Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Expatriate’s Return: A Review of Former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s Ally

AllyMichael Oren is a renowned historical scholar, famous for his prescient works on the history of the interaction between America and the Middle East, a field for which he is uniquely qualified. In Ally, Oren explores his own life, a much more difficult endeavor for most scholars. Oren’s story spans from his youth in West Orange, New Jersey to his service in the Israeli paratroops and posting as Israel’s Ambassador to the United States. The work is meticulously well written and witty, biting in its criticism and unabashed in its opinions, and serves as an inside look at one of the most important foreign diplomatic postings in the United States.
Despite being forced to give up his U.S. Passport as a foreign diplomat, Ambassador Oren truly is a man of two nations, and this contrast is evident throughout the book. In this capacity, he is well suited to convey not only the points where the Israeli and American governments disagree, but also the subjects on which Israelis and Americans misunderstand each other. Oren’s description of many Israelis’ confusion with the election of President Obama is an important difference between Americans and Israelis, and it’s notable that Oren so openly leans, at least intellectually, to the Israeli perspective. He writes, “[Some Israelis] could not understand why Americans would choose a candidate lacking in any military, administrative, or foreign policy experience” (Oren, p. 43). His flippant but accurate explanation of this difference captures his own ambivalence toward certain aspects of Americans’ decision making: “Americans prefer their presidents to be eloquent, attractive, and preferably strong-jawed. Such qualities, in the life-and-death stakes of Israel, are irrelevant” (Ibid.).
Oren’s distaste for Americans’ leadership showed through like thin strips of daylight in his attempts to remain impartial, particularly in his discussion of trying to understand the President. He writes, “Vainly, I scoured Dreams from My Father for some expression of reverence, even respect, for the country its author would someday lead. Instead, the book criticizes Americans for their capitalism and consumer culture, for despoiling their environment and maintaining antiquated power struggles” (Ibid., 97).
Ambassador Oren also recounts Senator Joe Liebermann brushing aside threats to accuse Oren of interfering in American politics from U.S. Administration advisor David Axelrod as nothing to worry about because, “It’s just Chicago politics” (Ibid., 141). As a scholar who spent most of his career writing non-fiction history, Oren cannot have included these incidents by accident, but rather as calculated reflections of his own feelings toward the American leadership.
Oren’s account of the relative souring of the relationship between the Obama Administration and the Israeli Government exemplifies his greatest challenge in attempting to remain neutral enough to paint a full picture of the situation. Despite his interest in maintaining the image of the U.S. Government as having been the main instigator of this divide, he remarks early in his work that, “Unlike the White House, which is accessible to a range of Israeli officials, the Hill is the Ambassador’s exclusive domain” (Ibid., 84). This point is important because Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, focused primarily against the U.S. Administration’s proposed nuclear agreement with Iran and in defiance of the President’s wishes, occurred during Oren’s time as Ambassador.
The key sticking points between Administrations concerned the approach to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and Iranian nuclear buildup, rife with back-room conversations between President Obama and Palestinian PM Abbas or Iranian officials and Netanyahu lectures to Obama in the White House. Neither side of the Alliance’s leadership was able to work together effectively, despite the attempts of Ambassador Oren.
Oren further disagrees with the Administration’s response to the conflict in Syria. He quotes President Obama, “When you have a professional army [the Syrian Army] that is well-armed…fighting against a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protestors…the notion that we could have…changed the equation on the ground there [in Syria] was never true” (Ibid., 308). Oren contrasts this statement with the American Revolution, fought by farmers and carpenters against a professional army, and writes that the Syrian episode “revealed the president’s determination to withdraw from the Middle East irrespective of the human price” (Ibid.). When American leadership failed to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, Oren writes, “The entire Middle East, and especially the Iranians, now knew that America would dither before enforcing an ultimatum” (Ibid., 344). Clearly frustrated, Ambassador Oren sums up the situation with a quote from a call he received from Senator John McCain, “This is the most fucked-up thing I’ve seen in my entire political career” (Ibid.).
Oren was unequivocal in his disdain for the Administration’s handling of the nuclear agreement with Iran. The Ambassador describes Obama, Netanyahu, and Iran as Chamberlain, Churchill, and Nazi Germany, “The man who would be Churchill, who once likened Obama’s policies to Roosevelt’s refusal to bomb Auschwitz, was now identifying new Neville Chamberlains seeking to appease, rather than defeat, evil” (Ibid., 372). He writes, “I sensed that the same commander in chief who sought congressional authorization for warlike actions against Syria and the Islamic State would try to side-step the Senate in signing what he portrayed as a peace agreement with Iran” (Ibid., 361).
Ambassador Oren’s insight into what both governments can do to better understand one another and the ways in which Americans’ views have hampered their ability to project influence in the Middle East are more constructive points. When discussing American diplomatic pressure on Israel, Oren wrote, “Unlike in the West, where security is measured in tanks, jets, and guns, security in this part of the world is largely a product of impressions. A friend who stands by his friends on some issues but not others is, in Middle Eastern eyes, not really a friend” (Ibid., 88).
This difference of opinion continued during the Arab Spring, when the U.S. media embraced democratic movements across the region, including in countries ruled by longtime American allies. Ambassador Oren writes, “Such exuberance could not be overlooked by the press-sensitive Obama administration” (Ibid., 199) and allows,
“Flagrantly brutal and corrupt, Mubarak was nevertheless America’s loyal friend for more than thirty years. And after a single week of demonstrations that, though highly publicized, involved a fraction of Egypt’s 85 million inhabitants, the United States abandoned him. That single act of betrayal—as Middle Easterners, even those opposed to Mubarak, saw it—contrasted jarringly with Obama’s earlier refusal to support the Green Revolution against the hostile regime in Iran. Other American allies in the region [read: the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council] took notice. So, too, did America’s foes” (Ibid., 199).
While Oren’s portrayal of the destruction of America’s image in the Middle East is striking, his implication that the current American leadership may have sought to shirk the duties associated with global leadership is much more concerning. He quotes Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger questioning, “What makes you think anybody in the White House still cares about American hegemony in the Middle East?” (Ibid., 94), and almost as if in response, President Obama, “Whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower” (Ibid., 237). A historian, Oren cannot contain himself from highlighting the differences between this outlook and the stance of former American Presidents whom he identifies as world leaders such as Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton.
In between recounting his years in Washington, which make up the bulk of his memoir, Oren peppers Ally with what he sees as the important intersection between his own field, history, and world leadership. According to Ambassador Oren, “Netanyahu, it turned out, had read my book Power, Faith, and Fantasy and was impressed by my knowledge of America’s history in the Middle East.  He regarded understanding the past as the key to interpreting the present.  That was perhaps the main reason I even merited an interview [for Ambassador]” (Ibid., 57).
Most importantly he shows that rather than any maliciousness on either side, the recent troubles in the new relationship were due to a fundamental lack of understanding. Oren writes that former senior U.S. Administration officials caused the Israeli national security advisor to “blanche” when they suggested that the “Libyan people will always remain grateful for the freedom they received from America” (Ibid., 302). The Ambassador’s implication is that, to the contrary, the ensuing power vacuum in Libya actually allowed radical militant groups including Islamic State to establish a base of power.
Toward the end of his work, Ambassador Oren recounts a distinctly Kissingerian point for which I personally greatly respect the former Secretary of State: the necessity of viewing any international issue not from your own perspective, but from that of the party with whom you are engaging. Oren cautions, “Israeli decision makers must never lose sight of how the Middle East—indeed, the world—looks from Washington” (Ibid., 375).
Above any political grievances between Administrations, Ambassador Oren highlights the special nature of the American-Israeli alliance, which has endured many American Presidents and Israeli Prime Ministers, and will endure many into the future. He writes, “The presence of an American ally at the world’s most strategically crucial crossroads, deploying an army more than twice the size of Britain’s and France’s combined, cannot be undervalued” (Ibid.).
Oren’s point should not be missed, and if anything is taken away from Ally, it should be the absolutely indispensable nature of the American-Israeli alliance. America must keep all its Middle Eastern allies close, particularly the longstanding and insightful Hashemites in Jordan and the powerful, wealthy, and independent monarchs of the Gulf, but these alliances are neither as deep nor as close as the American alliance with Israel.
Equally important, Oren highlights the value of American strength to Israel and American allies more broadly. Sounding similar to scholar Vali Nasr, with whom Oren would almost definitely disagree on many foreign policy points, the Ambassador highlights the long-term importance of the Middle East to America: “Just as Israel benefits from a strong America—an America viewed as strong from Ukraine to the South China Sea—so, too, does the United States gain from a secure and powerful Israel. For all the talk about ‘pivoting to Asia,’ the United States will remain inextricably linked to the Middle East, for it will follow them home” (Ibid., 376).


-- By Benjamin Spacapan

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