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.
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.