Walter Russell Mead, Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship at the Hudson Institute, columnist at the Wall Street Journal, and Bard College professor, spoke to an October 21st Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about his book, Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People, which examines the history of the U.S.-Israel relationship and its place in America's foreign policy.
Mead's book dispels the "mythology" in world politics about the U.S. role in Israel's achieving its independence, which he said has usually been portrayed as "more critical ... than in fact it did." The reality is that when Israel was "weak" in its early years and needed help, there was no "American alliance" to rely upon. Such an alliance only developed "when [Israel] had grown strong."
Mead found "that the ideas that drive American thinking about Israel are critical to the ways Americans think about foreign policy and the world around them generally." Thus, American policy towards the Jewish state, which is based upon "the logic of realpolitik," reflects the sentiment of a majority of Americans who feel "sympathetic" towards Israel. This support has its origins in "the Anglo-American Christian spirit" that has pervaded America's domestic political landscape and that in Read's view is "both less antisemitic and more pro-Zionist than other forms of Christianity."
An outgrowth of the philo-Zionism among the early Protestant establishment in the U.S. was a petition received by President Harrison in 1891 urging him to "use American influence to help establish a Jewish state in the lands of the Bible." The petition's signers included such prominent American "intellectual, cultural, and political leaders" as John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, the Chief Justice of the United States and Cyrus McCormick, Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Mead said that he also had to examine "the ways that antisemitism has played a role in American politics," in particular among the far right and far left, where antisemitism spiked during "periods where people are fundamentally uncertain about the [attainment of the] American project." He said that American identity and its purpose are built on "the idea of America as a tribe of tribes," comprised of "Christians, Muslims, Jews" and people of "no religion" who all "shelter under this big tent." It was within that framework that a "seedbed" of pro-Zionism, which exists in the U.S., came into being. So this seedbed is destabilized when there are "questions of ultimate concern" regarding the broader viability of the American project. Recent examples on the extremities of American society are seen in the far-right neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, and the far-left which denounced "American liberalism [as] just the friendly face of racism." The common thread they share is antisemitism.
Mead said U.S. policy towards Israel will be determined by the debates over the extent to which the U.S. should remain engaged in the Middle East and whether its national interest should be more narrowly defined by stepping back from maintaining a "global foreign policy." Mead said the political direction America takes is "going to depend on events," but it is his firm belief that the U.S. should remain engaged in the Middle East because it is "essential" in preventing other countries such as China or Russia from becoming "a dominant player" in the region. Mead sees Israel as a "natural partner and ally" whose "vital interests" align with U.S. interests, even more so now that a number of Arab countries consider Israel "a strategic ally."
Mead's perspective is that "we are in an apocalyptic era of world history" where those "questions of ultimate concern are becoming fused with foreign policy debates." The merger of the two makes foreign policy solutions more elusive and keeps both issues foremost in people's minds. A key example is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Historically, U.S. support for Palestinians began when the U.S. government established UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) to address "displaced Palestinians after the War of Independence." UNRWA is part of a U.S. policy that financially and diplomatically aided the Palestinians far more than the aid the U.S. government extended to the Jews of Palestine before 1948. Mead said that U.S. policy "has done more and tried harder to get the Palestinians a state than it did to get the pre-1948 Jews a state."
That Christians and Muslims see Israel and the Jewish people as having a "talismanic" significance in today's political climate causes people around the world to be drawn to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as it plays out in "the glare of this extraordinary global spotlight." Nonetheless, Mead said Israel's survival is not dependent on U.S. support because the Jewish state possesses nuclear weapons, and its technological advances make it a "necessary power" in the eyes of China, Russia, and India. Additionally, as energy transitions to renewables, Saudi Arabia looks to Israel's technological innovations as a path to develop alternatives to fossil fuels for its economic future.
Mead views the Abraham Accords as an "adjustment" to what "what some might start to call soon a post-American era in the Middle East." While crediting the Trump administration for its "diplomacy" in removing obstacles to the agreements, he saw that the "main force" driving the accords was the realization by Israel and the Gulf countries that the U.S. is no longer the "reliable ... defender in the Middle East." To face the Iranian threat, Gulf states see the wisdom in "the alignment of Arab and Israeli" interests. In general, Mead said "the most important breakthroughs for peace in the Middle East comes actually from the local people themselves."
Mead's main rationale for the U.S. remaining engaged in the Middle East is to maintain a "balance of power" and keep the region from being dominated by "great external powers." China looks to history and lessons learned from the devastation Germany suffered during the two world wars when its trade was cut off and "the lack of these raw materials help[ed] drive German strategies in disastrous ways." Mead said that the knowledge the U.S. could "interdict the oil [shipped] from the Middle East to China" is a necessary deterrent, but he believes this strategy could be accomplished with "less military investment" by forming stronger alliances and support for those countries who "really do want to do this themselves."
Mead found the "creative thought" and "problem solving" ideas that serve America best are found in "the vital center of American politics." He said that "a mix of free enterprise and a forward-looking government" can solve enough of the problems "of enough of the people" and generate enough wealth for society to advance — all reasons why he remains a "believer in the American system." Surveying the disunity and chaos in America's divisive political landscape, Mead said, "My hope and prayer is that America will remain America even in the stormy times that we're passing through right now."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.