Wednesday, September 21, 2011

“As a Christian, I have a clear directive to support Israel”

Unquestioning support for the policies of the government of Israel (whatever they may be) has become an article of faith on the Republican right. Last May, when the right was in a frenzy over what should have been entirely uncontroversial comments made by President Obama about the shape of a peace settlement between the Israelis, Mitt Romney said that the president had "thrown Israel under the bus."

As I wrote at the time, Romney's remarks showed his utter ignorance of the most basic concept of foreign policy: that a nation pursues its national interests, and does not subsume those interests to those of another state. Romney thinks otherwise. He said that "a first principle of American foreign policy ... is to stand firm by our friends," evidently entirely unaware that George Washington said precisely the opposite in his Farewell Address in 1796.

Now Rick Perry has (predictably) gone Romney one better.  While criticizing the president yesterday, Perry said: “As a Christian, I have a clear directive to support Israel.”

I heard only one very brief reference to this incredible remark on the news today. When I first heard Chris Matthews say it, I thought he must have gotten it wrong and went searching for evidence to find out the facts.

But Matthews did not get it wrong. Perry actually said that. Moreover, it is not the first or only time he's said it. This was no mistake.

This comment is so remarkable in its radicalism, so completely inappropriate for someone who presumes to become president, that it ought to disqualify Perry for the office.

Perry was effectively saying that he would let his personal religious convictions dictate his foreign policy. Think about that for a moment. He offered unquestioning, unqualified support of another country, premised not on American national interests, but on his own religious beliefs.

Imagine if, in 1960, John F. Kennedy had said: "As a Catholic, I have a clear directive to support Vatican City." It rightly would have been the end of his candidacy. (In fact, JFK explicitly opposed even sending an American ambassador to the Vatican.)

What Kennedy actually said in his famous speech in Houston, was quite different:
Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision ... in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.
That is the one and only proper standard for a president when making policy: the national interest.

No doubt Perry would say that American national interests and support for Israel are in no way contradictory. That may be. But it is not inconceivable that a situation could arise where they would not be. It has happened before.

In the 1956 Suez Crisis, when Israel cooperated with Britain and France in attacking Egypt, President Dwight Eisenhower resolutely opposed Israel. At the height of the cold war, he worked with the Soviets against not just Israel, but America's two closest European allies, and used the U.N. to force them to withdraw.

The U.S. and Israel have a close relationship, one which most Americans support. But if Israeli and American interests diverge, an American president must choose American interests. Someone who honestly believes that his religion directs him to support another nation in all circumstances has no business putting himself forward as a candidate for president.

JFK also considered the question of a conflict between personal religious belief and national interest in that speech:
But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.
With this remark, Rick Perry has shown that he does not deserve to ever be in that position. He has already told us all we need to know.


  1. I also find Perry's line reprehensible, but I'm wary of the idea that the national interest is "the one and only proper standard for a president when making policy." It would seem to follow that a president could take the human rights of non-Americans into account if doing so would, say, increase the US's soft power, but not if it hurt the US's relationship with an important ally.

    I'd like a world where the president could reject "let's bomb them back to the Stone Age" even if that policy were thought likely to serve the national interest.

  2. I take your point, which is an important one.

    I personally think a reasonable concept of national interest would incorporate the idea that American national interests are best served in a world that respects, protects, and defends human rights. In that situation, an important ally violated human rights would not be acting in a way that serves American national interest. So I don't think it is necessarily an either/or situation (though in certain hands it certainly can be).

  3. Mark, thank you for writing this. I'm an Orthodox Jew and a Zionist. Not only that, I have a lot of relatives who live in Israel, so I have a rather personal stake in the welfare and security of that country. No matter what, however, I think that the primary responsibility of any US president is to protect the national interests of the United States, and if any US president were to decide that the national interests of the US required severing ties with Israel or pursuing policies that the Israeli government didn't like, I would consider that decision to be entirely justified. No US president should ever consider himself/herself bound by the wishes of another sovereign country!