Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
We are closing in on the eighth decade of a foreign policy orthodoxy predicated on illusions and wishful thinking, as well as a misreading of our signature success during that period––winning the Cold War. We didn’t draw the right conclusions from that victory, which was won by the realist policy of containment: the balance of terror comprising the forward deployment of troops and nuclear weapons.
Yet not even that epochal success of realism, which demonstrated the need for deterrence backed by the credible threat of mind-concentrating force, could dislodge the feckless idealism and fetish of “diplomatic engagement” from our foreign policy establishment.
The longest postwar unresolved crisis, the conflict between Israel and its Arab revanchist neighbors, is the epitome of everything wrong with our foreign policy. Nor is the Biden administration’s recent junket to the region likely to be any more successful, shackled as it is with old fallacious narratives comprising old, bankrupt shibboleths like “land for peace” and “two nations living side-by side in peace.”
The persistence of those ideas reflects one of the oldest questionable assumptions of the “new world order”: that all the world’s diverse peoples defined by a wide variety of customs, mores, values, religions, and histories want to live in Western-style nation-states characterized by liberal democracy and free-market capitalism, and the principles that undergird both such as tolerance, rule by law, and unalienable rights.
The ideal of national self-determination, moreover, has been accompanied by reductive anti-imperialism and anticolonialism, both of which under the auspices of the UN became the primary weapons for demonizing the West and extracting foreign aid. Thence came the foreign policy narrative that “diplomatic engagement” with enemies like Iran, along with concessions and public acknowledgement of America’s foreign policy sins, could resolve our international conflicts and better protect our national interests and security.
This ideal was embraced vigorously by Barack Obama, most famously in his 2009 speech in Cairo. True to foreign policy orthodoxy, he blamed “tensions” between the West and Islam on “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regards to their own aspirations.”
Such historically challenged remarks expressed our foreign policy establishment’s official narrative about Israel and the conflict with its Muslim neighbors. In this view, Israel is an illegitimate “occupier” and a “settler state” that appropriated the Arab “homeland” and dispossessed its indigenous inhabitants, whom they now subject to “apartheid.” More sinister, Israel is an outpost of Western neocolonialism, similar to imperialist Cold War stooges like the Shah of Iran, who in service to their Western patrons, oppressed their peoples and squelched their desire for liberal democracy. Resistance to Israel, then, is the latest phase of the developing world’s wars of liberation from their colonialist masters.
Finally, if left unresolved, the narrative goes, the failure to create a Palestinian homeland will continue to roil the region and create anger against the U.S. for its support of Israel. The key to peace, then, is for Israel to make concessions, and trade “land for peace” in order to create a Palestinian nation. Once that happens, peace would break out in Middle East.
There are myriad problems with this narrative. For one thing, there were no European colonies in the territory between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, which was the controlling power in the region. Once Turkey ceded those territories after its defeat in World War I, they came under the authority of the Allied mandatory powers established by the new League of Nations and several international treaties.
After World War II England abandoned its post as the mandatory power for Palestine, as the Ottomans called the region, and the territories between the Mediterranean and the Jordon River became the ward of the UN, which in 1948 partitioned the territories into two separate nations. Israel, then was founded by the same process that after World War I created nations like Czechoslovakia and Hungary from the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Muslim nations like Jordan and Syria from the dissolved Ottoman Caliphate.
But unlike those other new nations, the creation of Israel in 1948 was violently contested by five Arab states–– four of which were founding members of the UN, the ostensible purpose of which is to peacefully settle disputes with diplomacy and negotiation rather than armed force. The attack, moreover, had little to do with colonialism or imperialism or “national self-determination.” It was a conflict based on traditional Islamic doctrines, one of which holds that any territory conquered by Muslims is forever Muslim even if reconquered by its original inhabitants. And it is Allah’s will that the faithful wage jihad to restore it to the global umma of Islamic peoples.
In fact, the whole “national self-determination” rationale is a pretext fostered in the postwar period by the Soviet Union in order to ensure that newly liberated colonies would become clients of the Soviet bloc rather than of the West. Hence the funds, weapons, and training the Soviets provided to “liberation” movements in the region. Yet nearly 75 years later, after three more wars against Israel, incessant terrorist violence, thousands of missiles rained down on Israeli civilians, and the Palestinian Arabs’ serial refusals to accept “land for peace” and achieve a “national homeland,” the Biden administrations still peddles “diplomatic engagement” and the “two-state” solution.
Then there’s the cornerstone of the “rules-based international order,” the promotion of human rights as a core aim of foreign policy. This obsession of the West, while sounding noble and high-minded in lecture halls, stump speeches, and international conclaves, is more complex in reality. For one thing, different cultures and traditions have different conceptions of human rights. In traditional Islamic countries, for example, “human rights” are those sanctioned by sharia law. For example, the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam basically says people have one human right: to convert to Islam and live by its laws.
Another problem with prioritizing human rights is that the actual promotion and enforcement of them as part of our foreign policy has become politicized and selective. Israel is again the best example of this use of human rights in foreign policy. Thus Israel labors to defend itself with minimum collateral damage, and medically treats the wounded terrorists who want to eliminate them as a people. And when compelled to retaliate to rocket attacks, the Israelis send text-messages to the inhabitants of building used by Hamas to camouflage their weapons and materiel.
At the same time, “new world order” organizations like the UN Human Rights Council shrugs away the constant violence of Hamas and other terrorists, including against their own people, and some of the world’s worst human rights violators like current members China, Cuba, and the Russian Federation are welcomed to serve on the Council. No surprise, then, that Israel, a non-voting member of the Council, is the only country to receive multiple condemnations––four at once at the end of the current session––while Russia received one for its brutal invasion of Ukraine and indiscriminate shelling of cities and civilians.
Endorsing this orthodoxy about the Middle East, Biden continued Barack Obama’s efforts to marginalize Israel and other Gulf allies like the Saudis, even as Iran, the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism, was courted and rewarded for its global violence with billions of American dollars and a glide-path to the possession of nuclear weapons, which the mullahs are now very close to achieving, having successfully refined uranium close to weapons-grade purity.
But as Walter Russell Mead writes, regional allies like Israel, the Saudis, and other Gulf states, watching the U.S. indulge and empower their common enemy Iran, began moving closer to one another, rejecting the old narrative that put “land for peace” at the center of Middle East policy at the expense of their own security and interests. Where Obama’s foreign policy clung to the outdated paradigm, it took the clumsy “amateur” Donald Trump to recognize this shift and fashion the Abraham Accords that established formal relations between Israel and several Arab states, a diplomatic coup that exploded decades of stale orthodoxy.
Unfortunately, Joe Biden’s administration has returned to that failed policy and institutional received wisdom, reprising Obama’s courtship of Iran and holding our allies Israel and Saudi Arabia at arm’s length. Only the energy crisis–– caused by Biden’s feckless anti-fossil fuel fetish, and by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ensuing sanctions–– has forced him to make the trek to the region in a probably vain effort to get the Saudis to pump more oil.
The lesson we should take from this foreign policy bungling in the Middle East is the dangers that follow from being the slaves of some defunct orthodoxy.