By Erich MarquardtPower and Interest News Report
October 7, 2004
One of the most volatile political issues within the United States is Washington's consistent support for the state of Israel. Proponents of that support argue its necessity upon the notion that Israel is a Middle Eastern democracy that shares American values and is surrounded by hostile states. Critics, on the other hand, argue that consistent U.S. support of Israel is a liability, as the huge American aid flows to Israel effectively subsidize a foreign state when that money could be used for social or military programs at home.
Further, the support creates a situation where the U.S. is perceived to follow hypocritical policies by supporting a state that regularly ignores the decrees of the United Nations and has a questionable human rights record in regard to its treatment of its rebellious Palestinian population; such critics also frequently argue that this support is primarily due to a strong pro-Israel lobby within the United States. While both of these arguments -- that of the proponents and that of the critics -- have valid points, they skirt the main issues.
- Symbiotic Interests Between the U.S. and Israel
U.S. support of Israel is both historical and consistent. While there are many reasons for that support, it is primarily founded upon U.S. geopolitical interests. The state of Israel is an isolated country heavily dependent on the United States for its survival. This dependence allows Washington to use the country to further its interests in the Middle East -- interests such as preventing any independent Middle Eastern power from becoming a regional hegemon.
A primary interest of the United States in the Middle East is a stable oil supply with depressed oil prices. The importance of oil in the world economy cannot be overstated, as the resource is needed for many forms of production and physical operation. The failure to develop an alternative source of energy that is also commercially viable has caused oil to remain the lifeblood of the global economy. Moreover, in the United States, high vehicle gas prices are enough to cause potential political fallout for an administration in power.
For oil dependent countries such as the United States, a cheap, stable oil supply is essential for their economies. Oil producing states, on the other hand, have less to fear from global oil supply disruptions and can actually benefit from a higher price of oil, provided that the price does not have the effect of causing a global economic downturn that, in turn, reduces demand and could cause a plummet in prices. Thus, while oil dependent countries prefer a stable and cheap price of oil, oil producing countries prefer a stable yet more expensive price of oil.
Due to the United States being a major oil dependent country, a central goal of its foreign policy aims has consistently been to foster the conditions necessary for a stable oil flow and depressed oil prices. In order to create these conditions, the United States has been involved in the internal affairs of significant states in order to foster a form of government that will work to fulfill these needs; an example of joint U.S.-British maneuvering to produce these conditions was the forced regime change of Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, shortly after he nationalized Iran's oil industry.
The goal of oil dependent countries has been to keep Middle Eastern states dependent on the West for both their economic success and their military protection. To keep these states dependent, it is imperative that no Middle Eastern country accrue enough power to be able to shake off their dependency on the West and to practice a foreign policy that exploits the desperate need for oil by the dependent consumers. Upon such a development, that state would be able to extract concessions from oil dependent countries and would certainly inflate the price of oil to well over the Western-desired $25-28 a barrel.
Indeed, a central argument of al-Qaeda has been that the West has depressed oil prices to such a degree that oil-rich countries, which happen to be heavily populated by Muslims, are selling the resource at below-market prices, not taking advantage of the extra money that could be earned and used to boost the living conditions in these Muslim countries. As C.I.A. analyst Michael Scheuer writes in his book Imperial Hubris, a central aim of al-Qaeda is the "restoration of full Muslim control over the Islamic world's energy resources and a return to market prices, ending the impoverishment of Muslims caused by oil prices set by Arab regimes to placate the West."
The concern over an independent Middle Eastern country having the power to manipulate the price of oil explains why the Western powers have taken actions to stifle Middle Eastern growth and to support and protect Middle Eastern states that comply with U.S. interests, keeping these societies in a state of perpetual stagnation and thus offering them little chance of altering the status quo.
Nevertheless, there have been occasions where a Middle Eastern state has dominated and attempted to become a regional power. Nasser's Egypt and Saddam's Iraq both fit this model. In such cases, Western countries, led by the United States, have utilized the Middle Eastern pseudo-proxy state of Israel to return the region to the status quo. Washington has unloaded high-tech weapons onto this state and has given it a grossly disproportionate military advantage over its neighbors. This advantage can be seen in the various wars that have returned the Middle Eastern balance of power into the favor of Israel. Israel has also taken small-scale actions to deal strategic blows to potential regional powers, seen in its 1981 strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq.
Israel's small size and cultural isolation has prevented it from forming any sort of military alliance with neighboring states; its regional position also has spared it from the vast oil reserves that litter the territory of other states in the region. These factors explain why Israel has remained a state reliant on Washington, emitting only a facade of total independence -- a facade that would vanish were the United States to withdraw its support.
Israel's geostrategic dilemma is perfect for Washington policymakers; Jerusalem is basically a U.S. battleship in the Middle East, largely beholden to U.S. interests. This reality is what allows the United States to overlook its harsh measures when it confronts the terror tactics used by its rebellious Palestinian population, in addition to overlooking its settlements in the disputed territories of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights.
- The Challenge from Iran
The world now sees a replay of 1981, the year when Iraq was growing in regional power and was treading closer to a nuclear weapons capability; a situation that resulted in an Israeli air strike on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor to stifle Baghdad's quest for nuclear arms. Now, very similar developments are occurring, this time with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran has the potential of becoming a regional power due to its large semi-industrialized and educated population, and its strategic position of sitting on vast oil reserves, while also bordering the Caspian Sea and acting as a hub between Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East.
Iran's influence in the Caucasus -- an area that is to be a major oil transit route from the Caspian Sea city of Baku to the West, via the Turkish port city of Ceyhan -- is critical, since a powerful Iran would have the ability to affect events in the strategically significant state of Azerbaijan. Iran also enjoys cordial relations with Russia, with Moscow assisting in its nuclear research program; a relationship that partly stems from Moscow's desire to keep the United States, and the West, out of the affairs of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Therefore, Iran's regional position is very significant. If Tehran were to realize a nuclear weapons capability, it would mean that Iran could become a regional power in a position to dictate oil resources, endangering the interests of the oil dependent countries led by the United States.
This explains why the United States has been struggling to prevent Iranian acquisition of nuclear arms. In September, John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told journalists in Jerusalem that Washington is "determined that they [Iran] are not going to achieve a nuclear weapons capability." Both the U.S. and Israel have threatened Iran, and it appears that Israel has been formulating potential military strategies to strike Iran's nuclear facilities in a repeat, albeit on a much larger and more dangerous scale, of its 1981 strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor.
- Regional Dangers
A powerful Iran could cause regional instability. Unlike Israel, Iran's size and oil resources give it the opportunity to become an independent and powerful state. A powerful Iran would dwarf Israel's power and suppress that country's foreign policy leverage in the Middle East. This result would be hotly resisted by Israel, possibly spawning a military struggle in the region -- which is still reeling from the invasion of Iraq. Such a struggle could easily disrupt oil supplies in a market already heavily plagued with uncertainty. Furthermore, lacking the troops to invade Iran, any struggle would likely fester and create regional implications for years to come.
A weakened Israel would provide impetus to regional states, such as Syria, that contest Israeli domination. Non-state actors, too, like Hezbollah -- an organization already supported by Iran -- would be emboldened and could escalate their attacks on the Israeli state.
Iran's acquisition of nuclear arms would also certainly affect other Middle Eastern states, possibly igniting a new arms race. If nuclear weapons were to proliferate to the Middle East, states such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia might feel the need to begin their own nuclear weapons programs in order to protect their territory.
The primary motives behind U.S. support of Israel can be explained by Washington's foreign policy aims of securing a Middle East capable of producing a stable supply of oil at a low price that buoys the economies of oil dependent countries. Israel, a state that is dependent on the United States due to its strategic and cultural isolation in a region that is hostile to its existence, can be relied on by Washington to assist in maintaining the status quo by preventing any Middle Eastern country from accruing enough power to alter the regional balance in a way that would damage the interests of the United States and other oil dependent countries.
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