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Lessons from Netanyahu and Cameron for American Allies

At the Japan-US Dialogue hosted by the Global Forum Japan on March 11, Professor Isao Miyaoka and Professor Yuichi Hosoya, both from Keio University, mentioned some theoretical concepts of the alliance. Particularly, the risk of being embroiled in partners’ affairs and being abandoned by others is critical. Usually, it is assumed that a stronger ally exploits a weaker ally when there are perception gaps about threats. However, James Holmes, Associate Professor at US Naval War College mentions that things completely the opposite can happen. While a weaker ally wants to make use of the power of the alliance hegemony as much as possible to maximize its national interests, a stronger ally does not want to run the risk of confronting the challenger. This is a dilemma that Athens faced when Corcyra urged them to fight against Sparta just before the Peloponesian War (“Thucydides, Japan and America”; Diplomat; November 27, 2012).

The above mentioned Thucydides quotation by Holmes presents quite helpful aspects to understand how to arrange the relationship between the United States and the allies. Particularly, recent disagreements on Iranian nuclear threats between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama give important lessons for policymakers around the world. Despite sore relations with Obama, Netanyahu shares common understanding of Middle East security with American policymakers who are strongly concerned with White House appeasement to adversaries. On the other hand, British Prime Minister David Cameron enjoys a very friendly relationship with Obama, and even called “bro” by him. However, serious policymakers are critical to his defense policy as it lowers Britain’s military capability. Stark differences between both leaders give lessons that we must learn.

To begin with, let me talk about Benjamin Netanyahu. In this case, problems are perception gaps with the Obama administration on Iran’s nuclear threats and partisan split in the United States. The following points are key focuses. The first one is the effectiveness of the nuclear deal itself, as it is temporary. The second one is the inherent nature of Iran’s threat beyond nuclear proliferation. Both issues are closely associated with perception gaps between the Obama administration and Middle Eastern allies that are directly menaced by Iran’s sponsorship for Shiite extremists, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf Arabs. In other words, Middle East allies suspect that Obama treats them like Corcyra. Meanwhile, Republicans and some Democrats share their worries as typically seen in Senator Tom Cotton’s open letter with 47 signatories to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to express their objection to the nuclear deal and its spill over effect on Middle East security. The final one makes things even more complicated as Russia and China are involved in Iran after the deal. For example, Russia sells S-300 anti-air missiles to Iran, which makes Israel, Arabs, and Capitol Hill raise eyebrows. Shortly after Netanyahu’s speech at the Congress, Robert Satloff, Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, commented that Netanyahu argued that Obama give more strategic priority to Iranian dominance in the Middle East than the battle against ISIS. As to the deal itself, he pointed out the intelligence gap between Israel and the West, and told that the United States must fill such a perception gap with Middle East allies including Israel to stop Iran from cheating. See the video below.


Netanyahu’s speech at the Congress on March 3, 2015


Robert Satloff interviewed on March 4, 2015


Regarding the nuclear deal, opponents are concerned with loose restrictions on enriched uranium and centrifuges, and also its temporary nature. Though enriched uranium in Iran will be reduced, but not necessarily shipped abroad. None of Iran’s nuclear facilities will be closed. Also, centrifuges are not dismantled. This is a great retreat from Obama's demand to Iran in 2012, and that makes Middle East allies critically concerned (“Obama’s Iran deal falls far short of his own goals”; Washington Post; April 2, 2015). Also, Michael Singh, Managing Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, comments that the deal is so unbinding as it is a temporary agreement without official documents. See the video below.




In view of criticism from opponents, Dennis Ross, Councilor at the Washington Institute, argues that the Obama administration show how to deal with concerns with the nuclear deal, notably, breakout time, verification, and punishment for violation. As an advisor to Obama, Ross himself admits that the current deal moved back from Obama’s first term objective to incapacitate Iran’s nuclear development. However, he says that the deal can turn Iran’s intention peaceful (“Deal or No, Iran Will Remain a Nuclear Threat”; Politico; March 31, 2015). Proponents of the deal say that Iran has been suffering from the sanction hit economy, and willing to comply with international nonproliferation norm. Therefore, they argue that we must reach a realistic agreement to achieve our vital objective to stop a nuclear armed Iran. However, that is hardly persuasive for opponents, as Iran and the United States disagree on the meaning of the deal each other. Though the Lausanne agreement on April 2 states that Iran is allowed to enrich uranium within 3.67% for 15 years, Ali Akbar Salehi, Director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said that his country could enrich uranium to 20% any time in an interview with Iran’s state owned Press TV (“Iran Nuclear Chief Threatens New Uranium Enrichment”; Washington Examiner; April 10. 2015).

Furthermore, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demanded that the United States remove the sanctions immediately to implement the deal. Some say that is due to language gaps between English and Farsi documents. According to Rob Litwak, Vice President of the Woodrow Wilson Center, the gap comes from domestic politics on both sides, as hardliners in Iran do not want the deal with the Great Satan while those in the United States see the agreement with a rogue state skeptically. US opponents and Israel see the nature of Iranian regime matters much more than the text of the deal, while proponents argue that we focus on the text technically. Despite that, it is policy emphasis that causes different interpretation. While the United States wants to limit Iran’s capability to make fissile materials, Iran wants to enrich uranium for energy purpose (“The Language of the Iran Deal”; WNYC Brian Lehrer Show; April 13, 2015). Former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz points out that Iran can cheat international inspectors easily as numerous facilities and fissile fuels remain intact. American allies in the Middle East see that Obama reached a temporary and weak agreement as recognition of Iran’s regional hegemony. Therefore, Saudi Arabia is exploring their own nuclear deterrence (“The Iran Deal and Its Consequences”; Wall Street Journal; April 7, 2015).

The perception gap between the Obama administration and Middle East allies is beyond technical interpretation of the deal. We must understand it from much more comprehensive security implication of the Middle East. While the Obama administration regards Iran as a some sort of partner to defeat ISIS, the opponents see Iran’s ambition for regional dominance and sponsorship to Shiite extremists the most critical threat in the region. Saudi Arabian former Director of General Intelligence Prince Turki bin Faisal presented an overview of the implication of this nuclear deal to Middle East security, at Chatham House on March 19. He said that the nuclear deal would provoke a nuclear arms race as regional stakeholders were concerned with the US-Iranian collusion to allow more Tehran’s influence in the Gulf area. Regarding Obama’s engagement in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia wants action, not rhetoric, for regional security, and they regard US help to the Free Syrian Army as the vital test. On the other hand, Prince Turki said that the Iraqi government worried too much about offending Iran, and therefore, Saudi Arabia can hardly exert influence there. See the video below.




As Prince Turki talked at Chatham House, Saudi Arabia now regards Obama so unreliable that the Sultan did not attend the Camp David meeting this May, and this country was even considering buying nuclear weapons from Pakistan (“Saudi Arabia vs. Iran”; Value Walk; May 21, 2015). Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon is similarly concerned with the loopholes of the deal, as Iran could obstruct inspectors, and acquire nuclear bomb in the end as North Korea did (“Current Iran framework will make war more likely”; Washington Post; April 8, 2015). Actually Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected international inspector accesses to their military facilities and interviews with Iranian scientists, as Saddam Hussein did (“Iran’s Supreme Leader Rules Out Broad Nuclear Inspections”; New York Times; May 20, 2015).

Obama wants a nuclear compromise with Iran just in order to defeat ISIS, and even helps their Shiite proxies (“Complex US-Iran ties at heart of complicated Mideast policy”; Rudaw; 27 March, 2015). Max Boot, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations says furthermore, that the US Air Force has become the Iranian Air Force (“America’s New Role: As Iran’s Air Force”; Commentary; March 25, 2015). However, Michael Ledeen, Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, comments that the United States and Iran cannot work together simply because they have a common enemy in Iraq. Iran curses America every occasion since the Islamic Revolution. Moreover, Iranian terrorists killed Americans and even plotted to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States. In view of such long and harsh hostility to America and its staunch ally Israel, it is unlikely that Iran quits their expansionist ambition (“The Iran Deal: Forget About Stability, Our Strategy Should Be Survival”; Forbes; April 15, 2015).There is nothing strange that Capitol Hill opponents, notably the 47 senators, demand strongly that Obama stop treating Israel like Corcyra.

Iran sponsors terrorists like Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Shiite militias in Iraq. Also, Iran recruits combatants in Afghanistan to support the Assad administration in Syria. In addition to these regional manipulation, Iran launches massive cyber attacks globally. It is geopolitics and international isolation that drives Iran to act so provocatively. Though Iran is located at the junction of Western Asia and Central Asia, it has no natural defensive borders. Historically, the Turkic invaded from the north, and Mesopotamia had been the disputed are against the Semitic nations, Rome, Arabs, and the Ottoman Empire. Also, Iran found itself completely isolated from both the West and Middle East neighbors during the Iran-Iraq War. Therefore, the Shiite regime in Tehran helps their proxies in the Middle East to overcome historical insecurity (“Why Iran Needs to Dominate the Middle East”; National Interest; April 10. 2015). In view of the above mentioned problems, Retired General David Petraeus supports Israel’s concern that Shiite militia could prevail throughout the Middle East, which would make the whole of this area vulnerable to Iranian influence. In addition, as the Obama administration withdrew troops from Iraq too soon, he said that Iran understood it as weakness of American power in the Middle East. The problem is, Iran wants to dominate the Middle East, annihilate Israel, and continue to develop nuclear bomb (“Former general splits with Obama; says Iran, not ISIS, is the real enemy.”; National Review; March 20, 2015). Furthermore, Iran still continues cooperation in nuclear project with North Korea (“State: We can't deny Iran nuclear cooperation with North Korea; it won't stop nuke deal”; Washington Examiner; May 28, 2015). Netanyahu fears that the nuclear talks proceed at an unfavorable time when Iran is sponsoring their proxies in Yemen. A weak agreement can embolden their expansionism furthermore, and Israel sees that the nuclear deal gives reward to Iran without pushing them (“Netanyahu accuses Iran of trying to 'conquer the entire Middle East' amid looming nuclear deal”; FOX News; March 29, 2015).

As mentioned above, the impacts of the current nuclear deal with Iran go not just the technical aspects, but the whole Middle East security structure. The perception gap between the Obama administration and Middle East allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia is so huge. In addition, Russia and China are exploring to deepen relations with Iran, including in the defense area, after the nuclear deal takes effect. As soon as the deal was declared, Russia reached an agreement with Iran to sell S-300 anti-air missiles, which makes Israel critically concerned (“Russia-Iran relationship is a marriage of opportunity”; Washington Post; April 18, 2015). The core interest of Russia’s Iran policy is weakening Western influence there. Also, the Russian nuclear industry has been keeping an eye on Iranian market, and this nuclear deal is a good opportunity for them (“How Russia Views The Iran Nuclear Talks”; Breaking Energy; March 18, 2015). However, Obama’s comment to defend Russia’s sales of these missiles to Iran startled Israeli media, despite Netanyahu’s fierce criticism to Russia (“Israel analysts shocked by Obama’s comments on sanctions, S-300 supply”; Times of Israel; April 17, 2015). Meanwhile, China sees the deal necessary to secure their oil import from Iran (“The Dragon and the Atom: How China Sees Iran and the Nuclear Negotiations”; National Interest; November 14, 2014).

The Iran nuclear deal led by the Obama administration is so dangerous that opponents in Washington, notably the 47 senators, resonate concerns raised by Israel and Saudi Arabia. When the hegemony of the alliance treats a weaker ally like Corcyra due to perception gaps, should the weaker one act with opponents in the hegemonic state, and get involved in its domestic political rivalry to overturn the decision of its government? Despite the above mentioned defects of the nuclear deal and dangers of Obama’s Middle East strategy, Robert Kagan, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, comments critically to Netanyahu’s deep involvement in Washington politics. Remember that Kagan is no proponent of Obama’s foreign policy. Then, why does is he so critical of it? He says that Netanyahu’s involvement in Washington politics is a foreign intrusion, regardless of the strategic importance of Israel and his tense relations with Obama. Also, that would preclude America from shaping a national consensus on Iran policy. As Kagan mentions, partisan split is a serious problem for American foreign policymakers. Furthermore, Winston Churchill gave the Iron Curtain speech in Fulton of Missouri, instead of the Congress, because he did not receive an invitation from the president and already stepped down from public job (“Five reasons Netanyahu should not address Congress”; Washington Post; January 29, 2015). Kagan still continues that if House Speaker John Boehner can invite Netanyahu to the Congress, that will allow Democrats to do the same against the Republican administration (“At what price Netanyahu?”; Washington Post; February 27, 2015). The case of Netanyahu is a critical agenda for state leaders around the world to explore how to behave when America does not fulfill global expectation. Asian nations are so pleased to hear of Obama’s strategic rebalance, but that is no guarantee for his security commitment to them. What happens if he appeases to China as he does to Iran now?

On the other hand, in the case of David Cameron, the problem is military capability as an ally. Cameron enjoys good personal relationship with Obama. At Former South African President Nelson Mandela’s funeral in December 2013 in Pretoria, Cameron took selfies with Obama and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt so cheerfully (“David Cameron defends 'selfie' at Nelson Mandela memorial”; Daily Telegraph; 11 December 2013). However, that does not necessarily give him credit from American policymakers. Since the 2010 SDSR, Britain’s defense capability has been curtailed, which makes many Americans critically concerned. General Raymond Odierno, Chief of the Staff of the US army, commented that Britain’s defense cut might jeopardize the Anglo-American alliance as Britain has been the most reliable partner in US military operations across the globe in the postwar period. Particularly, the rise of Russian threat after the Ukraine crisis and the emergence of a self-called caliphate by ISIS necessitate NATO member states to re-strengthen their defense, and Britain leads this effort. But its army, navy, and air force were cut so drastically that the military capability scantily meets the requirement for global actions. Cuurrently, the Royal Navy's manpower and number of flight squadrons are too small to operate Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers (“US fears that Britain's defense cuts will diminish Army on the world stage”; Daily Telegraph; 1 March 2015). Despite that, British voters are too happy to see its defense spending plunge below its overseas development aid (“EXCLUSIVE: UK set to spend MORE on foreign aid than on Armed Forces”; Daily Express; March 1, 2015).

The problem with UK defense is excessive focus on NATO requirement of the GDP 2% line, but the real capability is not determined by the amount of the budget. Alexander Clarke, a naval historian, argues that Britain make it clear their defense needs and what they want for those objectives (“The Defence Debate – why the UK needs to change the subject”; USNI Blog; February 20, 2015). Actually, Britain faces challenges to defend even its own sovereign territory. In Scotland, Russian submarines navigate close to the UK Trident submarine base at Faslane. Britain needs help from its allies, including the United States, Canada, France, and so forth to counter Russian undersea fleet. In other words, Britain cannot protect its own independent nuclear by itself, because Cameron cut anti-submarine capability (“A Suspected Russian Submarine Is Lurking Off Of The Scottish Coast”; Business Insider; January 9, 2015). This is appalling, considering Britain’s leading contribution to NATO to counter Soviet submarine force during the Cold War with its rich experience to fight against German U-boats. Cameron’s fatal mistake was to scrap Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft (“Nimrod cuts 'have allowed Russian submarines to spy on Trident”; Daily Telegraph; 29 May, 2015). The rise of nationalism in Argentina poses another threat. While the Royal Navy decommissioned the Invincible class aircraft carriers before the Queen Elizabeth class are deployed, Argentina leases Su-24 bombers from Russia that are capable of attacking Falkland Islands (“Britain's military defences in the Falkland Islands”; Daily Telegraph; 24 March 2015).

It is quite unbelievable that a global naval power like Britain have a blank period in capital ships. The decline of Britain’s military capability is closely associated with lack of foreign policy visions. Maxine David, Lecturer at the University of Sussex, analyzes such a trend as the following. Prior to the general election, party leaders hardly talked about foreign policy in the debate on April 2. Antipathy to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rise of local nationalism have made Britain more isolationist. Furthermore, the decline of public attention to global security turns UK foreign policy more trade oriented (“State of the Nation: Britain’s Role in the World Just Keeps Shrinking” The Conversation; 29 April 2015). This is typically seen in Britain’s bid for AIIB membership, which was the first among European nations. The problem is, Britain is not likely to assume global role when the world faces increasingly multiplied threats (“World crises may be multiplying, but campaign turns Britain further inward”; Washington Post; April 25, 2015). Britain’s engagement is declining from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, to Asia. The Cameron administration even did not protest strongly against China’s repression to student rallies in Hong Kong. France also worries a more isolationist Britain as military role is sensitive for Germany (“Britain’s Drift From the Global Stage Becomes an Election Issue”; New York Times; April 27, 2015). The problem of Britain’s defense capability is quite deep. Downing Street is so reluctant to use full potential of its national power for international security and global public interest. General Odierno’s comment represents concerns among Britain’s allies worldwide, even though Cameron is a nice bro for Obama.

As I talked about America’s primary allies in the Middle East and Europe, I would like to go on to the one in the Asia Pacific region, that is, Japan. Are there any lessons for Tokyo to learn from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom? Currently, the Abe administration tries hard to pass a new security bill at the Diet, in order to bolster proactive pacifism. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech at Capitol Hill was almost successful. How about security perception and military capability of Japan? In the Far East, China pursues regional hegemony as Iran does in the Middle East. In addition to its own armed forces, China sponsors fishermen proxies to expand the sphere of influence as Iran does Shiite proxies. Therefore, the attitude of Obama’s America to Israel and Saudi Arabia is a critical issue for Japan. So far as the new security bill and the constitutional reform are concerned, the Japanese public is excessively worried about "being embroiled", but the problem of "being abandoned" has far greater implications for Japan’s national survival. Even if Japan is willing to make a full commitment to the US-led allied forces over constitutional and other legal restrictions, who expects us to do something beyond the national capability? Those who argue against further contribution to the US-Japanese and multilateral alliance should focus much more on filling perception gaps with the American side to avoid "being deserted".The worst scenario for Japanese people is that Obama sees Japan another Corcyra like Israel and Saudi Arabia. That sends chills down my spine. Japan can act with sympathizers in Washington political corridors to avoid this, but it must be a smart and stealthy lobbying. That requires political finesse. Netanyahu provoked a partisan split in US foreign policy.

Regarding military capability, it is important to meet the expectation of the global community. Cameron’s Britain fails to maintain defense capability in accordance with her national power. We must bear in mind that this is the vital reason why General Odierno expressed worries about it. Japan has the capability to act beyond its neighborhood in an era of increasingly diversified threat. The Hormuz Strait that Abe mentioned in the new security bill debate is a vital route for Japanese oil demand, and it is Japan’s natural role to join the coalition to secure this route, in case of emergency. However, it is extremely regretful that Abe restricted Japanese involvement to mine sweeping which Japan already did after the Gulf War in 1991. Currently, the most serious maritime threat in the Gulf area is Iran’s anti-ship missiles. Iran has upgraded A2AD capability rapidly since then, both in terms of quality and quantity. Carrier killer missiles can attack any ship even those far away from the minefield. Without a fleet air defense, none of the missions to secure the energy supply sea lane will be carried out safely and successfully. The Japan Maritime Self Defense Force deploys the Aegis Combat System, and it is helpful in a multilateral operation to intercept North Korea’s ballistic missile, as frequently mentioned among Japanese opinion leaders. However, the primary objective to develop this system is fleet air defense, and Japan has the capability to defend multinational fleets from an Iranian missile attack, along with other coalition members. This is not an offensive role, such as nullifying enemy military bases like SEAD or DEAD, and landing in enemy territory, but entirely defensive one. Evidently, Japan has no capability to do those operations in the Middle East, and hardly anyone can imagine that foreign partners expect her to do those jobs. But when it comes to fleet air defense, Japan can do the job, and this is a real step toward proactive pacifism, from she has already accomplished in the past.

Nagatacho debates over new security bill focus excessively on war casualty risks to send troops overseas. But the vital point of this bill is to enable Japan to make full use of her defense capability for global public interest. This is the core concept of proactive pacifism. The security of the Persian Gulf is beyond Japan’s narrow self-interest, and the value of this is far greater than supposed “risks” of Japanese contribution to the global community. Regretfully, both the Abe administration and the opposition miss the imperative point. The quality of defense debates in current Japan is much worse than those in Cameron’s Britain. However, a full use of defense capability will be helpful for Japan to nurture common understanding of security with foreign partners.

Finally. I would like to mention personal relations between state leaders. Even in a state to state relation, there is no doubt that it is advantageous for leaders to have friendly mutual ties. However, I suspect that people of Japanese political corridors and pundits worry friendship between Abe and Obama so much that they see personal relations both leaders too emotionally. Though Cameron is very close and friendly with Obama, American political corridors and intellectuals do not necessarily evaluate him well. To the contrary. Netanyahu was able to mobilize 47 signatories to support him, even though his relationship with the White House is not necessarily good. Of course, it would be preferable that a foreign leader not get involved in domestic partisan split in the United States, as Robert Kagan mentioned even though he is critical to Obama’s foreign policy. Nevertheless, I would like to raise a question that the implications of Abe-Obama ties were overinterpreted emotionally among US-Japanese relation watchers. It seems that such trends are found among Japan experts on the American side as well. I have no intention of downplaying personal ties between national leaders, but I would rather suggest that opinion leaders both Japan and the United States focus on more important issues.



This post first appeared on Global American Discourse, please read the originial post: here

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Lessons from Netanyahu and Cameron for American Allies

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