Camille Mansour, Beyond Alliance: Israel and US Foreign Policy (Columbia, 1994).
This long overdue inquiry into what Camille Mansour, with typical understatement, calls “the privileged character of American-Israeli relations”(p. xi) provides an exceptionally lucid analysis of a central feature of US policy in the Middle East.
Mansour seeks to resolve the paradoxes that envelop that policy. The first two chapters treat separately the contending “doctrines” of Israel as a strategic asset and as a burden to the US goal of preeminent influence in the region. A key paradox is apparent in the citations to those chapters. Those articulating the “asset” doctrine range from the serious (Steven Spiegel) to the buffoonish (Joseph Churba), but all advocate, and share an a priori interest in, a strong and prosperous Israel, and see Israel’s “asset” status as key to expanding and deepening its ties with the strongest and most prosperous outside power.
Those who see Israel more as a burden are no less self-serving or even strident in their presentations; interestingly, though, many of them have government experience as makers of strategic policy (e.g., George Ball, Zbigniew Brzezinski). Yet actual policy has moved, not without interruption but with consistency, into the “asset” camp — to the point where “asset” partisans have increasingly been brought in to make policy (e.g., Martin Indyk as the Clinton administration’s National Security Council adviser for the Middle East). Some in the “burden” camp see this as evidence that policy is not determined on strategic merit, with an eye to US (as distinct from Israeli) interests, but rather, is “distorted” by domestic US politics, especially by the renowned pro-Israel “lobby.”
Mansour acknowledges a central place for domestic US politics, and also presumes that US policy (or that of any state) approaches only imperfectly the ideals of rationality and competence that both partisans or critics of a policy often presume. But he is not persuaded that a major power would, for more than four decades, pursue a policy self-evidently counterproductive to the maintenance of its major perceived interests. His three middle chapters ably chart Israel’s more or less steady accrual, from 1948 to the present, of strategic status, problematic and contested to be sure but largely unencumbered by the damages that the “burden” argument would assume.
Mansour’s thesis, which he argues with impressive precision, has several dimensions. The first is that Israel’s place in US policy incorporates aspects of both asset and burden, in differing ratios depending on circumstance and context. Israel, of course, has had every incentive to accentuate the former, but in fact the US has profited more rather than less from the relationship. Mansour attributes this not to American design or intentionality so much as to a “dimension of permissiveness and reactive behavior” (235) that has not incurred the costs presumed by the “burden” thesis. This, Mansour asserts, “allows us to speak of an American policy congruent with the idea of strategic asset even at a time when decision-makers think the opposite” (235).
Mansour’s last substantive chapter attempts to push beyond this, to find the causes, as opposed to the consequences, of US support for Israel in “domestic dynamics.” Here he explores and correctly refutes the notion of “the lobby” as the motor of US policy. He attributes the underlying base of support, rather, to a “pro-Israeli predisposition” that “‘precedes’ any consideration of interest, any concern with cost or damage.” (277) Such a notion of “predisposition” is helpful, indeed essential, in explaining the beginnings of the US-Israeli strategic relationship, but it cannot bear the sustaining weight that Mansour places on it.
The problem is twofold. First, Mansour’s comes across as a single and uncomplicated predisposition, one which does indeed exist and runs powerfully through the American polity but does so alongside other contradictory and contrary predispositions. It cannot be generalized, as Mansour seems to do, across sectors and generations without qualification. A more nuanced synthesis of Mansour’s dialectic would stress the instrumental reinforcement of this predisposition in the form of strategic profit. A second, related problem is that Mansour’s “predisposition” is not sufficiently distinct from an even more unsatisfactory notion of prevailing public opinion, which in any case may permit but certainly does not determine or “cause” a particular policy or doctrine.
This is an extremely useful book for the ground it covers empirically and conceptually. Perhaps most importantly, it sets the stage for reformulating the author’s less than adequate consideration of the American “ideological cultural instance” as the repository of the US-Israeli “special relationship.” In this process, Ian Lustick’s treatment of what he calls “hegemonic breakdown and reconstruction” in the cases of Britain and Ireland, France and Algeria, and Israel and the Occupied Territories might be fruitfully applied to the changing American-Israeli dynamic as well.