Gauging the limits of American friendship


In the end, Secretary of State John Kerry said all he needed to say … from an administration point of view.

But sitting in the audience at the Monday night plenary session of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference, one had to wonder if the secretary’s pronouncements that the crucial time for the implementation of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had arrived — and would quickly disappear in the face of inaction — were the words that the moment required.

Throughout the day, eyes glued to the few television sets available at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center were watching news reports related to the at-once surprising, but entirely expected military escalation in Ukraine. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) began the policy conference at the morning plenary by branding U.S. diplomacy in that part of the world as “feckless,” and Kerry himself would be dispatched to Kiev by the White House on Tuesday.

But not one word about Ukraine — not of its people’s dire wish for freedom, not of Russian moves in Crimea, not of the recent overthrow of the country’s president — passed Kerry’s lips. Instead, he offered an impassioned defense of “forceful diplomacy” meant to deprive Iran of a nuclear weapon and offered promises on behalf of the president that “America will not fail Israel.”

Time and again, Washington’s chief diplomat invoked the assurance that while he harbored no illusions, President Obama’s foreign policy is the best strategy vis-a-vis Tehran and the best chance that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have at “ending the conflict once and for all.” A brief translation: America knows best; America has Israel’s best interests at heart; America will protect Israel when push comes to shove.

If one were to look at history and at Kerry’s own past — AIPAC national board member Norm Brownstein was quick to remind the thousands of audience members that the secretary of state enjoyed a “100 percent” voting record on Israel-related issues while in the Senate — his argument would carry a lot of weight. Through thick and thin, albeit with minor hiccups in the past, Washington has been a stalwart friend of Israel.

But as any financial adviser will attest, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Logic requires drawing inferences from similar situations, ideally among similar circumstances. And one need only look to Ukraine — although America’s engagement in the Syrian civil war and the revolutions in Egypt and Libya could offer similar lessons — for a cautionary tale on the limits of American resolve on behalf of a friend.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the AIPAC Policy Conference on Monday.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the AIPAC Policy Conference on Monday.

Back in 1994, Great Britain and the United States pledged mutual support in defense of Ukraine’s borders in exchange for the nuclear disarmament of the former Soviet republic. When Russian troops late last week began asserting control of Crimea, where Moscow’s Black Sea naval fleet is based, Kiev was quick to invoke the ’94 agreement. As of Monday, however, despite a strong speech by U.S. Ambassador Susan Power in the U.N. Security Council questioning Russia’s claim of defending its citizens in Ukraine, the White House was said to be merely mulling the prospect of sanctions against Russia.

That’s not to say that Obama, in this case, is wrong. As many analysts will argue, if Vladimir Putin decides to take Crimea, there’s little that can be done short of challenging him militarily. Would the American public countenance military action against the Russian army in Ukraine? I think not.

That’s why, for all the warm feelings engendered by emotional pleas to a shared friendship and democratic spirit, sovereign nations don’t do things because of friendship; they act on the world stage according to their interests. And regardless of any signed agreement, any profession of support or diplomatic promise of defense, if it was ever in Washington’s interest to let Israel go it alone against the Palestinians, other Arab nations or whomever, you can be sure it would do so.

Most Israelis, along with their elected leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, endorse the idea of a two-state solution. And if American help is needed to achieve that goal, then so be it. But the talk out of the administration of late, from the president — who seemingly warned in a recent interview with Bloomberg News’ Jeffrey Goldberg that Israel would find itself delegitimized if it failed to back his peace plan — to Kerry, makes it hard to discount the idea that Washington may be pushing Israel into a timetable and an uncomfortable position.

“We are at a point in history that requires the United States, as Israel’s closest friend and the world’s pre-eminent power, to do everything it can to end this conflict once and for all,” Kerry said on Monday.

Friends know when it’s time to engage and when it’s time to stay silent. Especially with so much else going on in the world, the administration’s vociferous identification of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as both the world’s No. 1 problem and it’s most solvable strikes this observer as tone deaf.

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