Asked on February 1, 2006 whether the United States would protect Israel militarily against Iran, President George W. Bush left no doubt: "You bet, we'll defend Israel."
To some realists, his statement was evidence that Israel had become a strategic liability to the United States. A few prominent Jewish leaders, worried that Jews might be blamed for any military conflict with Iran, urged Bush to tone down his statements pledging support for Israel. "We are basically telling the president: We appreciate it, we welcome it. But, hey, because there is this debate on Iraq, where people are trying to put the blame on us, maybe you shouldn't say it that often or that loud," Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, explained.
In reality, though, Bush's pledge of support to Israel is neither new nor special. While critics of US foreign policy and the Bush administration suggest that US wars are fought for either Israel or oil, history suggests otherwise. In the last 15 years, the US military has intervened not only in Iraq and Afghanistan--both part of the war on terrorism--but also in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, in each case for humanitarian purposes.
That the US would act to defend its allies should not surprise. While US professors proffer informed comment that Iranian leaders do not mean what they say, policymakers have learned to take the opinion of academic experts with a grain of salt. One week before Iraq invaded Kuwait, The Times (London) reported, "The consensus among Middle East experts...was that Iraq would not invade Kuwait."
After Saddam Hussein demonstrated that sometimes dictators mean what they say, President George H.W. Bush did not go wobbly. Before a joint session of Congress on September 11, 1990, Bush declared, "Our objectives in the Persian Gulf are clear, our goals defined and familiar: Iraq must withdraw from Kuwait completely, immediately, and without condition. Kuwait's legitimate government must be restored." Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt may receive plaudits in certain crowds for arguing that Israel is a strategic liability to the United States, but the fact remains that the US went to war in 1991 not to protect Israel, but to protect Saudi Arabia and liberate Kuwait. That it did so was correct.
US defense of allies from aggression is not limited to the Middle East. In both Korea and Vietnam, invasions by communist states of US allies sparked full-scale war. President Harry S Truman recorded the lowest popularity ever among US presidents in part because of high casualties and domestic criticism of his engagement in an "open-ended" conflict. He understood--as have subsequent presidents--that US credibility among its allies is more important than any snapshot poll. Today, the US maintains 35,000 troops in South Korea, and Truman ranks among the top five presidents in polls by American historians.
As costly as a war with China would be, US administrations have made clear that Washington would consider military action to defend Taiwan from Chinese aggression. In 1979, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act that declared it necessary to provide arms to Taiwan and "to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan." Early in his first term, against the backdrop of a crisis with Beijing, George W. Bush declared that if the Peoples' Republic of China attacked Taiwan, the US would do "whatever it took to help Taiwan defend itself".
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad may believe their anti-Israel rhetoric resonates with both their domestic audience and the Arab street. They may believe that Washington is too weak to respond. Addressing the United States on the seventeenth anniversary of the death of Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Khamenei asked, "Why do you [the US] not admit that you are weak and your razor is blunt?"
But, despite Bush administration equivocation about its democratization policy, the strain of US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and the failure of the White House to stand by its previously declared red lines, Tehran would be mistaken to believe that the US government neither had the will nor the capacity to stand by Israel or any other ally. If forced to act, Washington would and could. The US Air Force and Navy remain unencumbered. While no serious policymaker discusses occupation of Iran, the Islamic Republic's leadership would not likely survive should it push the White House into conflict over Israel or, for that matter, over Washington's allies in the Persian Gulf.
On certain issues, US policy is remarkably consistent and bipartisan. No matter how poisonous political battles are in Washington, Congress unites in the face of aggression against the United States or its allies. Bush's pledge to protect Israel is neither unique nor counter to US interests. For Tehran or any other state to believe otherwise or engage in policies that would challenge the White House on its fundamental duties to its allies would represent a serious miscalculation.
Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC.