#Reviewing Doomed to Succeed: Rethinking Middle East Assumptions

Doomed to Succeed: The US-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama. Dennis Ross. New York, NY: Farrar, Staus, and Giroux, 2015.

Assumptions form the bedrock of any strategy. The choice of ways and means to achieve a particular outcome or objective is based on the assumption that those choices will lead to an expected result. Assumption is just one of many reasons flexibility is the key to good strategy - assumptions must be continuously analyzed for their efficacy. One major assumption at the root of the United States’ strategy in the Middle East has stood the test of time: the US needs Arab oil, or the continued flow of oil out of the Middle East, therefore it must remain on good terms with its oil-exporting Arab allies. It would follow that Arab disdain for Israel suggests the US should put distance between itself and Israel in favor of better relations with its Arab allies. Dennis Ross, in Doomed to Succeed: The US-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama, is rethinking this assumption and Middle East analysts, policy makers, and strategists should listen.

Written more for the Middle East observer or academic than the casual reader, Doomed to Succeed is a detailed account of the relationship between the United States and Israel at the highest levels of government. Helpful in understanding Ross’ purpose, each chapter ends with a summary of each administration’s mindset regarding the relationship with Israel as well as how that mindset colored its decision making process. Doomed to Succeed is a great companion to Michael Oren’s Ally. Both have been personally involved in the US-Israel relationship and call on those personal experiences heavily in each book, however Ross details the long arc of the relationship where Oren considers more recent events. Also, William Quandt’s Peace Process fills in the details regarding American involvement in the peace process that Ross only puts in context to his thesis.

Each chapter follows a US administration as they navigate significant events and issues concerning the US-Israel relationship specifically and the Middle East more broadly. Discussed at length is the reasoning behind each administration’s actions, policy, and their results as well as the responses from Israeli and Arab leaders. Lacking, however, are details of how their assumptions formed. Ross makes it clear he was confronted with similar arguments time and again while advising four administrations and while researching the history of the relationship, but this work lacks any reasonable discussion of how such arguments have formed in the first place and why they are so persistent. Nor does he address the point of view that American administrations should not favor either side in the Arab-Israeli (or later the Israeli-Palestinian) conflict. Also, Ross does not discuss in detail the desired objectives each American administration sought to accomplish regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict or in the Middle East altogether, thus making any discussion of assumptions incomplete.

Ross’s core purpose for writing the book is to challenge readers to question three core assumptions regarding the US-Israel relationship: first, creating distance between the US and Israel will result in closer ties with the Arab states. Second, the Arab regimes view the US-Israel relationship with disdain and it hurts the American relationship with the Arab states. Third, the Israel-Palestine conflict is central to the United States’ position in the region. In fact, Ross argues all three assumptions are not just incorrect, but reversed. The first assumption is fairly straight forward: The US should distance itself from Israel so that it will have more influence with the Arab states. However, Ross shows that historical attempts by administrations to distance themselves from Israel have not resulted in correspondingly closer ties to targeted regimes. Instead the regimes’ expectations of what American administrations would do in their favor were increased––they neglected to make clear that they expected something in return. Ross shows repeatedly when administrations pulled away from Israel thinking they would gain additional influence with the Arab states they discovered themselves in the same position or worse. For example, Eisenhower’s distancing from Israel came at a high point during the Suez Canal Crisis, but the US position in the region still weakened and Gamal Abdal Nasser, the president of Egypt, did not change his negative views of the United States. In fact, he could not. Nasser’s popularity was based on anti-colonialism in the region of which he made the US the poster child.

Egyptians crowd the streets of Cairo to protest the British and French invasion of the Suez Canal area during the Suez Crisis of 1956 | Getty Images

Egyptians crowd the streets of Cairo to protest the British and French invasion of the Suez Canal area during the Suez Crisis of 1956 | Getty Images

Secondly, Ross argues that Arab regimes are more focused on their own security and relationship with the United States (if they had one) than they are on the US-Israel relationship. He contends cooperation with Israel did not lead to fallout with Arab allies, despite expectations to the contrary. For example, President Truman recognized Israel when it declared itself a state against the advice of nearly every one of his advisors, yet, the Saudi king, Ibn Saud, still expanded Saudi Arabia’s relations with the United States.

Some may also point to the 1973 oil embargo, but Ross argues the Arab regimes ended it as soon as they could in order to maintain their own financial and security needs; while going against the wishes of Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, who wanted to use the embargo as leverage for his own negotiations with Israel. The Saudis also recognized that it would be difficult for US leaders to justify selling arms to them while they maintained a restriction on such a precious commodity. Ross also argues the Saudis and other Gulf states held other economic reasons for the embargo and the war was a convenient time to implement it. This may also explain why another embargo has not been employed during subsequent crises.

However, Ross’s argument does not necessarily apply to the Arab people. Ross confines his analysis to regime leaders. If the region were to experience another round of uprisings, regimes may change, citizens may gain more political power and could call for their governments to once again go to war with Israel or to walk away from past agreements. On the other hand, the declining importance of the conflict to Arab youth, according to the past two Arab Youth Surveys, could also signal the decreasing importance of the U.S-Israel relationship to the wider Arab population as long as they are contending with poor socioeconomic conditions, extremism, and terrorism. In fact, that an anti-Israeli settlements resolution in the United Nations Security Council was vetoed (subsequently passed in late 2016) during the Arab Spring without a corresponding outcry from those in the streets also supports the idea that the Arabs are more focused on their own issues than they are the Palestinians’ and therefore the relationship between the US and Israel.

The final assumption: The Israel-Palestine conflict is central to the United States’ standing in the region. Ross convincingly argues the conflict is used by Arab leaders as leverage during discussions with the United States, to build their own legitimacy among their populations, or as a political instrument against their rivals. There is no doubt that the conflict is important to the Arab people and their leaders. At issue is not how people feel about the conflict, rather it is that the conflict takes a backseat to their own priorities and security. Regime survival will always take precedence over the struggle with Israel and virtue signaling. Therefore, when US and Arab priorities align the two sides will work together, when priorities conflict they will not.

Regime survival will always take precedence over the struggle with Israel and virtue signaling.

Rethinking these assumptions could have profound effects on US relations with Israel and the greater Middle East. American leaders, policymakers, and diplomatic staff should keep these points in mind during diplomatic discussions with Arab leaders. However, it should not result in the United States drastically changing its views of the conflict. There remains a significant anti-American sentiment among the Arab populations and the close relationship with Israel is one of the sources of that sentiment (although the extent the relationship plays in the sentiment is debatable). The US should not refrain from pursuing a robust relationship with Israel as long as it serves its interests, but it must be remembered that the anti-American sentiment will not fully soften until the Palestinian struggle is sufficiently resolved and the seemingly permanent wounds begin to finally heal.

An eye must also be kept on the changing view of Israel amongst the US population. Over time, American public support for Israel has begun to wane. Polling during the 2014 war in Gaza shows significantly less support for Israel among minorities and millennials on the left, and US support for Israel was included by Black Lives Matter as one of its grievances against the federal government. As long as the Palestinian struggle with Israel continues, more Americans could begin to view Israel negatively, which, if left unaddressed, may eventually threaten the relationship altogether. In fact, the relationship might already be a partisan issue between the two main US political parties, possibly making reviews of the assumptions a political matter.

Dennis Ross, in Doomed to Succeed, has provided a much needed and timely review of three of the assumptions that form the core of US Middle East strategy. US leaders should now keep in mind that attempts to distance itself from Israel have not necessarily resulted in correspondingly closer relations with Arab states and will not unless otherwise negotiated. In addition, leaders should remember that the Arab regimes are more focused on their own security and survival. They view the Israel-Palestine conflict as important, but will not risk their own positions in order to solve it. However, US leaders should not take these lessons to mean it should not continue to prioritize an end to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but that it should not shy away from a healthy relationship with Israel. 

Rexford Barton is an analyst with the Air National Guard. His master’s thesis from Tel Aviv University is titled, “The Debate Over Obama’s Middle East Strategy from 2009-2015.” The views expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Air National Guard, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header image: Obama and Netanyahu | Associated Press