It got lost in the middle of a wide-ranging interview in The Washington Post that made headlines for other reasons. But when President Donald Trump said that the United States might be staying involved in the Middle East because of Israel, he said something that frightened many supporters of the Jewish state.
The context was the US’s relationship with Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the shocking murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the kingdom, believed to have been acting on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Trump is reluctant to punish the Saudis and seems to view the issue in purely transactional terms.
The president defended his stance by pointing out the Saudis’ crucial role as a counterbalance to the malevolent influence of Iran. He’s right about that, even if the administration’s messaging has been off-key because of the president’s lack of interest in human-rights issues.
But his comments went deeper than that:
“It’s very important to have Saudi Arabia as an ally if we’re going to stay in that part of the world. Now, are we going to stay in that part of the world? One reason is Israel. Oil is becoming less and less of a reason because we’re producing more oil now than we’ve ever produced. So, you know, all of a sudden it gets to a point where you don’t have to stay there.”
That raised alarms for two reasons.
One was that Trump was contemplating a scenario in which the United States would withdraw from the Middle East.
The other is that he said if defending the world’s oil reserves was no longer necessary, the United States might stay in the region because of its alliance with Israel.
The first reason is worrisome because it is in keeping with the president’s neo-isolationist instincts. While Trump has been inconsistent, he speaks for many Americans who are tired of foreign entanglements and wars. But for all his dislike of such demands on American attention, Trump seems to understand the lethal nature of the Iranian threat — both in terms of its nuclear ambitions and its quest for regional hegemony — and knows an alliance involving the Saudis and Israel is essential for maintaining the balance of power, as well as protecting US interests.
Trump is also right when he acknowledges that oil should no longer be the sole factor determining US strategy. The glut in the oil market and America’s ability to be more or less energy-independent has changed the way we think about the region. The decline of Arab leverage over the West has more to do with fracking in the States and the discovery of vast natural gas reserves elsewhere, including in Israel, than the price of oil set by OPEC. The free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf is still important, but it’s not as important as it used to be.
That leaves the question of America staying in the Middle East because of Israel.
Speaking such sentiments aloud spooks friends of Israel because it raises the specter of US troops defending Israel and, heaven forbid, fighting and dying to protect the Jewish state. But Israel has never had any need or desire for Americans to defend its borders. The Israel Defense Forces is quite capable, and Israelis have never wanted anyone else, even its superpower ally, to take up that duty.
Anti-Semites have often claimed that Israel is the tail wagging the American dog, manipulating US foreign policy in ways that are against Washington’s interests. That is untrue. Israel — a regional military superpower and the sole democracy in the region — is a US asset, not a liability.
America gives Israel vast amounts in military aid (spent almost completely in the United States on weapons and other services). But the Jewish state has given as good as it has gotten in terms of intelligence sharing, technological advancements and serving as a bulwark against radical regimes like Iran, which are bent on destroying moderate Arabs allied with the United States.
America has always been in the Middle East for its own reasons, not merely those of Israel.
Unfortunately, President Barack Obama began a process of US withdrawal from the Middle East with his bugout from Iraq, plans to abandon Afghanistan and punting of responsibility for containing the human-rights catastrophe in Syria to Russia. Trump doesn’t have much appetite for completely reversing that policy, but he is sanguine enough about the Iranian threat to check his instincts, in addition to those of his supporters who tell him to follow Obama’s lead and get out.
Stopping Iran is vital, but as much as the pro-Israel community is wary about an American president saying the United States must stay in the Middle East, we shouldn’t be shocked by or opposed to Trump’s pledge not to abandon Israel.
Critics of both Obama and Trump have rightly worried that their desire to withdraw from the Middle East will leave Israel on its own in a region where Russia is now the most powerful actor.
But if Trump knows that the United States must stay there not only for oil, but to keep faith with its ally, that warrants celebration rather than fear of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Saying so tells us that for all of his cynicism and ignorance, Trump may realize that this alliance is based on common values that supersede transactional politics.
Jew-haters will always blame Israel for whatever the United States does in the Middle East. But if Trump considers Israel to be at least, if not more, important than Saudi oil, he may have a better appreciation of the principles that are the heart of the US-Israel alliance than even his supporters may have guessed.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.