The United States needs to take a greater role in the Middle East and adopt a more muscular foreign policy, particularly in relation to Iran, according to Dr. Michael Oren, author and former Israeli ambassador to the United States, who spoke last Sunday at the School of Music, Theatre and Dance on the subject of “Israel, Iran and the US-Israeli Divide.”
“What you see is the Middle East without America in it,” said Oren, the author of the recent book “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide,” a memoir of his time as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S between 2009-2013. “Strategy hates a vacuum. If America isn’t there, all these bad people fill it.”
The Middle East has been roiled by explosive changes in the last in the past couple of decades, from the invasion of Iraq to the recent Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war, and the United States hasn’t always reacted in a timely or effective way, says Oren, whose appearance was organized by the Greensboro Jewish Federation.
“Iraq was an over-utilization of force,” Oren said about the controversial U.S. military occupation that began in 2003 and ended in 2011 after the American public’s support waned. “Syria was an underutilization of force. There’s a golden mean.”
Oren framed what he called the “unassailable special relationship” between the United States and Israel with his own personal journey that led him from his childhood in New Jersey to becoming an Israeli citizen. “I’m from New Jersey, so I’m used to being wired,” he said at one point, joking after accidentally bumping his lavalier microphone. As a teen he spent summers in Israel before emigrating in 1979, and later served in the Israeli military. Today he currently serves in the Knesset, or Israeli parliament.
“‘Ally’ is one of the most beautiful words in the whole English language,” said Oren of the title of his book and the U.S.-Israel relationship. “It has no negative connotation.”
He said that the relationship predated the founding of Israel itself, mentioning that early settlers in America regarded themselves as residents of a “new promised land” and that Moses himself had been short-listed for inclusion on the official seal of the newly-founded United States. “We have deep spiritual ties,” said Oren.
In recent years, however, those ties have become strained due to changes both abroad and in the United States, he said.
“When I came into the office [of ambassador to the U.S.], it was during the economic collapse and increasing political polarization in the United States,” said Oren. And, as he poetically put it, “the entire Middle East went down a rathole.” Oren said the change was also due, in part, to the different temperaments of then-incoming U.S. president Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“They had conflicting worldviews,” he said, noting that Obama relied more on assembling international coalitions to deal with world issues instead of acting as forcefully as previous US administrations had done. “The U.S. is recoiling from the projection of force,” he says. Israel, on the other hand, “likes that the U.S. is the world’s leading superpower.”
While security cooperation between the two nation’s militaries remains at an “unparallelled level,” the shift in tone is more visible in the differing approaches to the Iranian nuclear issue and the possibility of that country gaining nuclear weapons, said Oren.
“Obama’s Cairo speech [in 2009] marked a major change in attitude towards Iran”, says Oren. “For the first time, he referred to it as the Islamic Republic,” the country’s formal name, conferring upon it a respect that previous US presidents had avoided.
“You are far from the Mideast,” Oren said of the United States. “You are not threatened — yet — by the Iranian nuclear program.” Israel, on the other hand, faces an “unprecedented threat”.
“Terrorists could sneak a nuclear bomb into Haifa harbor,” he said. He said the U.S. was putting far too much trust in the Iranian regime to hold up its end of the nuclear deal.
“There are regimes that take rational steps to reach irrational goals,” said Oren, referring to Iran’s frequent rhetoric about the destruction of Israel.
Oren said, however, that despite their differences on issues such as Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the relationship between the US and Israel remains a strong one.
“There is no substitute for this relationship,” said Oren, citing U.S. aid in helping Israel to fight forest fires, among other things, as a sign of extraordinary cooperation between the two nations.
Many in the crowd seemed to share Oren’s worries about the developments in the Mideast.
“If you live in Israel, you understand the conflict much more,” said Netzer Wassenberg, who lives in Israel. “There are missiles being fired at us every day.”