Jul 27th 2010

Chas Freeman Lets Rip on Israel as a Strategic Liability

by Sharmine Narwani

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in both journalism and Mideast studies.

In what was touted right here on the Huffington Post as "one of the few genuine debates on Israel-Middle East issues" in Washington, former US Ambassador Chas Freeman and WINEP Executive Director Rob Satloff tackled the subject of "Israel: Asset or Liability" at the Nixon Center last week.

Freeman, whose nomination as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council was scuttled by Jewish-American groups in the early days of the Obama administration, could well become their worst nightmare. On the inside, he would have had to toe the party line. But having been very publicly and unfairly discredited by the pro-Israel crowd, Freeman can walk that rare line and speak honestly about the Jewish state without drowning in the caveats that accompany most such attempts in Washington.

His post-resignation comments were not those of someone who had been cowed. Freeman slammed the "Israel lobby" for preventing "any view other than its own from being aired" and accused them of "an utter disregard for the truth."

So who better to argue the "Israel as a liability" side than Freeman, who has shown a rare frankness on this subject over his career.

The Nixon Center event was timely. The debate on Israel's strategic value was blown open by General David Petraeus' testimony earlier this year linking lack of progress in Mideast peace talks to CENTCOM's difficulties in the Iraq/Afghanistan military theater. Which naturally demanded a re-examination of Israel's importance as a strategic ally of the United States.

And while others may carefully traverse these sensitive waters, Freeman clearly feels no such compunction. Which is what made this debate the "ticket of the month."

Without further ado, here then is Freeman - unplugged - at the Nixon Center:


"Is Israel a strategic asset or liability for the United States? Interesting question. We must thank the Nixon Center for asking it. In my view, there are many reasons for Americans to wish the Jewish state well. Under current circumstances, strategic advantage for the United States is not one of them. If we were to reverse the question, however, and to ask whether the United States is a strategic asset or liability for Israel, there would be no doubt about the answer.

American taxpayers fund between 20 and 25 percent of Israel's defense budget (depending on how you calculate this). Twenty-six percent of the $3 billion in military aid we grant to the Jewish state each year is spent in Israel on Israeli defense products. Uniquely, Israeli companies are treated like American companies for purposes of U.S. defense procurement. Thanks to congressional earmarks, we also often pay half the costs of special Israeli research and development projects, even when - as in the case of defense against very short-range unguided missiles -- the technology being developed is essentially irrelevant to our own military requirements. In short, in many ways, American taxpayers fund jobs in Israel's military industries that could have gone to our own workers and companies. Meanwhile, Israel gets pretty much whatever it wants in terms of our top-of-the-line weapons systems, and we pick up the tab.

Identifiable U.S. government subsidies to Israel total over $140 billion since 1949. This makes Israel by far the largest recipient of American giveaways since World War II. The total would be much higher if aid to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and support for Palestinians in refugee camps and the occupied territories were included. These programs have complex purposes but are justified in large measure in terms of their contribution to the security of the Jewish state.

Per capita income in Israel is now about $37,000 -- on a par with the UK. Israel is nonetheless the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, accounting for well over a fifth of it. Annual U.S. government transfers run at well over $500 per Israeli, not counting the costs of tax breaks for private donations and loans that aren't available to any other foreign country.

These military and economic benefits are not the end of the story. The American government also works hard to shield Israel from the international political and legal consequences of its policies and actions in the occupied territories, against its neighbors, or - most recently - on the high seas. The nearly 40 vetoes the United States has cast to protect Israel in the UN Security Council are the tip of iceberg. We have blocked a vastly larger number of potentially damaging reactions to Israeli behavior by the international community. The political costs to the United States internationally of having to spend our political capital in this way are huge.

Where Israel has no diplomatic relations, U.S. diplomats routinely make its case for it. As I know from personal experience (having been thanked by the then Government of Israel for my successful efforts on Israel's behalf in Africa), the U.S. government has been a consistent promoter and often the funder of various forms of Israeli programs of cooperation with other countries. It matters also that America - along with a very few other countries - has remained morally committed to the Jewish experiment with a state in the Middle East. Many more Jews live in America than in Israel. Resolute American support should be an important offset to the disquiet about current trends that has led over 20 percent of Israelis to emigrate, many of them to the United States, where Jews enjoy unprecedented security and prosperity.

Clearly, Israel gets a great deal from us. Yet it's pretty much taboo in the United States to ask what's in it for Americans. I can't imagine why. Still, the question I've been asked to address today is just that: what's in it -- and not in it -- for us to do all these things for Israel.

We need to begin by recognizing that our relationship with Israel has never been driven by strategic reasoning. It began with President Truman overruling his strategic and military advisers in deference to personal sentiment and political expediency. We had an arms embargo on Israel until Lyndon Johnson dropped it in 1964 in explicit return for Jewish financial support for his campaign against Barry Goldwater. In 1973, for reasons peculiar to the Cold War, we had to come to the rescue of Israel as it battled Egypt. The resulting Arab oil embargo cost us dearly. And then there's all the time we've put into the perpetually ineffectual and now long defunct "peace process."

Still the US-Israel relationship has had strategic consequences. There is no reason to doubt the consistent testimony of the architects of major acts of anti-American terrorism about what motivates them to attack us. In the words of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is credited with masterminding the 9/11 attacks, their purpose was to focus "the American people ... on the atrocities that America is committing by supporting Israel against the Palestinian people ...." As Osama Bin Laden, purporting to speak for the world's Muslims, has said again and again: "we have . . . stated many times, for more than two-and-a-half-decades, that the cause of ourdisagreement with you is your support to your Israeli allies who occupy our land of Palestine ...." Some substantial portion of the many lives and the trillions of dollars we have so far expended in our escalating conflict with the Islamic world must be apportioned to the costs of our relationship with Israel.

It's useful to recall what we generally expect allies and strategic partners to do for us. In Europe, Asia, and elsewhere in the Middle East, they provide bases and support the projection of American power beyond their borders. They join us on the battlefield in places like Kuwait and Afghanistan or underwrite the costs of our military operations. They help recruit others to our coalitions. They coordinate their foreign aid with ours. Many defray the costs of our use of their facilities with "host nation support" that reduces the costs of our military operations from and through their territory. They store weapons for our troops', rather than their own troops' use. They pay cash for the weapons we transfer to them.

Israel does none of these things and shows no interest in doing them. Perhaps it can't. It is so estranged from everyone else in the Middle East that no neighboring country will accept flight plans that originate in or transit it. Israel is therefore useless in terms of support for American power projection. It has no allies other than us. It has developed no friends. Israeli participation in our military operations would preclude the cooperation of many others. Meanwhile, Israel has become accustomed to living on the American military dole. The notion that Israeli taxpayers might help defray the expense of U.S. military or foreign assistance operations, even those undertaken at Israel's behest, would be greeted with astonishment in Israel and incredulity on Capitol Hill.

Military aid to Israel is sometimes justified by the notion of Israel as a test bed for new weapons systems and operational concepts. But no one can identify a program of military R & D in Israel that was initially proposed by our men and women in uniform. All originated with Israel or members of Congress acting on its behalf. Moreover, what Israel makes it sells not just to the United States but to China, India, and other major arms markets. It feels no obligation to take U.S. interests into account when it transfers weapons and technology to third countries and does so only under duress.

Meanwhile, it's been decades since Israel's air force faced another in the air. It has come to specialize in bombing civilian infrastructure and militias with no air defenses. There is not much for the U.S. Air Force to learn from that. Similarly, the Israeli navy confronts no real naval threat. Its experience in interdicting infiltrators, fishermen, and humanitarian aid flotillas is not a model for the U.S. Navy to study. Israel's army, however, has had lessons to impart. Now in its fifth decade of occupation duty, it has developed techniques of pacification, interrogation, assassination, and drone attack that inspired U.S. operations in Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, Somalia, Yemen, and Waziristan. Recently, Israel has begun to deploy various forms of remote-controlled robotic guns. These enable operatives at far-away video screens summarily to execute anyone they view as suspicious. Such risk-free means of culling hostile populations could conceivably come in handy in some future American military operation, but I hope not. I have a lot of trouble squaring the philosophy they embody with the values Americans traditionally aspired to exemplify.

It is sometimes said that, to its credit, Israel does not ask the United States to fight its battles for it; it just wants the money and weapons to fight them on its own. Leave aside the question of whether Israel's battles are or should also be America's. It is no longer true that Israel does not ask us to fight for it. The fact that prominent American apologists for Israel were the most energetic promoters of the U.S. invasion of Iraq does not, of course, prove that Israel was the instigator of that grievous misadventure. But the very same people are now urging an American military assault on Iran explicitly to protect Israel and to preserve its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. Their advocacy is fully coordinated with the Government of Israel. No one in the region wants a nuclear-armed Iran, but Israel is the only country pressing Americans to go to war over this.

Finally, the need to protect Israel from mounting international indignation about its behavior continues to do grave damage to our global and regional standing. It has severely impaired our ties with the world's 1.6 billion Muslims. These costs to our international influence, credibility, and leadership are, I think, far more serious than the economic and other burdens of the relationship.

Against this background, it's remarkable that something as fatuous as the notion of Israel as a strategic asset could have become the unchallengeable conventional wisdom in the United States. Perhaps it's just that as someone once said: "people ... will more easily fall victim to a big lie than a small one." Be that as it may, the United States and Israel have a lot invested in our relationship. Basing our cooperation on a thesis and narratives that will not withstand scrutiny is dangerous. It is especially risky in the context of current fiscal pressures in the United States. These seem certain soon to force major revisions of both current levels of American defense spending and global strategy, in the Middle East as well as elsewhere. They also place federally-funded programs in Israel in direct competition with similar programs here at home. To flourish over the long term, Israel's relations with the United States need to be grounded in reality, not myth, and in peace, not war."

Well said, Chas. I wonder if he will not ultimately serve US interests better on this side of the fence - free to engage and speak out on our policy imperatives in the Mideast. Good minds can go bad in government, where process dominates logic and ensures the kind of directionless adventures we undertake in the region. A few more Freemans out there would do us all some good. Straight-talkers, we need you now!

Follow Sharmine Narwani on Twitter: www.twitter.com/snarwani

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACT: ".... the likelihood is that Biden, who spent his life as a senator, played a central behind-the-scenes role in turning Manchin around and keeping the Democratic Party Senators together on this pared-down version of Build Back Better. Biden’s legislative accomplishments, not to mention his administrative ones, will likely end up being very impressive for the first two years of his presidency. ------ In matters of climate, every ton of CO2 you don’t put into the atmosphere is a decrease in how hard life will be for our grandchildren. They will have reason to be grateful to President Biden and the Democratic Party if this bill becomes law."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Right-wing media outlets including Fox News, One America News (OAN), Newsmax, and talk radio are grossly abusing the right to free speech and are causing profound, if not irreparable damage to our country at home and abroad. They have been engaged in these deliberate practices of spreading poisonous misinformation all in the name of free speech." ---- "A team at MIT, analyzing propaganda techniques in the news, underscores the use of logical fallacies – such as strawmen (the misrepresentation of the other’s position), red herrings (the provision of irrelevancies), false dichotomies (offering two alternatives as the only possibilities), and whataboutism (a diversionary tactic to avoid directly addressing an issue). ---- Whataboutism is worth considering more closely because it is becoming ubiquitous among Republicans – perhaps this is not surprising given that it is certainly Trump’s “favorite dodge.” It is one of the fundamental rules by which he operates: when you are criticized, say that someone else is worse. In an interview with Trump, Bill O’Reilly states the obvious fact that “Putin is a killer,” and who can forget Trump’s response: “There are a lot of killers. You got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?” That is classic whataboutism. And it is also of course all over Fox News’ most popular line-up."
Jul 24th 2022
EXTRACTS: "For three hours, against the unequivocal advice of his counsel, friends, and family, Trump purposefully and steadfastly declined to give the mob he had summoned any signal to disperse, to exit the building peacefully, or to simply cease threatening the life of his vice president or other members of Congress." ------ "Trump is corrupt to the core, a traitor who deserves nothing but contempt and to spend the rest of his life behind bars because he remains a menace to this country and an existential threat to our democratic institutions."
Jul 21st 2022
EXTRACT: "For some countries, diasporas also are not new. Just ask the Russians. For three-quarters of a century, Stalin’s NKVD and its successor, the KGB, kept close tabs on expatriate Russians, constantly worrying about the threat they might pose. And now, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s security service, the FSB, is continuing the tradition. According to recent FSB estimates, almost four million Russians left the country in the first three months of this year. Obviously, FSB statistics are hard to verify. But the sheer magnitude of this year’s departures is striking."
Jul 20th 2022
EXTRACTS: "We need leaders who will be honest about our problems in the short, medium, and long term. We are becoming poorer than our neighbors, with our per capita growth and productivity lagging behind theirs. We confront surging energy prices, soaring inflation, and public-sector strikes. Our fiscal deficit is uncomfortably high. Our influence is diminished. Far from recognizing these challenges, let alone proposing sensible solutions, the candidates to succeed Johnson are trying to win votes with reckless proposals like ever-larger tax cuts." ----- "There is one exception. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak refuses to abandon the notion that expenditure should bear some relationship to revenue. "
Jul 13th 2022
EXTRACT: "Looking ahead, five factors could make today’s energy crisis even worse. First, Putin has opened a second front in the conflict by cutting back on the contracted volumes of natural gas that Russia supplies to Europe. The goal is to prevent Europeans from storing enough supplies for next winter, and to drive prices higher, creating economic hardship and political discord. In his speech in June at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Putin made his reasoning clear: “Social and economic problems worsening in Europe” will “split their societies” and “inevitably lead to populism … and a change of the elites in the short term.” ...... As it is, Germany is now anticipating the need for gas rationing, and its minister for economic affairs, Robert Habeck, warns of a “Lehman-style contagion” (referring to the 2008 financial crisis) if Europe cannot manage today’s energy-induced economic disruptions."
Jul 5th 2022
EXTRACT: "Fortunately, I am not alone in claiming that the survival of democracy in the US is gravely endangered. The American public has been aroused by the decision overturning Roe. But people need to recognize that decision for what it is: part of a carefully laid plan to turn the US into a repressive regime. We must do everything we can to prevent that. This fight ought to include many people who voted for Trump in the past."
Jul 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit described this succinctly in his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises. In “politics as economics,” material interests are “subject to bargaining, everything is negotiable, whereas in the religious picture, centered on the idea of the holy, the holy is non-negotiable.” This, then, is why politics in the US is now in such a perilous state. More and more, the secular left and the religious right are engaged in a culture war, revolving around sexuality, gender, and race, where politics is no longer negotiable. When that happens, institutions start breaking down, and the stage is set for charismatic demagogues and the politics of violence."
Jul 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "...EU enlargement is essentially a political decision by member states, based on a multitude of considerations that sometimes include dramatic events. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is such a turning point."
Jun 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "Most market analysts seem to think that central banks will remain hawkish, but I am not so sure. I have argued that they will eventually wimp out and accept higher inflation – followed by stagflation – once a hard landing becomes imminent, because they will be worried about the damage of a recession and a debt trap, owing to an excessive build-up of private and public liabilities after years of low interest rates." ----- "There is ample reason to believe that the next recession will be marked by a severe stagflationary debt crisis. As a share of global GDP, private and public debt levels are much higher today than in the past, having risen from 200% in 1999 to 350% today (with a particularly sharp increase since the start of the pandemic). Under these conditions, rapid normalization of monetary policy and rising interest rates will drive highly leveraged zombie households, companies, financial institutions, and governments into bankruptcy and default."
Jun 28th 2022
EXTRACT: "It is tempting to conclude that today’s central bankers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Maybe if they sit tight, they will ride out the storm. Then-Fed Chair Paul Volcker was Public Enemy Number One in the United States in the early 1980s, when he squeezed post-oil-shock inflation out of the system with double-digit interest rates. But in his later years he was revered, and became a national treasure, called on to advise successive presidents in any financial emergency. ----- But central bankers would be wise not to assume that their reputations will automatically recover, and that the status quo ante will be restored. We live in a more disputatious age than the 1980s. Public institutions are more regularly challenged and held to account by far less reverential legislators." ----- "Moreover, former central bankers have joined the chorus of critics. Former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, breaking the unwritten rule not to reproach one’s successors, has said that today’s Fed made “a mistake” by responding slowly to inflation. And Bailey’s immediate predecessors, Mervyn King and Mark Carney, have weighed in, too, with challenges to the BOE’s policy. The fabric of the central banking fraternity is fraying."
Jun 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "Public opinion in Belarus remains firmly against involvement into the war with Ukraine. Moreover, according to a Chatham House survey, 40% of Belarusians do not support Russia’s war, compared to 32% who do, while around half of those questioned see predominately negative consequences of the war for Belarus (53%) and for themselves (48%). The Belarusian military and security services are also aware of the determined and skilful resistance that Ukrainian forces have put up against Russia and the risks that they would therefore be running if they entered the war against Ukraine. This, in turn, means that the risk to Lukashenko himself remains that he might lose his grip on power, a grip which depends heavily on the loyalty of his armed forces." ---- "Ultimately, Belarus may not be on the brink of being plunged into war quite yet, but its options to avoid such a disaster are narrowing."
Jun 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russification (the policy of enforcing Russian culture on populations) appears to be being reinforced by ethnic cleansing. Last month the Ukrainian parliament’s commissioner for human rights, Liudmyla Denisova, informed the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, that 1.3 million Ukrainians, including 223,000 children, had been forcibly deported to Russia."
Jun 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "If Trump had his way, then Vice-President Pence would have also broken his oath to the constitution and derailed the certification of electoral votes. Our continued existence as a Republic might very well have hung on Pence’s actions that day. The mob’s response was to call for Pence to be hanged, and a noose and scaffold was erected apparently for that very purpose. What was Trump’s reaction when he was told that the mob was calling for Pence’s summary execution? His words were: “Maybe our supporters have the right idea.” Mike Pence “deserves” it."
Jun 10th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Speaking to journalist Sophie Raworth on the BBC’s Sunday Morning show recently, former war crimes prosecutor Sir Howard Morrison, now an advisor to the Ukraine government, highlighted the dangers posed by the negative – often insulting and dehumanising – statements made by some Russian politicians and media personalities about Ukraine and its people." ---- "The conditions and attitudes described by Morrison have existed for centuries: Russians have viewed Ukrainians as inferior since before the Soviet era." ----- "And, as Morrison said, stereotyping and denigrating a people as inferior or lacking agency makes atrocities and looting more likely to happen, as we are seeing in Ukraine."
Jun 9th 2022
EXTRACT: "Unless Russia realises that the west is willing and able to push back, a new, stable security order in Europe will not be possible. Concessions to Russia, by Ukraine or the EU and Nato, are not the way to achieve this. That this has been realised beyond Ukraine’s most ardent supporters in the Baltic states, Poland, the UK and the US is clear from German support for strengthening Nato’s northern flank and a general increase in Nato members’ defence spending."
Jun 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "Highly civilized people can turn into barbarians when demagogues and dictators exploit their fears and trigger their most atavistic instincts. Rape, torture, and massacres often happen when soldiers invade foreign countries. Commanding officers sometimes actively encourage such behavior to terrorize an enemy into submission. And sometimes it occurs when the officer corps loses control and discipline breaks down. Japanese and Germans know this, as do Serbs, Koreans, Americans, Russians, and many others."
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Like Metternich, Kissinger commits the fatal error of believing that a few wise policymakers can impose their will on the world. Worse, he believes they can halt domestically generated change and the power of nationalism. Many years ago, this is what Senator William Fulbright termed the “arrogance of power.” This approach failed in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It is also doomed to fail in Russia and Ukraine." ------ "Not surprisingly, Kissinger misunderstands Russia. He appears to believe that, because Russia has been an “essential part of Europe” for over four centuries, it is therefore fated to remain so for the foreseeable future.The claim is completely at odds with history." ---- "Finally, Kissinger misunderstands the implications of his own analysis for Western relations with Russia. “We are facing,” he said, “a situation now where Russia could alienate itself completely from Europe and seek a permanent alliance elsewhere." ---- "But what’s so bad about Russia’s isolating itself from Europe and becoming a vassal state of China? "
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "According to the latest figures from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, China’s population grew from 1.41212 billion to just 1.41260 billion in 2021 – a record low increase of just 480,000, a mere fraction of the annual growth of eight million or so common a decade ago." ----- "China’s total fertility rate (births per woman) was 2.6 in the late 1980s – well above the 2.1 needed to replace deaths. It has been between 1.6 and 1.7 since 1994, and slipped to 1.3 in 2020 and just 1.15 in 2021."
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Casualties are very high. A very conservative estimate of overall Russian losses is that they have lost more troops killed since February 24 than in ten years of fighting in Afghanistan. This implies well over 40,000 men taken out of the fight, including the wounded." ----- "Away from the cauldron of Donbas, Belarus has been rattling its somewhat rusty sabre by deploying troops to its border with Ukraine. This is unlikely to trouble Kyiv. The Belarus president, Alexander Lukashenko, is well aware that he may need them at home to shore up his shaky regime."