A residual rancor against America’s $3 billion military aid budget to Israel still can be detected in the corners of the conservative movement. Yes, Israel is the only democracy in the region, and yes, Israel is an American ally, but Israel is out for Israel’s interests just as America is out for America’s interest — so why should American taxpayers subsidize the powerful and prosperous Jewish state?
Never mind that the $3 billion in military aid amounts to a Pentagon subsidy for American arms manufacturers. Never mind also that Israeli military technology and intelligence make an enormous (and largely untold) contribution to American security.
There’s a reason to maintain alliances in the cold light of Realpolitik which conservative isolationists refuse to consider: Allies can do things that we want done at much less risk to us and at far lower cost than if we were to do them directly.
Israel has substantially reduced Iran’s military capacity in Syria, for example, and has done so without provoking a confrontation with Russia. If the United States were to use its own planes to bomb Iranian installations in Syria, that would constitute a direct challenge to Russia’s presence in the country, and lead to a strategic confrontation that we do not want (and the isolationists want least of anyone). But Israel can do so, because Israel is no threat to Russia, and Israeli bombing raids in Syria do not humiliate the Kremlin. Israeli action keeps the matter on the local level, rather than escalating it to a matter of global tension.
Israel has been doing this for almost half a century. In 1982, Israel’s air force shot down almost 100 Russian-built fighters flown by the Syrian air force in what was dubbed “the Beqaa Valley turkey shoot.” A combination of new American look down/shoot down radar and Israeli drone technology and other new technologies developed by America and Israel turned top-0f-the-line Russian aircraft into junk. If the United States had done this to a Russian ally, it would have meant war. When Israel did it ostensibly on its own account, though, the Russians watched in stupefaction and silence. That was a turning point in the Cold War: the Russians understood immediately that they could not control the skies in a conventional war, and that Western air superiority nullified their vast investments in manpower and tanks on the Central Front.
Communism collapsed because Russia’s generals understood that massive American investments in frontier military technology, including missile defense, would give America an insuperable advantage. Russia was already spending up to a quarter of its national output on defense and simply couldn’t compete.
That is what motivated the Gorbachev reforms that cracked the foundation of Communism.
The cheapest and most cost-effective investment America made through the whole of the Cold War was military aid to Israel.
Iran is one of America’s biggest worries today. One rogue nuclear state, namely North Korea, has given us endless headaches; a second rogue nuclear state controlled by the mad mullahs of Tehran would be worse. We do not want to invade Iran, as the isolationists fear, but we need to contain it. Israel is doing a great deal of our dirty work for us, at risk to its own military personnel, and at considerable risk to its own civilian population, which lives under the shadow of 120,000 rockets pointed at it by Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese cat’s paw. Israel’s adroit diplomacy and superb military capacity help us navigate a geopolitical minefield, avoiding a dangerous and unnecessary confrontation with Russia.
The optimal way to deal with Iran is to help bring down the Islamist regime. Iran is rotting from the inside, like the old Soviet Union, but much worse and much faster. Regimes do not simply fall of their own weight, however. They must be humiliated in a way that persuades some insiders that the smart money is on a fast exit. In Iran’s case, the mullahs taxed the creaking domestic economy to fund massive foreign commitments in Syria, as I documented a year ago in Asia Times. The beating that Israel has given the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps and its motley mercenary army in Syria humiliates the regime, and contributes to the overall goal of regime change. No American boots on the ground, and probably no American planes in the air, will be required. That’s what the Israeli alliance contributes.
The old canard that American backing for Israel alienated prospective allies in the Arab world has disappeared, now that the Sunni Arab states find themselves in a de facto alliance with Israel against Shi’ite Iran. The argument always was silly — the Arabs respect strength and loyalty to allies, not flattery — but now it simply has been superseded by events.
To be sure, Israel’s economy is sufficiently large that the elimination of U.S. military aid would not make a great deal of difference. But the United States gets enormous benefits by locking Israel into American weapons systems. First of all, Israel’s military R&D makes a huge contribution to our security. Its anti-rocket system, Iron Dome, was a minor miracle that the Pentagon did not believe possible at the time. More importantly, it aligns Israel with American interests, and encourages Israel to continue to take risks on our behalf.
All of the above should be obvious to anyone who knows the basic facts. President Donald Trump understands it clearly, and has done more than any American president to foster the Israeli-American alliance since Harry Truman recognized the new Jewish state in 1948. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that isolationists who still grumble about our alliance with Israel are victims of an ugly obsession.