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Russia and Israel: The Friend of Our Friend Is Our Enemy?

Mitt Romney recently drew applause from Republicans, and flak from Democrats, for his proclamation that Russia is America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” As The Washington Times reports, Romney’s foreign policy team (which includes American Interest board member Eliot A. Cohen) is looking to emphasize its candidate’s unwavering support for democratic friends like Israel and hard line against autocratic “adversaries” like Putin’s Russia.

“Gov. Romney believes that in foreign policy, you start with your friends,” said Eliot Cohen, who wrote the foreword to the Romney campaign’s 43-page foreign policy white paper last fall.

“Obama believes that no, you start with your enemies, you see where you can cut deals and negotiate,” said Mr. Cohen.

Unlike the cooler foreign policy view candidate Obama delivered with advisors like Zbiegniew Brzezinski (also on TAI‘s nonpartisan board), Romney’s team emphasizes this friend/enemy distinction as being key for deciding policy. The trouble is that those distinctions aren’t always clear cut.

Relations between Russia and Israel have been warming for the past couple of years, for example. Putin’s recent visit to Jerusalem, where he met with top officials and crooned with a Gesher singing troupe, is a more public display of what has been a discreet but significant tightening of the Israeli-Russian relationship since the two did some horse trading before the Georgian War in the summer of 2008.

This mingling of friends and enemies may not make the Romney line wrong, but it makes things complex. The former governor’s oft-stated unconditional support for our friend, Israel, is complicated by the fact that our best friend is currently courting what the governor calls our number one geopolitical foe.

There is more than an echo of Romney’s statement in the words of activist Garry Kasparov, who protested Putin’s visit in similar terms of “friends vs. foes” and “democracy vs. autocracy”:

“Putin is a dictator, he has erased all the remaining elements of democracy in Russian standing, he supports Ahmadinejad, the leader of Iran, he supports Chavez, and now Bashar Assad, so I can hardly understand the rationale for Mr. Netanyahu and his government to host Mr Putin, who is their enemy by definition, because Israel is a democracy and Putin is a dictator,” Kasparov told Israel’s Channel 10.

But despite this and other protests, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres hosted Putin just the same. There must be variables other than democracy and liberalism at work here.

Governor Romney recently told an audience of evangelical supporters that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, and that “we’re prepared to take any and all action to keep that from happening.” Needless to say, so is Israel, and forging tighter relations with the Kremlin already helped thwart a 2008 sale of S-300 missiles to Iran. The Kremlin also offers Israel a potential partner to offset Turkish ambitions in the region, as well as the spread of Sunni radicalism. And when it comes to oil and gas, a partnership with Russia is also just good business.

Governor Romney’s “friend-enemy” distinction seems more in touch with the opinions of some (not all) American Jews, as some groups objected to Tel Aviv’s hosting Putin. But Israel is a small and vulnerable democracy in a rough neighborhood. Like it or not, the Jewish state will reach out to whomever it can in order to guarantee its security. The US sometimes does the same thing; our dear friends the Saudis are living proof of that.

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  • Sayyid Fulaan

    Republicans need to understand that although Israel is a friend of the United States, it is not our best friend. Israel looks out for itself and its ethnic group in the realpolitik world of the Middle East. I am not criticizing Israel at all, but Israel can not and will not be a friend the way Great Britain or France is a friend.

  • Jim.

    In the case of Russia, I’d like to paraphrase DeGaulle (of all people)… America does not have enemies, only interests.

    That said, people should feel free to point out all the ways our interests and Russia’s diverge. It’s a pretty long list.

  • Kris

    This obviously isn’t your point, but when choosing a contrast for Romney’s position that Russia is America’s number one geopolitical foe, Zbig isn’t the first person that would come to my mind.

    Regarding Russia, Israel, et al, I am reminded of my recent exchange with WigWag:

    For even more fun, we can compare and contrast the positions on Azerbaijan (Israel and Turkey vs Russia) with those on Cyprus (Israel and Russia vs Turkey and Syria), Syria (Russia vs Turkey, with Israel on the sidelines), etc. Foreign relations are not exactly transitive.

    Sayyid@1: It depends on how you define friends. Given the great power imbalance between the US and Israel, this can be tricky. On the plus side, on Israeli Independence Day, many Israelis fly the Israeli and American flags side by side. (I’d tag this “Unclear on the concept”, but it’s a nice enough sentiment.)

  • Bryan

    “Tel Aviv’s hosting Putin.”

    Who in Tel Aviv was hosting Putin? Unless it was the Defense Ministry–the HQ of which actually is located in TLV–then Putin was hosted in Jerusalem.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @ Bryan Correct. If you listen carefully you just may be able to hear the pitiful whimpering of an intern beginning a long and thorough tour of the House of Pain.

  • WigWag

    If Romney actually believes that Russia is “the number one geopolitical foe of the United States” than he’s as dimwitted as Obama.

    I have great sympathy for the neoconservative take on foreign policy, but the neoconservatives get two big things very wrong; (1) they dramaticlly overestimate the ability of non-western nations, especially Islamic nations, to evolve quickly to democracies and (2) they significantly overstate the threat posed by Russia.

    The neoconservatives were just as titillated by the “Arab Spring” as the liberal internationalists were; they could barely contain their glee when Mubarak fell. As far back as the Bush Administration they advocated for the United States to insist that Palestinian elections take place even after they were told by the Israelis, the Egyptians, the Saudis, the Jordanians and the Palestian Authority that Hamas would inevitably win. It is hard to overstate their stupidity and it is hard to fathom how the neoconservatives could fail to distinguish between true democracy which is based on the rule of law and simple majoritarianism.

    Even stranger than their naivety about the ability of nonwestern dictatorships to morph into Jeffersonian democracies is their nostalgia for the Cold War. What other than nostalgia could account for their paranoia about the Russians? The only thing plunging faster than the Russian population is the Russian GDP.
    With all of it’s difficulties, Greece has a per capita GDP 25 percent larger than Russia’s. When it comes to GDP per capita Russia trails economic powerhouses like Trinidad and Topago, Equatorial Guinea, Barbados, Malta and Slovakia.

    Why neoconservative analysts can’t get over their phobia with Russia is hard to understand; maybe its that they just don’t want to. Russia in 2012 is simply not the Soviet Union of the Cold War. In fact if recent history has revealed anything it’s that even during the Cold War, the Soviet Union wasn’t what it was cracked up to be.

    If Romney believes that Russia is the most important geopolitical rival that the United States faces than our country is burdened not with one foreign policy idiot running for President, but two.

  • doc feelgood

    With this ethnocentric/clan like based discourse “friends versus enemies”, Romney shows a dangerous and divisive attitude in times of needs of greater consensus on world politics, increasing development of democratic structures, fighting poverty and lack of literacy, crimes, disastrous environmental issues.

    Is that a serious claim of management competence at macrolevel?

  • Tom

    Sometimes division is necessary, and sometimes consensus is unachievable. Best not to pretend otherwise.

  • doc feelgood

    “Sometimes division is necessary”

    well if it was only sometimes, fine but what about when it is constantly the norm, recurrent and pathological?

  • Tom

    What if there are groups that it is necessary to be divided from, such as tyrants and their enablers? In that case, dividing from them on a regular basis is not pathological at all.

  • thibaud

    WigWag #6 – spot on. The more you hear from Romney, the more you become convinced that the man is way out of his depth and really unqualified to be president.

    Nothing against his track record at Bain, or his cunning in dodging taxes. He’s obviously a sharp operator when it comes to turning a buck and manipulating the tax code to his advantage.

    But his comments on pre-existing conditions – which caused even mild-mannered Jay Leno to question him and make him look foolish – and on Russia show the man to be without a clue.

    No wonder his buddies in the executive suite such as Murdoch and Welch are trying, rather desperately it seems, to give the poor sap unsolicited advice.

  • karl

    It looks like Putin knows about the microchips and shale. It would be damaging for America to throw away these resources on the puerile insistence that the relationship is one sided. Plenty of world powers want the best computers and loads of cheap oil, it would be wise not to give our stake away.

  • doc feelgood

    Yes I am rather skeptical of Romney as president. He seems to be so naive in international diplomacy context. He should do some homework and, let us say, start studying the politics of the Vienna Congress 1815, after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the return of conservative politics with the baron Metternich, the end of the two world wars and the logic of subsequent generated world orders and the Cold War and its posterior era to realize at least that you
    can´t “paint” the “Russian Empire” that way.

    Obama is pragmatic in the best sense of the term.
    He knows his world history, the limits of unilateralism and multilateralism, and how to make an intelligent move on the diplomatic chess board. His analyses are always based on flexible forecasting of present structural patterns and their possible eruption as manifest events to come, and not bound to some old and obsolete, in our century, “ideological” trap like Romney does who lacks experience in that domain. Obama somehow reminds me of the french master diplomat, de Talleyrand, a man who saw and lived the “Ancien Regime”, the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the restauration of the Monarchy 1815.

    World politics as already shown at the Italian Renaissance, or early modernity, in “the Prince” of Niccolo Machiavelli is not too a simple matter all reduced to some easy going winner/loser business transactions.

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