Commentary Magazine


Another Display of Israel’s Strategic Value

The ongoing debate about whether America should intervene in Syria highlights an important point about Israel’s unique value as a U.S. ally: It is the only American ally in the Middle East willing and able to serve American interests by projecting power independently, rather than waiting for American troops to ride to the rescue.

One of the most bizarre features of Syria’s ongoing civil war is the widespread assumption that outside intervention against the Assad regime will come from the U.S. or not at all. After all, the rebels’ main backers include two American allies with powerful militaries, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Turkey has one of the region’s largest armies, significantly larger than Syria’s; moreover, as a NATO member, it’s equipped with state-of-the-art Western weaponry. Saudi Arabia has been a major purchaser of the best American weaponry for years, including fighter jets, missiles and airborne warning and control systems. Both have billed Assad’s departure as a major national interest. Yet never once have they suggested that their combined air forces could use Turkey’s bases to impose a no-fly zone over part of Syria; they take it for granted that if military intervention is to happen, America will have to do it. And so does Washington.

In contrast, Israel has always insisted on taking sole responsibility for its own defense, and is consequently both willing and able to take independent military action. And because its interests in the region often overlap with those of its American ally, such action often ends up serving American interests. That was true in the Cold War, when Israeli battles with the Soviet Union’s Arab proxies repeatedly proved the superiority of American over Soviet arms. It was true when Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981: Had it not thereby stopped Saddam Hussein from acquiring nukes, an American-led coalition wouldn’t have been able to oust his forces from Kuwait a decade later. And it was true when Israel bombed Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007: Today, Americans are sleeping better because they don’t have to worry about al-Qaida-linked militias in Syria getting their hands on nuclear materiel.

Thanks to Israel, America never had to face a choice between taking military action against Syria or Iraq itself or letting a hostile dictator acquire nukes. But because its other Middle Eastern allies aren’t willing or able to act independently, it does face that kind of choice in Syria today: either take military action itself, or see its credibility in the region shredded by allowing Assad to survive despite President Barack Obama’s repeated statements that he must go–with the attendant risk that some of its regional allies will switch sides and align instead with Russia and Iran, who have proven their willingness to support their Syrian ally to the hilt. 

This understanding of Israel’s unique value was precisely what led to yesterday’s astounding 99-0 Senate vote on a resolution pledging American support for Israel if it is compelled to take independent military action against Iran’s nuclear program. The senators understand that despite Congress’ best efforts, sanctions may fail to halt Iran’s nuclear drive; that the Obama administration may ultimately prefer to avoid military action, even though a nuclear Iran would be disastrous for America’s interests in the region; and that none of the Arab countries that have vociferously lobbied Washington to attack Iran would ever do so themselves. But they know that Israel really might. And through this resolution, they were expressing their appreciation of the only Middle Eastern ally America has that is willing to act independently to advance shared regional interests.