Alliances: What's Friendship Got to Do With It?

Are America's Commitments to its Allies Worthwhile?

Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.

America is the “indispensable nation,” as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright likes to put it. But while the United States is supposedly indispensable, it can’t seem to get along without allies—most of whom seem to think that the purpose of their “friendship” with Washington is to mulct American taxpayers.

The world is awash in U.S. allies. Most western and central European states are members of NATO; most eastern European nations yearn to join the organization. Allies fill East Asia—Japan and South Korea sport formal defense treaties, Australia enjoys regular military consultations, and the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand benefit from less formal contacts. A score of Latin American nations are members of the decrepit Rio Pact.

Most of these arrangements were fashioned during the Cold War. Today, unfortunately, Washington’s collection of allies is simply an economic and security black hole.

For instance, in Europe the United States pays to defend a collection of nations with more people and greater economic strength. To solve European problems of no concern to America, Washington is attempting to reconstruct Bosnia and micromanage the Kosovo civil war.

American policies make even less sense in East Asia, where U.S. forces remain on the front lines in Korea, a tripwire for involvement in any war, even though South Korea has 29 times the GDP and twice the population of the North. Washington is protecting Japan, the world’s second-ranking economic power, from threats unknown. Almost every nation in the region expects the United States to solve any conflict arising from such parochial disputes as competing territorial claims over the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

Yet perhaps the most vivid example of the dead-weight loss created by unnecessary “allies” is Israel. There are few nations on which the United States has showered more money and support than Israel. In return Israeli politicians offer nothing but contempt, as evidenced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to extort the release of Jonathan Pollard, convicted in 1985 of spying on America for Israel, as part of last year’s Wye River peace negotiations.

At least during the Cold War there was a plausible security argument for a military relationship with Israel. But the United States never enjoyed any practical benefits. Although called an unsinkable American aircraft carrier, military aid always flowed from the United States to Israel, never the other way around.

Anyway, the Cold War is over. The United States can do just fine, thank you, without Israel’s help. Indeed, Israel has made Americans less secure. Washington’s support for Israel not only encouraged the Arab oil embargo a quarter century ago, but also turned U.S. citizens into targets of terrorists the world over. Were it not for America’s perceived complicity in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, Muslim fundamentalists might hate the United States no less, but they would be more likely to ignore than to kill Americans.

What is Israel’s claim to the largesse lavished on it? Although a democracy among less free states, it has denied freedom to the Palestinians in its occupied territories for three decades. Anyway, there is no plausible security threat to Israel. It enjoys peace with Egypt and Jordan; however difficult their relations at times, war is extremely unlikely. Israel easily overmatches Syria, which also now finds itself threatened by Israel’s unofficial ally, Turkey. And Israel’s not-so-secret nuclear deterrent would make even the most extreme countries in the region—Iran and Iraq, for instance—think many times before striking.

Moreover, generous American subsidies have proven costly to Israel. It has one of the most socialized economies on earth, foolishness made possible by Washington’s willingness to ship about $500 a person to Israel year in and year out.

This is the lesson of foreign aid the world over. Economic failure creates political pain, which forces economic reform. Foreign aid helps to mask economic failure and thus alleviate political pain—which, in turn, slows or stops economic reform.

Yet Israel retains the master key to the U.S. treasury and a claim to most anything else it wants. It is Washington’s biggest foreign aid client, collecting $3 billion plus a year, not counting periodic special subsidies.

Muslim nations are equally undeserving of the aid they receive. The Camp David accords two decades ago promised billions for Egypt, informally pegged at two-thirds Israel’s level. That money is almost entirely wasted, funding useless projects and propping up an inefficient, state-run economy. But the “aid,” like Israel’s subsidy, is beyond criticism.

The Wye accords will lighten the wallets of U.S. taxpayers even further. The Clinton administration has promised billions of dollars in weapons to Israel for use against who knows whom. Washington said it will dump additional billions into the hands of the corrupt and inefficient Palestinian Authority. In fact, the starting demands for economic assistance are $1.2 billion for Israel and $900 million for the Palestinians.

Even worse, the United States will be drawn more deeply into the region’s fanatical currents. And the lead agency will be the CIA, reviled around the world for its intervention in the affairs of other nations, such as Iran (we must not forget the coup that helped return the Shah to power in 1953). The CIA will formally participate in a U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian committee “to assess current threats, deal with any impediments to effective security cooperation and coordination and address the steps being taken to combat terror and terrorist organizations.”

Oh joy. Terrorism against the United States and its citizens will become even more likely.

Still, even this is not enough for Israeli officials. As the agreement was being wrapped up Prime Minister Netanyahu demanded the release of Jonathan Pollard.

Pollard, a former navy intelligence analyst, turned piles of documents over to America’s alleged friend, Israel. Israeli officials, embarrassed at the spectacle of friends spying on friends, first claimed that it was an unapproved “rogue” operation. U.S. officials termed the resulting security breach “massive,” and Pollard was sentenced to life imprisonment.

However, with time on his hands Pollard incessantly lobbied Israel to arrange his release. Israel finally admitted its responsibility and granted him citizenship. Then came Mr. Netanyahu’s request.

Think of it. The U.S. subsidizes Israel and provides military aid for decades. America endures Arab hatred and terrorist attacks in return. Israel responds by spying on the United States, lying about it, and then threatening to block a peace agreement—for itself—unless Washington releases Israel’s spy.

The end of the Cold War warrants a searching review of U.S. commitments around the world.

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