The White House is attempting to win congressional support for President Barack Obama’s proposed military strike against Syria by telling members of the House and Senate that such action would be for the benefit and safety of Israel. It’s a misleading and deeply cynical argument, one that ignores Israel’s actual interests and that may well whet appetites for Jewish conspiracy theories.
As Politico’s Jonathan Allen notes, it is just as easy to argue that a U.S. strike against Syria would pose significant risks to Israel. Certainly that is what many Israelis feel. Last week’s suggestion of imminent U.S. action sent Israelis scurrying to buy new gas masks in the event of a Syrian counterstrike like the one Saddam Hussein launched using Scud missiles during the first Gulf War in 1991.
The White House, through Capitol Hill emissaries and Secretary of State John Kerry, appears to be arguing that Syria’s use of chemical weapons poses a direct threat to Israel and other neighbors. That might be true, except that Israel has defended itself ably again Syrian weapons of mass destruction long before their recent use, as in its 2007 bombing of a secret Syrian nuclear facility.
Until the civil war erupted in earnest, Israel was relatively content to put up with an Assad regime armed with chemical weapons because it had neutralized any direct threat and had established an effective deterrent. Some pro-Israel analysts in Washington even argued after the Arab Spring broke out that it would be best for Assad to remain in power to maintain some shred of regional stability.
While it is true that some Israeli leaders are now urging the U.S. to take action against Syria, what they have in mind is clearly more than President Obama has been willing to consider. Israel is primarily worried about Iran, and many would now like to see Bashar al-Assad defeated primarily because he has become an Iranian client–even if they are still worried about the Islamists that would replace him.
Israeli leaders are also hoping that the world’s failure to stop Syria from using chemical weapons will force President Obama to come to his senses about Iran and to back a more forceful diplomatic approach, one that is clearly backed by a credible threat of military force. Israel is prepared to face Iran alone, but would prefer to act with full military, intelligence, and diplomatic support from the U.S.
If an attack against Syria is meant to protect Israel by deterring Iran from pursuing its own weapons of mass destruction, it is hard to square that with the rest of Obama administration policy, which has been to avoid clear “red lines” on the Iranian nuclear program and to preserve the illusion of diplomacy at all costs–even at the cost of allowing the Tehran regime to survive a democratic uprising in 2009.
More likely, the White House is merely using Israel as a political ploy in an attempt to win over confused legislators–much as Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) did when citing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in defending foreign aid to Egypt. They soon reversed themselves after the Egyptian military’s bloody crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
The question American legislators face is not what is in Israel’s interests, but in the interests of the United States. And that is how they should consider the Syria question–especially since American strength is a core Israeli interest. If the U.S. is not prepared to defeat Assad and confront his Iranian backers, then it makes little difference how Congress votes: America and Israel will be weakened either way.
That is entirely President Obama’s fault. And passing the buck–first to Congress, now to Israel–underscores both the unserious nature of Obama’s foreign policy, and the fact that his appeal for congressional support is a quest for political cover. If Israel’s leaders are counting on Obama for support, on Syria or in any other way, that country is in even greater danger than circumstances would suggest.