A front-page story in the New York Times this week provides a reminder of something too often forgotten: The American-Israeli alliance is not a one-way street. While Israel obviously derives numerous benefits from the alliance, it also plays an important role in furthering American interests in the Middle East. And one way it does so is through its impressive intelligence capabilities.
The Times report opens with Israeli military commanders calling the Pentagon in late November “to discuss troubling intelligence that was showing up on satellite imagery: Syrian troops appeared to be mixing chemicals at two storage sites, probably the deadly nerve gas sarin, and filling dozens of 500-pounds bombs that could be loaded on airplanes.” The Pentagon promptly notified President Barack Obama, warning that should Syrian President Bashar Assad decide to use them, the weapons could “be airborne in less than two hours — too fast for the United States to act.” Obama responded with a global diplomatic push to stop the weapons from being used, and so far, the effort has succeeded. But it never could have happened had Israel not provided that initial intelligence.
Nor is this the first time Israel has provided America with vital intelligence about Mideast weapons of mass destruction: As the Times reported in 2011, Washington knew nothing about Syria’s clandestine nuclear reactor until Israel’s intelligence chief “visited President George W. Bush’s national security adviser and dropped photographs of the reactor on his coffee table.”
If, as Obama has repeatedly asserted, preventing the use of WMDs is an American interest, then an ally who can provide timely intelligence about such weaponry clearly furthers that interest: America can’t take diplomatic action to stop WMDs if it doesn’t even know they exist, yet its global intelligence responsibilities preclude devoting the kind of concentrated attention to countries like Syria that Israel of necessity does. Without Israel, America would have to either greatly expand its own intelligence coverage of the Middle East’s bad actors, thereby wasting valuable resources better spent elsewhere, or risk discovering too late that Assad had just used chemical weapons or tested a nuclear bomb.
Israel also provides another service: the ability to take action in cases where America can’t. As the Times article noted, two hours wasn’t enough time for America to mount an intervention had Assad decided to use the weapons. What the article didn’t mention, however, was that two hours probably would have been enough time for Israel to do so: Its airbases are much closer to Syria than America’s are.
Indeed, America has often had cause to be grateful to Israel for taking action that America either can’t or would rather not. President Bush didn’t want to destroy Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007, for instance, but as I’ve written before, American policy-makers are undoubtedly glad today that Israel did so, thereby forestalling the nightmare scenario of nuclear materiel being looted and trafficked amid the chaos of Syria’s civil war. And in the 1991 Gulf War, America was certainly thankful that Israel had destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor 10 years earlier, despite having opposed the move at the time.
In an ideal world, of course, none of this would be necessary. But in the real world, the Mideast is a nasty, dangerous place for American interests. And as long as that remains true, America will benefit from having a reliable regional ally whose military and intelligence capabilities can supplement America’s own.