By Tarak Barkawi, 29 May 2011 16:32
Judging by reactions to recent speeches by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, many in the US would prefer to have the Israeli leader directing US foreign policy on the key security questions of the day. It is astonishing that the leader of a foreign country can so publicly and effectively oppose a sitting president in his own capital. Only in the US, and only for Israel.
Why is this so? Why is there such resonance between the people of these two countries?
Just before the first anniversary of 9/11, President Bush told some members of the US House of Representatives that the reason Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction were the biggest threat was because “he can blow up Israel”. One way to justify a US invasion of Iraq was to make it for the sake of Israel.
Senator J William Fulbright famously remarked that on anything they care about, the Israelis have 75 to 80 votes in the Senate. In the United States Senate, that is.
As early as 1969, future President Gerald Ford declared that “the fate of Israel is linked to the national security interests of the United States”. More apocalyptically, Eugene Rostow warned that it would mean the end of “liberal civilisation” if Israel were not defended.
These are simply extraordinary statements, and many more could be quoted. It is all the more extraordinary that they seem unremarkable, a normal and expected part of the US political scene. Why should the US be so willing to expend blood and, especially, treasure on behalf of a far away country?
A usual explanation is the “Israel Lobby”, the “loose coalition of individuals and organisations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction” as Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt define it. Prominent “realists” who believe states act according to their national interests, they are concerned to explain such a glaring anomaly as the case of US policy towards Israel.
Undoubtedly, special interest lobbies of all kinds shape political debate and outcomes in the US and elsewhere. But to identify the Israel lobby and its activities is not an explanation. Why does the US have a lobby for Israel of such scale in the first place? Why should it be so effective? Why is its message so warmly received?
The idea behind the Israel lobby is that US support for Israel has something to do with American Jews, that they have convinced by fair means or foul the rest of the country to act in Israel’s interests. This is why criticism of the Israel lobby is so easily tarred with the brush of anti-Semitism.
But a special relationship of this kind has much deeper roots in the American psyche, in the core myths that make up the identity of the US.
Americans see in Israel their own preferred reflection of themselves. They see a lone, devout and free people on the edge of a vast continent full of dusky, hostile natives. Like the European colonists who settled North America, the destiny of this free people is to build a “city on a hill” on virgin land, a beacon of freedom and civilisation in a tragic world.
The natives already in possession of that land are an essential part of the story. Their savagery is an appropriate backdrop against which to illuminate the godliness and purity of the settlers. It also calls forth the need for God’s warriors, the brave, resourceful, but pious band of white men who will circle the wagons and hold off the natives.
When American Jews leave behind their safe, comfortable suburban lives for the frontier towns of the West Bank, they are enacting the American story. With Glock automatics instead of Colt revolvers, M16s instead of Winchester rifles, they are off to the last frontier to manifest their destiny.
Other Americans, who have to settle for carrying their guns into the local Starbucks, wish they could be so lucky, that they too could go to a frontier town to play “Cowboys and Indians” for real.
9/11 helped seal this bond between two free peoples. The US too had been attacked by suicidal terrorists. As Paul Wolfowitz told a rally of Israel’s supporters, “at that moment every American understood what it is like to live in Jerusalem or Netanya or Haifa”.
But in truth any American who had ever watched a John Wayne movie already had a template by which to support Israel. All the Israel lobby had to do was tell its story according to the appropriate myths.
Tarak Barkawi is Senior Lecturer, Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge. He specialises in the study of war, armed forces and society with a focus on conflict between the West and the global South in historical and contemporary perspective. Most recently, he is author of Globalisation and War.