The United States had little to do with the course of the Middle Eastern war that was fought fifty years ago this month. A half century later, however, it is clear that one of the major and enduring consequences of that war has had a powerful and beneficial influence on American foreign policy.
During the war and immediately afterward the American government was largely a bystander. Its main contribution consisted in what it did not do. President Lyndon B. Johnson tried but failed to organize a multinational naval flotilla to ensure free passage through the Straits of Tiran, Israel’s only outlet to the Red Sea, after Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser had ordered them closed. Nor did Johnson repeat President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s demand, after the previous Arab-Israeli war in 1956, that Israel retreat from the territory it had captured. Instead, the United States supported United Nations Resolution 242, which called for the exchange of the land Israel had conquered in return for peace with its Arab neighbors, and which has served as the template for peacemaking ever since.
The outcome of the war had one major consequence that has reverberated throughout the region ever since: the establishment of Israeli military supremacy in the Middle East. It affected the Arabs almost immediately. Most of them—Egyptian President Anwar Sadat being the conspicuous exception—did not relinquish the goal of eliminating Jewish sovereignty in the region, but they did change the tactics they employed. They adopted terrorism through proxies as a way of killing, harassing, and, they hoped, demoralizing Israelis. They championed, as well, the political strategy of delegitimation, seeking to question the basis of Israel’s existence in the eyes of the world. With the 1973 conflict, which Sadat waged for limited aims and which set in motion the diplomatic process that returned all of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt (by April 1982) in return for an Egyptian peace treaty with Israel (in March 1979), the era of Israel’s major wars with its Arab neighbors came to an end.
As important as it was for Arabs and Israelis, Israel’s post-1967 military predominance in the Middle East has had a powerful, if often indirect, unacknowledged, and unappreciated effect on the foreign policy of the United States. It has proven to be a valuable American strategic asset for the past half-century.
Since World War II the United States has had an overriding goal in the region: to prevent any single hostile power from dominating it. This goal echoed the classic, centuries-long aim of Great Britain’s European policy: to preserve a balance among the various great powers on the continent such that none would become strong enough to threaten the British Isles. When necessary the British intervened, by preference with economic assistance rather than with their own troops, to keep a rising power—the Spanish Habsburgs, Bourbon and Napoleonic France, Wilhelmine and Hitlerian Germany—from achieving continental hegemony.
After World War II the United States had this aim not only in the Middle East but also in Europe and East Asia. The Soviet Union posed the most serious threat in all three, but the Middle East differed from the other regions in two significant ways. First, unlike in Europe and East Asia, to maintain an acceptable balance of power the United States did not need to station American forces on the territory of its allies. Israeli military supremacy helped to make a major American military presence on the ground unnecessary, and thus reduced the cost of American foreign policy. Indeed, Israel was and remains the only democratic ally of the United States that does not seek direct American military protection. In the Middle East, America could, therefore, act as what the British historically preferred to be in Europe: an “offshore balancer.”
Second, unlike in Europe and East Asia, local powers, friendly to the Soviet Union and later to Russia but not formally tied to them, actively sought regional dominance, and so threatened American interests. Nasser’s Egypt was one: Israel put an end to his ambitions in 1967. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a second. In response to his 1991 invasion and occupation of Kuwait, which placed him in a position to intimidate Saudi Arabia and thus gain control over the majority of the region’s oil, the United States did send an army to the region. In the war that followed, President George H. W. Bush made it clear that Israeli participation was neither needed nor welcome, and indeed pressured the Israeli government not to strike Iraq even after Iraq fired missiles into Israel.
Even then, however, Israeli military prowess made a vital contribution to American success. Ten years earlier an Israeli airstrike had destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, setting back Saddam’s nuclear weapons program. After the 1991 conflict it was discovered that Iraq had, in the intervening decade, made considerably more progress toward acquiring such weapons than Western intelligence services had believed. But for the earlier Israeli strike, Saddam might have had nuclear weapons in 1991. In that case the United States would not have gone to war with Iraq; or, if it had, the costs would have been exponentially higher than they turned out to be.
The role of Israel’s post-1967 military supremacy in keeping at bay would-be challengers to the status quo of the Middle East has received less notice than it deserves, in no small part because of its very nature: It has usually operated invisibly, deterring attacks rather than repulsing them. There have been exceptions to this pattern. The explicit threat of Israeli military intervention in September 1970 helped to stop a Syrian assault on an important Arab ally of the United States, the Kingdom of Jordan. For the most part, however, Israeli military prowess worked to America’s advantage by suppressing initiatives that Middle Eastern countries hostile to both Israel and the United States might otherwise have taken.
In this way Israel’s strategic value to the United States has resembled the impact of an effective shot-blocker in basketball, who affects the game by the shots that his very presence causes the opposing team not to take. Just as shots not taken do not appear in the statistical record of a basketball game, so the powerful benefit that the United States has derived from Israeli military supremacy does not appear in the historical record of the modern Middle East: History, after all, is the chronicle of what has happened rather than what has not happened.
Recently, however, Israeli military power did play an explicit role in U.S. Middle Eastern policy because the American government deliberately and foolishly chose not to make use of it. Iran today, like Egypt and Iraq before it, is seeking to dominate the Middle East. Its program to acquire nuclear weapons forms a major part of its efforts to that end. President Barack Obama sought to place restrictions on it through negotiations, and he did reach such an agreement with the Iranian government, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in July 2015.
Ordinarily the outcome of an international negotiation reflects the relative strengths of the parties to it. In the JCPOA, however, the United States, despite being much more powerful than Iran, made major and potentially very damaging concessions: The Islamic Republic retained its facilities for enriching uranium, something all American Presidents, including Barack Obama, had vowed not to permit, and all the limits on its nuclear program expire after 15 years, leaving Iran free to get the bomb thereafter. The reason for this outcome was Obama’s clear unwillingness to make use of America’s military advantage with a credible threat to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Still, a substitute for a credible American threat was available: The Israeli government announced that it was prepared to launch such an attack if the United States would not. Israeli military power, and Israel’s track record in using it, made this threat credible. Far from using it as leverage in his dealings with Iran in order to secure an outcome more favorable to the United States and its regional allies, however, President Obama very publicly opposed any Israeli strike, even hinting that Washington would punish Israel if it dared to launch one.
No doubt the American President had several motives for his Iran policy, including the belief that offering the hand of American friendship to the ruling mullahs would cause them to moderate their foreign policy—a belief not borne out by Iran’s conduct since 2015; and while the ultimate consequences of Obama’s nuclear bargain cannot yet be assessed, one thing can be said of it with certainty. In negotiating it, the Obama Administration squandered what has been, for the United States, the extraordinarily valuable legacy of the Six Day War that is now fifty years old.