Like the U.S. abstention on UNSCR 2334, John Kerry’s speech on settlements and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes too late to do any good, but it did contain at least one very important statement about U.S. foreign policy that can be applied to many other issues:

Regrettably, some seem to believe that the U.S. friendship means the U.S. must accept any policy, regardless of our own interests, our own positions, our own words, our own principles, even after urging again and again that the policy must change. Friends need to tell each other the hard truths, and friendships require mutual respect.

Kerry is entirely right on this point. Regrettably, the Obama administration has more often given in to what its clients want in the name of “reassurance” while putting “our own interests, our own positions, our own words, our own principles” second. That is how they have handled the relationship with Israel: showering them with weapons and aid in exchange for no positive change in their behavior. Kerry’s own litany of how much support the administration has given Israel confirms this. We have seen the same thing in the way they have handled Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf states. Obama may occasionally make a comment in public about them that they don’t like, but in almost every other practical way the U.S. lavishes its clients in the region with support, refrains from criticizing their worst behavior, and enables their most destructive policies. Only now at the end of Obama’s second term are they interested in telling their “friends” hard truths when those truths can be most easily be ignored.

If you judge the administration by what Obama and his officials say about how the U.S. should deal with its “friends,” you would assume that they are constantly holding them accountable for illegal and self-destructive behavior, but when we look at the record of what they have done we see that they routinely indulge and let them get away with just about anything. Forget about illegal settlements for a moment, and just look at the horrors that the administration has enabled in Yemen. Which American interests and principles are served by fueling an atrocious war and supporting the starvation of millions of people? Obviously there aren’t any, but you’re not going to hear that from Kerry or any other administration official.

Thinking of these relationships in terms of friendship usually does more harm than good. It blinds us to the reality that client states value a relationship with us for what they can get out of us Friendship does require mutual respect, but a patron-client relationship often isn’t like that. The client does what it has to in order to get as much as it can from the relationship, and the more it succeeds in extracting benefits from the patron the more likely it is that the client views its benefactor with something other than respect. These governments do not behave like friends should, but instead they frequently work at cross-purposes with us while expecting to receive uncritical support for whatever reckless and irresponsible thing they want to do in the region. It is long past time since the U.S. dealt with these states based on our own interests rather than going out of our way to cater to theirs.