting presidential, acting forcefully when costs appeared minimal. His role in forcing long-time US ally and stabilizing partner in the region, Hosni Mubarak from office is a case in point: 

10 Feb, 2011, “The Obama administration is discussing with Egyptian officials a proposal for President Hosni Mubarak to resign immediately and turn over power to a transitional government.” 

In 2002 President Bush was warned by Israel, the Saudis and other local allies of obvious regional instability should the president decapitate the Iraqi regime; in 2011 President Obama received identical warnings from the same states regarding Mubarak: 

In a testy personal telephone call on January 29, King Abdullah told President Obama not to humiliate Mr Mubarak…” 

Both presidents chose to ignore their allies and follow their own counsel: Bush managed to transform Iraq from Sunni enemy to Shiite “neutral ally” of Shiite Iran; Obama gave wings to the so-called Arab Spring by promoting missionizing Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt, a threat to rational American interests, to Israel and our few remaining Arab allies. 

Two months later Iran-backed Shiite protesters threatened to bring down the Sunni-led Bahraini monarchy. Bahrain sits but a causeway off the coast of Saudi Arabia at the mouth of the Straits of Hormuz. The island hosts America’s Fifth Fleet tasked with protecting the oil lanes and the oil producing Sunni monarchies from…Iran. Yet, in face of the threat, once again, to rational American interests, as with Egypt Obama sided with the Iran-backed protesters: 

Interests of Saudi Arabia and Iran Collide, With the U.S. in the MiddleMarch 17, 2011

WASHINGTON — The brutal crackdown in Bahrain poses the greatest Middle East democracy dilemma yet to the Obama administration, deepening a rift with its most important Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, while potentially strengthening the influence of its biggest nemesis, Iran.” 

Did Obama really believe that Iran would allow the the Fifth Fleet to remain alongside Iran’s navy?  

110331, “America’s support for regime change in Egypt has rattled most regional American “allies” from Yemen to Morocco. After a tense exchange by phone between Saudi King Abdullah and President Obama, the king chose not to receive Obama’s emissaries Gates, Mullen and Clinton to discuss Bahrain.” 

On February 22, 2011, the NY Times reported that Iran was testing American resolve by dispatching two war ships to Syria so, 

“the US deployed an armada of naval vessels to block their entrance to the Suez Canal: “Thursday night, Feb. 17, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, escorted by missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf and the fast supply ship USNS Arctic… [took] up position opposite the Kharg cruiser and Alvand missile destroyer of the Iranian Navy’s 12th Flotilla, which were waiting to enter the Suez Canal at the southern Red Sea entrance… another aircraft carrier was posted in the Great Bitter Lake opposite Ismailia and the canal’s main routes with a large contingent of marines aboard.” 

By Wednesday, those ships, more embarrassing still because both were small, old and manned by cadets had, in defiance of our Navy, transited the Canal and arrived at Lattakia, Syria. 

One month later, on March 29, 2011, facing demands by Britain and France to assist the embattled Libyan rebels in Benghazi, 

Obama set strict limits on his willingness to apply U.S. military might… a sign he would avoid armed entanglement in other Middle East hot spots… the United States would scale back its involvement to a “supporting role…” 

An American Götterdämmerung: Instrumental in installing a fundamentalist Islamic regime in Egypt that poses a threat to the Saudis, et al, the final blow to American credibility in the region was to be Iran’s proxy in the Levant, Syria. The Syrian quagmire always presented a challenge and Obama was clearly out of his league in dealing with the problem. Uncertain, the administration hunkered down, a passive observer to the unfolding drama on the ground. In the end Obama’s “leading from behind” was finally obvious as not leading at all but a cover for retreat. On Thursday, December 13,   

Washington quietly recalled from Syrian waters the USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier and its strike group and the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready group and the 2,000 Marines on their decks.” 

As if further evidence of American weakness were needed:

At a joint news conference Friday, Jan. 11 [2013], retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, cleaned the Pentagon’s Syrian desk ready for incoming Secretary Chuck Hagel.  Boiled down to essentials, their triple message was that Bashar Assad could not be stopped from using chemical weapons if he chose to do so, that securing the CW sites after Assad’s fall was the job of the “international community” and that no US ground troops would be sent to Syria.” 

From the Department of Defense transcript of the news conference: 

“Q:  Mr. Secretary, did you just rule out putting inU.S. troops to secure Syrian chemical weapons?“ 

“SEC. PANETTA:  Well, I mean, look, we — we’re not working on options that involve boots on the ground.  You know, with — you know, I think you — you always have to keep the possibility that, if there is a peaceful transition and international organizations get involved, that they might ask for assistance in that situation.  But in a hostile situation, we’re not planning for that.” 

General Dempsey, in a valiant effort to assist his stammering boss: 

“The — the effort — or the act of preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable… On the other hand, you know, our collaboration with regional partners, Turkey, Israel— I talked to my Lebanese counterpart yesterday, Jordan.  We’ve got a planning element in Jordan. You know, messaging, such as our president did, that — that the use of chemical weapons would — those that would be responsible would be held accountable [almost as frightening as, “all options are on the table,” to the Iranians!].” 

Certainly, general, with with the show of power represented by America’s Navy in flight from the possibility of threat from Syrian chemical weapons; America abandoning our allies Israel and Syria’s Arab neighbors exposed to the same threat: an American threat, “that — that the use of chemical weapons would — those that would be responsible would be held accountable;” would frighten Syria and Iran, and their patron and America’s regional competitor, Russia. 

The above, I suggest, represents a brief but clear evidence trail representing a superpower in decline. Perfectly understandable that a fading superpower in retreat would long for past serene days a century ago when two oceans could insulate from the threats of the 21st century, from Iranian ballistic missiles, from Iranian sponsored terrorism. The question for the fading superpower’s “allies and dependencies” left to fend for themselves with the Iranian threat from the east, the Muslim Brotherhood from the west is how prepared, on short notice, are they to adjust to the new world order, to take on the task of self-defense? 

For Israel, the twilight of the “special relationship” represents abandonment both materially and psychologically. Nor is it clear at this time that Israel even fully appreciates that she faces the changes at her doorstep. In the past I raised this question and suggested possibilities. Certainly she would benefit, if not require, alliance with a substitute power with regional ambitions. My discussion of these matters may be found in earlier writings, several of which are hyperlinked below.


A selection chronologically listed of relevant articles: 

1. Bush, Condi and the Decline of US Diplomacy: Annapolis, 2007, 13 October, 2007

2.Nuclear Iran and the US-Israel “special relationship,” 27 July, 2008

3. Israel, America’s Shaheed?, Jan 27, 2010


4. America, Iran and the “Showdown in Jerusalem,” 3/15/2010

5. The Middle East after America, Feb 10, 2011

6. Israel’s America Trap, Part 2: Appeasing Iran Oct 21, 2011

About the Author
David made aliya in 1960 and has been active in Jewish issues since. He was a regional director for JNF in New York, created JUDAC, Jews United to Defend the Auschwitz Cemetery during that controversy; at the request of Jonathan Pollard created and led Justice for the Pollards in 1989.
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