A remarkable new book explains how the USA became the Promised Land for its Jewish citizens, writes former intelligence analyst Paul Monk.
American academic and author Walter Russell Mead has devoted his career to the close study of the Anglo-American world order, rather as American political scientist Aaron Friedberg has done. The scholarship Mead has produced makes him an authoritative figure, and always worth reading. This present book is no exception. Taking on a famously challenging problem, he has delivered a master class in historiography and geopolitical judgement. We are all in his debt.
Now aged 70, Mead is James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and Ravenel B. Curry III distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute. Both of these are remarkable institutions. Mead’s presence on their faculties is evidence of his stature. The Hudson Institute, in Washington, D.C., was founded in 1961 in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, by futurist, military strategist, and systems theorist Herman Kahn and a few of his RAND Corporation colleagues. Bard College was founded a century before that and is a residential liberal arts college. Its president, since 1975, has been the remarkable Leon Botstein, a Swiss-American conductor, educator, and scholar.
This is a large book, not only because Mead takes us back well into the past to find the roots of American enthusiasm for Israel, but because he lingers over the great dramatic episodes in the history of American relations with the Jewish people, Zionism, and the state of Israel in order to show that widespread assumptions or assertions about that history are, again and again, factually and inferentially mistaken. His book has 21 chapters and although not further divided by its author or publisher it has, broadly speaking, three sub-divisions. Chapters 1 to 8 cover the prehistory of Israel and American geopolitical strategy with regard to the Jews and the Middle East. Chapters 9 to 13 cover the Truman and Eisenhower presidencies, and the formation of the state of Israel and its early relations with Washington. Chapters 14 to 21 cover the decades from JFK to Trump and explain the logic of American engagement with Israel as rooted chiefly in American domestic politics.
America has long been a kind of Promised Land for its Jewish citizens.
Several powerful themes in Mead’s writing warrant close attention. If only those who dwell on these matters could be persuaded to sit down and absorb his book in detail. The first is that—though it was founded as a republic at the height of the Enlightenment—America has a deeply Biblical culture which has long inclined millions of Protestant Americans to view the idea of a state of Israel as the fulfilment of Bible prophecies and, therefore, as a vindication of Protestant faith itself.
The second is that America, as a land of immigrants—not least since the mass immigration from Europe of 1880 to 1924, which brought more than two million Jews from Eastern Europe to the United States—has long been experienced by its Jewish citizens as a kind of Promised Land in itself. One consequence of this is that American Jews have tended to ‘liberal’ politics and to misgivings about the Zionist project as such, both from the early 20th century and more recently. A third is that Israel did not grow strong because of American backing but rather acquired American backing, chiefly after 1967, because it had grown strong. This was accentuated by the Yom Kippur War, in October 1973, which Henry Kissinger used to outflank the Soviet Union in the Middle East and strengthen the hand of the USA, at the very point when it was withdrawing in disarray from Vietnam.
A fourth is that American policy regarding Israel was not shaped by either an American Jewish lobby or by Israeli lobbying, but by the geopolitical culture and domestic politics of the USA. Mead’s dissection of this issue is of great importance and fascination. In fact, this theme may be the single most important element in his book. It redirects (or should do so) the focus for any critique of American support for (or criticism of) Israel.
A fifth issue is that, until the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 restricted immigration to the USA (not of Jews as such but of immigration more generally), the overwhelming preference of Jews escaping from persecution in Europe was to go to the USA (or elsewhere in the Americas) rather than to the severely depleted and impoverished land of Palestine, which was very far—under Ottoman suzerainty—from being a land of milk and honey.
As the rise of Nazism made the situation of Jews in Europe more and more dangerous, the opinion took hold in the USA that the British had had a good idea with the Balfour Declaration. The Jews, like every ethnic people, it was thought, have a right not simply to asylum, but to a state of their own. What better place for such a state than Palestine?
The common opinion was that since the Arabs were getting 97 per cent of the former Ottoman empire, what objection could there be to the Jews getting ‘a little sliver’ of it for themselves? The Arabs of Palestine were not seen as a distinct people, but as a subset of the mass of Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa. And Palestine was not exactly a choice piece of real estate. For one thing, it had no oil and access to oil was the predominant priority of policy elites in London and Washington in the 1920s and 1930s.
This is where Mead’s nuanced analysis becomes especially interesting. He shows that those policy elites were very far from being under the sway of the Zionists and that wealthy Jews in Britain and America tended, for the most part, to oppose Zionism, not promote it. Had the matter been left to them, the Balfour Declaration (and its American counterparts, the Blackstone Memorial of 1891 and its corollary, the Lodge Resolution of 1922) would never have resulted in support for the creation of the state of Israel.
Obama believed in magical dancing democracy unicorns.
In this regard, the central chapters of the book, on the presidency of Harry Truman, are crucial. It was, of course, Truman, in 1948, who gave Israel recognition and shepherded that recognition through the United Nations. But the politics behind that were, as Mead shows, highly complex. George Marshall, as Secretary of State, was horrified by the move and would have resigned had he not believed that would be unprincipled. Mead is well worth reading if only for these critical chapters.
One of Mead’s most telling points, at this juncture, is that, even granted UN recognition, Israel would very possibly have been snuffed out at its birth by the Arab armies, had it not been for Stalin making it possible for the infant state to buy large quantities of arms and ammunition in the nick of time from Czechoslovakia’s Skoda Works. These turned the tide of the war, rather as Soviet arms for the Chinese communists were turning the tide of the Chinese civil war.
But the beauties of Mead’s work are by no means confined to the pre-Truman and Truman years. His analysis of the close alignment between the USA and Israel since the Six Day War is brilliant. And he constantly demonstrates a capacity to understand multiple different and conflicting points of view.
If there is an overarching theme to his book, it is that the Protestant spirit of the USA has tended, again and again, to lead its statesmen and citizens into believing their country has a providential role to play in history—an opinion not always endorsed by the professional diplomats and soldiers—and that this has, in the case of the Middle East, again and again led to serious miscalculations.
He is nowhere more scathing of this idealistic tendency than in his description of Barack Obama’s attempt to foster the ‘Arab Spring’, believing, as Mead charmingly expresses it, in the existence of ‘magical dancing democracy unicorns’, only to collide with a brutal and intractable reality. This critique is amplified in the second last chapter of the book, culminating in a scathing indictment of the failure of America’s policy-making elites under Obama to understand either what they were dealing with or the likely consequences of their idealistic actions. Yet his critique of the self-described ‘realists’ is just as biting. As he argues cogently, if their pivotal assumption, that states are utility-maximising rational actors, was true, then US behaviour towards Israel and the Middle East would be close to inexplicable. That such an assumption should hold, he points out, is no more than an ideological pipe dream. The world is messier than the ‘rational, utility-maximising actor’ premises of ‘realism’ allow.
Mead’s final two chapters, building on the magnificent foundation he puts in place in the earlier chapters of his book, are simply superb. The first, ‘Cool Hands, Hot World’, deals with President Obama. The second, ‘American Crisis and the Fate of the Jewish People’ deals with President Trump. Each is masterly in its clinical dissection of White House politics, the American foreign policy establishment, and the realities of the Middle East.
He opens ‘Cool Hands, Hot World’ by hailing Obama’s ‘Yes, we can’ optimism in 2009, that the USA could overcome the setbacks of the George W. Bush administration and “bend the arc of history back onto its proper course”. But this in no way disposes him to extenuate or overlook the policy failures of the Obama White House and their consequences. Those failures, each of which he discusses, included Obama’s dealings with Israel and the Palestinians, with Egypt and Libya, with Syria and Iran, and with Russia and China.
In a telling passage, he observes:
Like most Americans (and certainly like the Bush administration that preceded it), the Obama administration overestimated the role that admiration for American ideology plays in global attitudes towards the United States. Because it was so firmly convinced that American ideas are both universally valid and universally shared, the administration failed to grasp the degree to which America’s ‘soft power’ was tied less to admiration for the inspirational qualities of American values that to perceptions of American economic success and military prowess.
The consequence was a series of grave miscalculations and the discrediting of American policy elites in the eyes of many parties around the world. Mead details these meticulously and incisively. Following some 20 pages of such analysis, he enters a devastating verdict:
After the string of American Middle East fiascos commencing with the disastrous Iraq War and continuing under Obama with one failed call after another, nobody thought the Americans understood the region particularly well or had a coherent policy for addressing its problems. Like many others around the world at this point, both Israelis and Palestinians tended to regard the United States as a very large beast with a very small brain—an impression that the subsequent Trump administration would do little to erase.
Reading this paragraph, I was vividly reminded of the indictment by Daniel Ellsberg of America’s foreign and strategic policy elites in his Papers on the [Vietnam] War (1972). Ellsberg’s analysis centred on the cognitive deficiencies of a set of institutions which produced a very long, costly, and fruitless war, throughout which they exhibited an apparent incapacity to learn or correct policy settings. His introduction to that book should be required reading for every intelligence analyst and policy maker in the Australian government. It has urgent relevance now as we debate the prospects for AUKUS and the Quad, the American presence in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific, and how to understand and deal with China.
But what Mead goes on to show is that Trump inherited Obama’s failures and built a constituency among the millions of Americans who felt disinherited by the globalisation and the liberal international order that Obama placed his hope in and that his foreign policy rhetoric hailed consistently. Mead’s point of entry here is dispassionate:
Getting to grips with the Trump presidency is a trying task. Trump was such a unique and controversial figure that both his achievements and his failures defy conventional analysis.
Yet Mead’s analysis is impressive. He explains the socio-economic changes in the USA that undermined the base of the Sun Belt Republicanism of the Reagan era and the cosmopolitan social optimism of the Clinton Democrats. He explains how Trump intuitively understood the forces at work and reached out to the disgruntled, transforming the Republican Party. Along the way, he makes the point that “Jacksonian America had never accepted the post-historical consensus and its grand plans for world order”. His dissection of how Trump played to his constituents is masterly. His analysis of Trump’s startling moves in the Middle East is superb. Trump intuitively grasped what Obama had failed to: the geopolitical realities of the Middle East, the rightward shift within Israel, and the growing inclination of the Sunni Arab world to move closer to Israel as a hedge against Iranian and Turkish ambitions.
Writing in 2021, he concludes Biden came into office wanting to revitalise Obama’s Democratic agenda. However, he cautions, the forces that thwarted Obama’s idealism are even stronger now than a decade ago. His overarching concern is with foreign policy assumptions that for a generation have been found badly wanting. Though pivoting on relations with Israel, his book demonstrates a commanding grasp of the big picture. If you read any book this year on the Middle East, this should be the one. If you read only two chapters, make them his last two.
Paul Monk has a PhD in International Relations, is a former senior intelligence analyst, the author of 11 books, and a fellow of the Institute for Law and Strategy (London and New York). The second edition of his 2005 classic Thunder From the Silent Zone: Rethinking China will be released soon through major online retailers.