Obama’s Israel Problem Obscures His EU Problem

Several reports this morning mention Barack Obama’s omission of Israel from the list of America’s top allies in last night’s debate, which didn’t strike me as a particularly big deal. Foreign Policy‘s Blake Hounshell, though, makes a good argument why it might be:

Moderator Brian Williams asked Obama who he considered the United States’ top three allies, and he came back with “the European Union as a whole” and Japan, with a nod to China as a state that is “neither our enemy nor our friend” but requires more “military-to-military contact.” That’s not exactly right—the Canada, the UK, and Japan are probably the top three when you consider the full panoply of relations. Williams sensed an opening, immediately noting that Obama left Israel out of his list. He then quoted the Illinois Senator as saying, “No one is suffering more than the Palestinian people,” and asked if he stood by that comment. (Obama made the remark in response to a question at a March campaign event in Iowa, and was pilloried for it.) Obama responded to Williams, putting the remark in context and acknowledging Israel as “one of our most important allies around the world.”

You can bet that the issue won’t die there. Every word Obama utters on this topic is going to be scrutinized for slip-ups. In U.S. political races, at least, that has come to mean any criticism of Israel at all—even if it comes in the spirit of honest advice to a good friend or, in this case, by omission. A president or a pundit has much more leeway to kindly nudge Israel, but Obama’s rhetorical trick of pointing out that every issue has two sides isn’t worth the trouble as a candidate.

It’s a shame, really, that intelligent discussion of the Israel Question is seemingly off the table. Obama was almost certainly right to exclude Israel from the Top Three list. As Matt Yglesias notes,

The UK and Canada are, I think, our numbers one and two allies. Apparently, the “right” answer is that Israel belongs in the top three as well. Seeing as how US troops have never fought alongside the IDF and we don’t have a formal treaty commitment to the defense of Israel (we surely would have one were Israel to have defined borders, but it doesn’t, so we don’t) this strikes me as a difficult case to make. Australia is probably most aligned with us in foreign policy terms.

European Union 27 Members By Date of Admission (Chart) The irony is that the listing of “the European Union as a whole” as our top ally, rather than the omission of Israel as one of the top three, was Obama’s real gaffe. It’s simply absurd to cast the EU 27-state collective as an ally. As an economic cooperative, it hinders United States imports. As a political entity, it’s virtually worthless and to the extent it works it tends to water down the natural ties between the USA and several of the constituent countries.

Of the 27 states, only the United Kingdom is an unqualified ally. We’ve stood shoulder-to-shoulder in most of the wars of the past century or so, with the other partner usually providing at intelligence and materiel support even when sitting out the actual fighting.

We’re quite friendly with Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Italy, and even Greece most of the time. We’ve fought alongside soldiers from most of those countries over the years, although Fascist Italy was on the wrong side of WWII.

Until the collapse of the Warsaw Pact between 1989-1991, we were on war footing with several of the current Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Romania (or their predecessor states). In many cases, though, our relations with them are now warmer than with some Western European members of the EU that were Cold War allies.

France and Germany have been both enemies and allies in the past, although mostly the latter in post-WWII era. They’re now strategic competitors whose interests often diverge from ours. They’re far from enemies, of course, and our ties are very strong on a whole host of fronts. Certainly, though, they’re a few notches down from the UK, Canada, and Australia on the “best buds” list.

Regardless, the idea that “the EU as a whole” is America’s top ally is rather silly. It will go unnoticed, though, because of the attention given to the perfectly reasonable omission of Israel.

EU Member Chart courtesy Wikipedia. In addition to being a mixed bag as an ally, the EU has one of the worst Web sites I’ve encountered in some time.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark says:

    No love for the land down under either.

    And no Mexico???? Some people aren’t going to be please about that one!

  2. 1. Australia
    1. UK
    1. Canada
    4. Japan
    5. Israel

  3. spencer says:

    While you are making some valid points I think your concept of ally is too narrow. It is not just military relations that count — economic and social
    factors should be considered. I for one would definitely include Japan as one of our top allies even though like Italy they were on the other side in WW II.

    I really do not think of Israel as an ally. I think of it more as an obligation with massive cost and few benefits.

    Can you really completely ignore Mexico when you are discussing US foreign relations?

  4. Triumph says:

    Obama has an EU “problem” while Romney is running around saying it isn’t worth the country’s trouble to catch the leader of Al-Quaeda.

  5. James Joyner says:

    I think your concept of ally is too narrow.

    Just the opposite, I think. I say the UK, Australia, and Canada are top allies because our relationship is so strong across all those fronts. Japan isn’t much of a military ally and we’re somewhat adversarial on trade but they’re still in the upper tier.

    Mexico is an important trading partner but they’re also a major liability on the drug and illegal immigration front and their government is still making the transition to legitimate democracy.

  6. Michael says:

    France and Germany have been both enemies and allies in the past, although mostly the latter in post-WWII era.

    Wait what? When was France an enemy?

    On the main topic however, “top allies” is vague, does it mean “closest allies”, “biggest allies”, or “most important allies”? Even “most important” would depend entirely on what we need them for. Israel would be important in a middle-east conflict, but I doubt they’d be as important in a conflict over Taiwan. The opposite case Japan.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Wait what? When was France an enemy?

    When they surrendered to the Nazis and took up arms against American soldiers.

  8. Andy says:

    The Vichy government has run France recently?

  9. Anjin-San says:

    So France was our enemy in WW2?

    Welcome to the alternate Neocon universe.

    I guess some folks can’t let go of the fact that the people in France are not sending their kids to die in Bush’s Iraq train wreck and that they can pretty much afford to use the dollar to line birdcages with.

  10. James Joyner says:

    So France was our enemy in WW2?


    Welcome to the alternate Neocon universe.

    It’s just simply history. The French government surrendered to and collaborated with the Nazis. They assisted in rounding up and murdering Jews and French soldiers killed Americans in North Africa and Europe.

    It’s also true that a large French Resistance fought against the Vichys and with the Allies. That doesn’t change the former, however.

  11. Jim Henley says:

    With questions that stupid, the Dems couldn’t have done much worse by going with the original plan to have the debate on Fox.

  12. Anjin-San says:

    To confer any legitimacy upon puppet Vichy government and collaborators who served is, at best, a reading of history designed to make France look bad.

    Pétain and Leval were tratiors to France, and the vote which created the Vichy government was cleary an illegal vote, coereced under threat by the German Army and gestapo. de Gualle had the only legitimate claim to represent the lawful government of France.

    Maybe its “simply history” but it sounds a bit like history according to Goebbles.

  13. James Joyner says:

    de Gualle had the only legitimate claim to represent the lawful government of France.

    How, pray tell? At the time of the surrender, he was a newly minted division commander in the army. Until the war kicked off, he was a mere colonel.

    The nature of the election doesn’t change the fact that the government of France was our enemy during that period.

  14. Anjin-San says:

    How, pray tell? At the time of the surrender, he was a newly minted division commander in the army. Until the war kicked off, he was a mere colonel.

    So what? Pétain was a general, but he was a traitor and a nazi shill. What difference does his military rank make? It’s kind of a silly argument.

    de Gaulle was, in fact, a member of the French cabinet, clearly he was a near the center of power in 1940 and not simply an obscure officer.

    de Gaulle’s speeches of June 18 & 22 1940 clearly showed him to be the moral and actual leader of Free France. The Vichy puppet government was established under German guns and has no claim to legitimacy.

    France had the misfortune to share a border with Nazi Germany, and England the good fortune to have a bit of water between themselves and the Wermacht, water which the German Army had no means to cross due to Hitler’s refusal to heed the advice given to him by Admiral Canaris about the need for landing craft to invade England.

    A lot of ugly things happened in France during the war and occupation. Certainly many in France chose to serve the Nazis. History has written its verdict on them.

    Regardless of the actions of the Vichy “Government”, France was not our enemy during the war. To say so, seems to me, to embrace a version of events which is closer to that put forth by Germany during the war then to that which is generally accepted today.

  15. Roy Lofquist says:

    The question was legitimate, though silly. The only proper answer is “I will not answer the question because it would cause nothing but mischief when I am president”.

  16. It’s simply absurd to cast the EU 27-state collective as an ally. As an economic cooperative, it hinders United States imports.


    the European Union actually makes it possible to import more products, at more favorable terms, into Europe, than would be possible without the European Union, some well-publicized exceptions aside.

    The EU serves to keep Europeans’ protectionist tendencies in check. While the EU’s trade policies have to make some concenssions towards those tendencies, especially as far as agriculture is concerned, American firms are still much better off than they would be with the US having to make bilateral trade deals with each of the 27 members instead, provide you could even get such deals. Also, there is the EU’s Cassis de Dijon principle: Once you have official permission to sell a product in one member state of the EU, you are allowed to sell it in all of them. So instead of having to deal with the bureaucracies of all 27, you only have to come to an agreement with a single countries administration.

    As to France and Germany being ‘strategic competitors’: Both countries don’t really have any strategies of their own, soke pompous rhetoric aside.