- Book Review Index
Straight Power Concepts in the Middle East: U.S. Foreign Policy, Israel and World History, by Gregory Harms. New York: Pluto Press, 2010. 226 pp. $25.00.
Gregory Harms’s Straight Power Concepts adds to the growing historical and geopolitical literature calling for a new American grand strategy of “restraint”: pulling back from the overreach that, it is argued, has enmeshed it in quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, compromised its ability to withstand the rise of new powers like China, emboldened terrorism and anti-Americanism, and weakened the U.S. domestic political system through economic dislocation.
Harms begins where John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt leave off, stressing the U.S.-Israeli special relationship as the cause and consequence of this excessive offense. The difference between Mearsheimer and Walt and Harms, though, is that Mearsheimer and Walt stress the “Israel lobby” as the primary driver of the close U.S.-Israeli relationship, whereas Harms lays emphasis on aggressive American imperial ambitions that absorb Israeli foreign policy into an offensive outpost projecting U.S. power. Whereas Walt and Mearsheimer hold that the “Israel lobby” is what makes Israeli foreign policy so aggressive, Harms contrastingly stresses that the lobby is marginal to the larger problem. “We can only conclude that the lobby’s stature and reputation were built on something preexisting, namely, the increasing value of Israel as a Middle Eastern client state, off-shore military base, and junior partner in the realms of finance, research and development, and intelligence for the world’s sole superpower—a status the United States did not achieve by being naive and easily manipulated” (pp. 176–77).
Whereas Mearsheimer and Walt argue that Israel is a strategic liability to U.S. foreign policy, Harms argues that it is indeed an asset, and thus has been the most helpful tool in American expansionism and dominance in the Middle East since the dawn of the Cold War. Both Mearsheimer and Walt and Harms call for a loosening of the relationship as part of a new U.S. grand strategy of restraint, especially in the Middle East; both argue that the relationship has brought the U.S. into an ultimately “unwinnable” war with Arabs and Muslims across the world and stimulated an unreasonable Israeli foreign policy that is counterproductive and ultimately self-defeating. Harms, though, lays blame on U.S. foreign policy, not the lobby.
The question, after reading Harms in the shadow and aftermath of Mearsheimer and Walt, is no less than this: How can Israel adapt its strategy to a post-American global era and a post-“special relationship” foreign policy? The question is not uniquely one facing Israel: as reassessments of orientation in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Australia, manifest in growing economic and diplomatic relationships with China, continue to take place, and Turkey continues to move away from a Western orientation toward not only an Islamist but an “Eastern” orientation as well, where does this leave Israel?
One obvious question for the pro-Israeli reader of Harms is: whither Israel in a Middle East with weaker U.S. dominance? Christopher Layne, in his study of American grand strategy since World War II, which makes similar closing recommendations to those Harms makes, argues that the U.S. should pressure Israel to accept a Palestinian state and “let nature take its course” vis-a-vis the Arab dictatorships, with the U.S. withdrawing to the Strait of Hormuz, focusing its Middle East policy solely on the security of Gulf energy. In such a scenario, one cannot avoid concluding that an even more offensive Israeli foreign policy would emerge. For one thing, a weaker American Middle East presence would diminish the ability of the United States to use the strings attached to its assistance to Israel to pressure it against policies otherwise in Israel’s interest. There would be far less reason not to strike Iran if the U.S. tripwire in Iraq and the Gulf were diminished and the need to preserve the Arab dictatorships in power disappeared. Secondly, without a major U.S. security commitment, many Arab governments quite realistically would look toward Israel for protection against emerging threats from Iran and terrorism. Yehezkel Dror, for instance, foresees a scenario wherein the U.S., faced with the overthrow of the Saudi government, pressures Israel to intervene on its behalf.
A Middle East without American hegemony would be ripe with ever new threats to Israeli security. This would promote an even greater Israeli need for offensive military activism. Such new threats include nuclear programs in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf; failed states on multiple Israeli borders, leading not only to greater havens for terrorist activity but greater ease for infiltrations into Israel by refugees, migrants, and underground crime; the prospect of the “Palestinian state” itself collapsing, having an internal character little different than the others nearby and succumbing to the instability of the wider region; or Iran and its allies more emboldened. Israel, like Australia in the South Pacific or France in Northwest Africa, two areas of “peripheral” U.S. interests, would assume the burden of regional policeman in a danger zone where few others are willing or able, as an enforcer of security against a myriad of new threats from enemy states and transnational forces.
This, though, assumes a post-American Middle East would be a geopolitical no-man’s land. It could, equally, become an area of Chinese influence in an increasingly bipolar world order. Chinese allies North Korea and Pakistan have been active proliferators of weapons of mass destruction and key partners in Iran’s and Syria’s nuclear programs, surely with Chinese acquiescence. China continues to shield Iran diplomatically over its nuclear program and, with Russia, has been actively assisting its development. China recently performed air force training with Turkey and even offered to buy Greek debt. Israel’s new status as a natural gas producer itself complements Chinese interests in importing energy from geopolitically stable sources and makes Israel an attractive economic partner. Where would Israel fit in a Chinese-influenced Middle East where both Russia and the Europeans play greater roles? Would we not return to a Cold War posture where Israel, backed by the United States, behaves as the Western anchor against the Eastern threat, with Iran as the new Nasser and China as the new Soviet Union? Or would Israel, after the American “special relationship,” opt for non-alignment on the new chessboard?
Friends and allies of Israel cannot ignore the consequences of a shift in U.S. grand strategy.