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Enabling Clients to Act Badly

Greg Scoblete pours [1] cold water on Peter Beinart’s claim [2] that the administration is treating Israel with “benign neglect”:

Consider what the Obama administration is doing: it is still offering Israel the full panoply of material and military aid and support, it is still going to orient its regional diplomacy around making the Mideast safer for Israel and it is going to impede any Palestinian attempts to leverage international bodies to Israel’s disadvantage. In exchange for this, the administration is not going to push Netanyahu to do anything. Instead, it’s simply going to refrain from defending Israel rhetorically from European criticisms [bold mine-DL].

If you were Netanyahu, wouldn’t you take this deal?

That seems exactly right. Beinart’s argument hinges on the assumption that the Israeli government doesn’t want to “own” its own rejectionism and won’t be willing to put up with increased international isolation. As long as the relationship with the U.S. remains more or less intact, why wouldn’t it? As we all know, there was a failed, half-hearted attempt to pressure Israel on settlements at the beginning of Obama’s first term, and it quickly became clear from that episode that the administration had no intention of using U.S. support as leverage with Israel to extract concessions. What Beinart describes isn’t neglect, and it isn’t particularly benign. On the contrary, it is a good example of how the U.S. enables its clients to act in ways that Washington theoretically deplores without risking the support and backing of the U.S.

This approach somewhat resembles the administration’s attempted shielding of Rwanda [3] from international scrutiny and censure over its destructive behavior in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwanda is a U.S. client that has continued its policy of backing proxy militias in eastern Congo, and it is responsible for the latest round of fighting involving the M23 militia. In that case, there is no question that the U.S. has been trying to provide cover for a client government that is actively destabilizing one of its neighbors. Of course, that support isn’t new or unique to this administration, but it is a serious flaw in U.S. policy in that part of the world that has once again become glaring.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Enabling Clients to Act Badly"

#1 Comment By Jack Ross On December 10, 2012 @ 10:49 am

Much as I’d like to see the withdrawal of military aid to Israel (and everywhere else), what choice does the U.S. have at this point? It’s not like the administration is oblivious to the consequences of its approach. Obama has been giving Netanyahu (and thereby to Israel generally more-or-less) the rope to hang itself from the beginning. That’s not an argument for Obama’s virtue, but Beinart said it exactly right on another occasion – why should he sacrifice his political capital to save the two-state solution, especially if Netanyahu and his American amen corner manifestly don’t want him to?

#2 Comment By IanH On December 10, 2012 @ 10:53 am

In my humble opinion, the administration could pressure Israel again today, and succeed. The previous attempt failed largely due to meddling by neoliberals and Jewish warmongers within the Democratic Party. That wing is fading quickly, and if the election taught them anything it’s that charges of being anti-Israel have no significant electoral effects.

#3 Comment By By Jingo On December 10, 2012 @ 11:00 am

“the administration is not going to push Netanyahu to do anything. Instead, it’s simply going to refrain from defending Israel rhetorically from European criticisms ”

Refraining from defending Israel rhetorically from European criticism is gutter anti-Semitism. All 435 voting members of the Congress know that.

#4 Comment By Ethan C. On December 10, 2012 @ 11:31 am

Okay, I’ll bite on the second part of the post: why should we care what Rwanda does in the DRC? If maintaining them as a client state is important, is it worth it to us to let them do as they please in the DRC? If not, why not, specifically?

It seems to me that Larison is advocating some sort of principle here, that the U.S. shouldn’t shield its clients from “international scrutiny and censure” when they misbehave. But why, exactly, shouldn’t we? And if we don’t, what reason would they have to continue to be our clients?

#5 Comment By Daniel Larison On December 10, 2012 @ 12:31 pm

I don’t assume that maintaining Rwanda as a client is particularly important. U.S. support for authoritarian African governments doesn’t seem to serve any discernible American interest. We should care because the U.S. has been providing Rwanda’s government with aid and political support for a long time. The point here is that the U.S. is enabling behavior by client states that directly contradicts official U.S. policy for the region in question. It’s not just that the clients are misbehaving, but they are doing so in a way that undermines stated U.S. goals. The U.S. enables this behavior anyway. It’s foolish and self-defeating. It also happens to be enabling behavior that is appalling and destructive. The U.S. doesn’t even derive any benefit from this. The only people who benefit from it are those running the client governments.

#6 Comment By Ethan C. On December 10, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

Fair enough. I don’t have enough knowledge of that situation to dispute any of the facts, so I’m happy to stipulate that our clients are acting against our stated goals in some regions, and we’re enabling them instead of tugging on the leash.

So why are we doing this, then? I can see that in Israel’s case, there’s a lot of domestic political pressures and historical legacies that affect our decisions, but I don’t see that being the case in Rwanda.

So is it because our policymakers have decided that they’d rather prop up Rwanda at the expense of our official regional goals? I could see that as a rational decision, even if it’s cynical or wrong. Or are there multiple factions within our foreign policy establishment working at cross-purposes to one another? In that case, maybe it’s an organizational problem or a failure of leadership. Or maybe there’s some other reason that I can’t think of right now.

It seems to me that when we find ourselves pursuing bizarre and contradictory policies, we’ll need to figure out why it’s happening before we can work out how to stop it.

#7 Comment By Barry On December 10, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

“… giving Netanyahu (and thereby to Israel generally more-or-less) the rope to hang itself ”

It’ll take a lot more rope – I can imagine Israel actually ‘hanging itself’, but those actions would probably have to involve a literal Palestinian holocaust and/or Israeli use of nuclear weapons.

#8 Comment By michael kranish On December 10, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

According to today’s New York Times, Paul Kagame was a client of Susan Rice, when she worked at Intellibridge. Intellibridge is a political consulting firm run by former officials of the Clinton adminstration.

#9 Comment By IanH On December 10, 2012 @ 5:02 pm

“Paul Kagame was a client of Susan Rice, when she worked at Intellibridge.”

Birds of a feather and all that…

#10 Comment By agorabum On December 10, 2012 @ 6:39 pm

How much can the Obama administration do without running afoul of Congressional appropriations? Material aid is already earmarked to Israel. I wouldn’t expect to see Obama veto a budget just because it gives aid to Israel. And what truly punitive measures could he take that wouldn’t cause a congressional uproar?
To cajole a client state takes carrots and sticks. In the divided government of America, I don’t see that Obama has much of a stick to wield. All he can do is speak softly…or not at all, it seems.

#11 Comment By GeoffBr On December 10, 2012 @ 10:24 pm

This post disagrees with Beinart’s argument but does not rebut it.

It is true that he believes that failing to shield Israel from international criticism will constitute sufficient pressure that it will change its behavior. I can see several reasons to believe Beinart’s line of thinking correct. First, the Israeli administration may feel that if the US allows pressure to build against it, it will be forced to accept substantive diplomatic setbacks (e.g., the non-member state vote) that require concessions to head off. Second, it may be seen as a warning or way to pave the way for more substantive – and politically unpalatable – actions on the part of the US.

Beinart argues from the assumption that the Obama administration is precluded by political realities from harsher sanctions and that this is an attempt to navigate those waters. This seems like a logical assumption to me, and one without a clear and realistic alternative.