by Victor Davis Hanson
NRO’s The Corner
Whatever the protestations of the Obama administration, many in both Britain and Israel feel that 2009-10 marked a watershed, the beginning of an era in which America was no longer a special friend to either — whether gauged by serial symbolic snubs or real policy differences on things like Jerusalem and the Falklands.
Why does this matter, other than that it is stupid for a country to treat old friends like belligerents and old belligerents like friends?
In the case of Britain, history resonates. Over the last century it was Britain that, sometimes alone, defended liberal constitutional government, whether from Prussian militarism or the hydra of fascism, Nazism, and Japanese militarism. It was always a reliable partner in the Cold War, and aside from normal periodic spats was a loyal ally in most of America’s postwar fights. We forget sometimes the courageous record of the British in Korea, or their lonely alliance with us in Iraq. Note that this is all apart from the British role in general in the shaping of Western liberal political history, and in particular the protocols and values that underlie so much of the American experiment, from a common language to a rich heritage of literature and thought. For an American president to be woefully ignorant of all that, and why it should count, is nothing short of unbelievable.
Obama is equally clueless about why, for a half-century at least, both Republican and Democratic presidents have forged a second special relationship, this one with Israel. There certainly were not always strategic advantages in doing so, given the Arab world’s vast petroleum reserves, its huge size and population in comparison to tiny Israel, and the global fear, first, of rampant Soviet-inspired Palestinian terrorism, and, subsequently, its radical Islamic epigone.
Instead, the United States — again, keen to both history and values — took on the special defense of the Jewish state for a variety of principled considerations that went well beyond the concerns of Jewish Americans. We understood the long history of anti-Semitism and how, when freely expressed and practiced without objection, it devolves into pogroms and its ultimate nightmare in the Holocaust. We acknowledged the role of Judaism in the foundation of the Western Judaeo-Christian religious experience. And the American public was impressed that a tiny country without natural resources was able not only to survive in a sea of hostility, but to do so under the aegis of consensual government and an open society.
Last, such special consideration for Israel was predicated on some ugly realities. Most of the autocratic world, and some of the contemporary West, simply mask personal prejudice and realpolitik with a postmodern veneer of fashionable multicultural sympathy for the “other” — despite the illiberal and often fascistic tendencies of both radical Islam and Arab dictatorship that so galvanize most of Israel’s Middle Eastern enemies. But when the U.S stood by Israel, there was a sort of equilibrium established.
The United Nations knew that nearly half of its resolutions aimed at Israel would come under fire from the United States. We would bite back in New York at the fiery speeches of an extremist like Arafat or Qaddafi. The Arab summits accepted that yet another pan-Arabic resolution damning the Jewish state would go nowhere in convincing the West to drop its alliance. And European triangulators accepted that their flagrant dislike of Israel would always encounter American resistance.
The net result, again, was that Israel’s front-line enemies, whether terrorists or state autocracies, accepted that it was futile to try to destroy Israel, and difficult to galvanize world opinion to turn it into a global pariah.
Now, however, the Obama administration — through its symbolic snubs and choice of personnel, and through real policies concerning Jerusalem — has sent a message to Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Iran, the United Nations, and the European Left that America is no longer particularly interested in playing its traditional role in defending Israel either intellectually or politically — and thus perhaps soon not through military assistance either. That will only encourage new adventurism, as a mostly opportunistic world rushes to pile on, at first rhetorically, but soon through material action and global indifference to Israel’s fate.
The origins of Obama’s apparent distaste for both Britain and Israel have been explored, but why the party of Truman and JFK abetted his transformation of American foreign policy is a more complex, but equally disheartening, matter.
©2010 Victor Davis Hanson