Book Review: Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel and the Fate of the Jewish People

Walter Russell Mead, Arc of a Covenant. The United States, Israel and the Fate of the Jewish People (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2022. 1-654. Indexed.

“When I become president the days of treating Israel like a second-class citizen will end on Day One.” Donald Trump, AIPAC Conference, March 2016.

Trump’s political motivations aside, does the historical record of American foreign policy bear out 45’s claim that the United States has treated Israel like a “second class citizen?” Walter Russell Mead’s book offers a detailed, complex answer to this question.

One warning: this book is primarily a history of US Israel policy and conduct; if you want Israel’s side of the story, you won’t find much of it here. It does not linger on what best serves Israel’s security interests. Nor does it dwell very much on the role of American Jews, for reasons that will soon become clear.

The “arc of the covenant” refers less to America’s interactions with Israel than to its dialogue with itself about what that relationship should be and what kinds of commitments to the Zionist project have seemed in the national interest since the eighteenth century, and especially since 1948.

The “Holy Land” has held a fascination for Americans and attracted visitors as far back as the late eighteenth century.

It was in 1891, however, that the first bonified American lobbying effort to convince a presidential administration to support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine happened. It came from William Blackstone (1841-1935), a New York evangelical minister, who made the case in a memorial presented to President Harrison. The Blackstone Memorial was signed by 431 prominent Americans, including J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, future President William McKinley, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, congress people as well as several notable organizations, including the Washington Post and New York Times

Beyond offering interesting historical detail, Mead’s book makes several central arguments about the U.S.’ Israel policy that recur throughout the book. To appreciate his perspective, however, it helps to understand that he measures the wisdom and success of each administration’s Israel policy against four approaches or models, each of which has variously marked US foreign policy in general:

  • Hamiltonian (belief in strong central government supporting American business and economic interests at home and abroad);
  • Jeffersonian (dedication to advancing domestic liberty, local sovereignty and democratic equality, a vision of  national innocence maintained through an avoidance of European  entanglements  – what the British, referring to themselves, later called “splendid isolation”), and
  • Wilsonian: (a commitment to a divinely ordained national mission to secure global peace by sowing the seeds of American-style liberal democracy and market economies around the world. Many scholars have called it Wilsonian idealism or internationalism; historian Arthur Link called it a “higher realism.”).
  • Jacksonian: In an earlier book, however, Mead protests that “we are not simply a people of merchants, missionaries and constitutional lawyers.” (Special Providence, 221.) In Arc, Mead proposes a fourth way, an exemplar he calls the Jacksonian model. The Jacksonians thrive on populist sentiment, distrust federal power and big government, cultivate a suspicion of elites, staunchly defend the second amendment, and tend to be Hawkish on the application of power to protect America’s freedom and, life the Jeffersonians, are jealous of their exceptional libertarian purity anywhere it may be threatened, whether at home or abroad.

Jacksonians are also inclined to most respect power and winners. As realists, they harbor few illusions about the goodwill of foreign actors. Mead observes that most experts have ignored or discounted the Jacksonian school’s importance. Its relative obscurity is due to the fact it is not easily identifiable as an intellectual or political movement. Rather, Jacksonians embody “the country’s deep social, cultural, and religious values shared by a large portion of the American public.”

The title of Michael Oren’s book on the U.S. and the Middle East, Power, Faith and Fantasy, sums up quite well the principal themes running through Mead’s account of US’ Israel policy.

Mead leaves clues that he favors foreign policy that harbors a Jacksonian spirit. In the language of the political scientists, he appears to line up more closely with realists than with idealists – though one can overstate the differences between the two. (Mead’s soft spot for Christian values/religion/folk traditions in American politics comes out in phrases like “our suffering species,” (105) a Christian-Protestant informed view of the essence of humanity. Mead’s appreciation of the underlying importance of Christian-infused national values is more evident in Special Providence. See p. 226.)

Thus, Mead believes that the pursuit of national self-interest and willingness to engage with whatever foreign players serve those interests works better for America than chasing after missionary fantasies of achieving world peace, spreading the gospel of liberal democracy and capitalism everywhere — regardless of local conditions, and insisting on partnering exclusively with democratic, morally palatable regimes that respect human rights.

Mead intends his arguments as a myth-busting effort to correct the biases, misreading, self-deceptions and “great miscalculations” that have too often lead  America astray into foreign misadventures. First, the belief that American Jews have significantly influenced US Israel policy is very mistaken. With examples backed by ample sources, Mead effectively dispatches the old antisemitic bogeyman of “Jewish conspiracy and control.”

Americans, Jews and non-Jews, have greatly exaggerated the extent to which US’ pro-Israel policy has been beholden to domestic Jewish power – to the Jewish vote, to Jewish money and to Jewish lobby groups. There has been little evidence of decisive Jewish influence on the U.S.’ Israel policy.

So, if not Jewish influence, what forces have propelled America’s Israel policy? It is partly ideology. Rather than Jewish lobbies, deeply rooted, long enduring national “mental habits, cultural predispositions and unspoken assumptions” (106) traceable back to Protestant individualism and Enlightenment principles have been determinative factors. These influences have inclined America, even in colonial times, toward liberal democracy and, eventually, a culture of religious tolerance. Thus, America has been predisposed to support the birth of liberal democratic societies around the world (though certainly not always – for example, Iraq in the 1950s, Chile in the 1970s and Iran in the 1970s). More than Jewish voices or Israeli interests, a mixture of domestic and international realpolitik and its Enlightenment political foundations as well as its Protestant culture have shaped American policy choices. In other words, Mead focuses on how the interplay among ideology and self-interest, idealism and reality and not the Jewish community have determined the direction of the Israel policies of successive presidencies.

His second major insight is that despite their current friendship, the record reveals that Israel has not always been able to count on the United States as a dependable ally; the United States has been a relatively recent convert to and true believer in the Zionist cause.

Especially before the 1970s, presidential policy advisors and “Arabists,” most notably in the State department, waffled, often counselling against overinvolvement in the Middle East and urging “realist restraint” on Israel matters. For many foreign policy experts, the Middle East has often constituted a distraction, overinflated in importance compared to more urgent foreign policy priorities, at times even urging presidents not to place America’s chips on Israel but on its enemies.

Indeed, in its nascent years, when Israel’s prospects for achieving and sustaining statehood seemed most bleak, it was others who came to Israel’s rescue. Specifically, in 1947-48, when the Arabs were about to overwhelm Palestine’s outnumbered and outgunned Jews, the U.S. and Britain opposed the lifting of restrictions on further Jewish immigration to Israel, delayed and dithered over advocacy for a Jewish state and refused to send arms to Palestine’s Jews. (Michael Oren’s Power, Faith, and Fantasy. America in the Middle Easy. 1776 to the Present (2007) shows that Roosevelt, and even some of his Jewish advisors, saw little to gain and much to lose from promoting Jewish immigration to Palestine, as it might alienate the region’s oil-rich Arab states.).

Just when Jews were fighting for their lives, it was Stalin who saw an opportunity to expand some home ideology: To everyone’s surprise, he turned Israel-friendly in this most desperate moment – if only for this moment. He ignored the arms embargo and gave the green light to Czechoslovakia to sell its stock of desperately needed (Wehrmacht!) military surplus to Jewish buyers, thereby providing Jews with the muscle they needed to fend off and overcome superior Arab numbers and weapons.

In the 1950s, when Israel embarked on a nuclear weapons development program, it was France that provided expertise by helping to build a reactor complex.

During the Eisenhower administration and to a lesser extent during the Kennedy years, some policy experts believed that it was in America’s  interest to work with Nasser, or even to bet on Nasser’s Egypt, and the emerging Pan-Arab movement and not on Israel, whose political prospects – and lack of oil – still struck American policy experts as tenuous, promising little to “less than nothing” in return. (Secretary of State Dulles considered Israel “a millstone around our neck.”) Kennedy also opposed Israel’s nuclear ambitions while France remained the neonatal state’s principal source of military support.

So, it took more than the Holocaust to move the U.S. to embrace a “special relationship” with Israel; it took more than success in the ’56 war and more than moral conviction for American policymakers to drop their reservations about backing Israel in any substantial way.

It also took more than Jewish influence. What it took was a realistic calculation of where America’s interests lay. Not until the 1970s did Israel and the U.S. come into “alignment” – “when that speck of a country on the world map came to occupy a continent in the American mind.” (10). It took stunning Israeli victories on the battlefield, spectacular demonstrations of economic vitality and technical prowess, and convincing political viability, for American policy to decide that backing the Jewish state was a good bet. “Israel did not grow strong because it had American support. It acquired American support because Israel had grown strong.” (293).

Also spurring a pro-Israel policy was a fear that in the absence of a significant Western presence in the Middle East, Soviet Communism might try to establish a beachhead in a territory that some observers felt was still too-much under the influence of a bunch of arrogant, socialist-minded Zionists.

Mead also floats the idea that America did play a crucial, inadvertently tragic, role in the birth of the Jewish state: Engaging in a little counter-history, he suggests that the most important American contribution to the establishment of Israel was the passage of the racist Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which placed extreme quotas on Jewish (and other) immigration. Of course, one of the unintended consequences was the Nazi slaughter of millions of Europe’s Jews. At the same time, however, had the U.S. adopted a wide-open door immigration policy, would a Jewish state have even seemed so necessary? “If the United States had not voted to restrict immigration so drastically, it is probable that the state of Israel would not exist today.” (154).

A third line of argument running through Mead’s account is that domestic politics and foreign policy are inextricably intertwined.

For example, Mead discusses at length the influence on Israel policy of the recent flow of power from the long governing “Blue Model,” embodied in the 1950s and 1960s by an increasingly prosperous, highly educated, Northeastern multiracial elite of New Deal liberals who believed that government social and economic regulation worked well to the rural, conservative, Christian, South, especially apparent in the rise of Sunbelt Republicanism. In one of the longest chapters in the book, Mead narrates the gathering political strength of Christian Evangelicalism and highlights Billy Graham’s crucial role in mainstreaming evangelical ideology and “Christian Salvationism.”

The book takes us on a deep dive into the massive subcultures of films and books detailing pervasive satanic, anti-Christ conspiracies suspected of infecting good Christian-inspired domestic and international institutions, along with the rise of rapture religion, politics, education and culture. Christians, especially Christian evangelicals, more than liberal, left-inclined Jews, Mead points out, have remained among the most unflinching defenders of Israel (as the Holy Land.)

Mead’s heroes in this saga are policy realists. Among presidents, Truman gets top marks “as one of the top foreign policy performers” in the nation’s history. In three generous chapters, Mead discusses the accomplishments of this modern “Cyrus” under difficult circumstances.

Sticking to principles in the face of wide disrespect and condescension from both inside and outside his own party, as well as opposition and subterfuge from heavy hitters in the foreign policy establishment, Truman managed to recognize the state of Israel in the face of stiff opposition, and to formulate a modest pro-Zionist policy.

Nixon and Kissinger and Reagan and George Schultz, too, get high approval ratings. Not since their tenures, Mead argues, has anyone gotten the balance right between values and interests. By the 1970s, while supplying Arabs with arms, the U.S. also took over from France the role of major supplier of weapons systems to Israel to ensure Israel’s QME – (Qualitative Military Edge.)

As George Schultz saw it, this new policy of providing substantial military support was now more acceptable partly because Israel was “becoming more democratic than it had been in its early socialistic years. “(In her important work, Bring the War Home. The White Power Movement in Paramilitary America, historian Kathleen Belew reminds us, however, that it was also Reagan who, in the wake of the Vietnam humiliation, opened the door for the growth of anti-government militia Republicanism – one of the earliest symptoms of MAGA disease.)

The book’s closing chapters bring us to the near-present. Between the post-Cold War 1990s and the time of Trump, America underwent dramatic reversals of mood and policy.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, perestroika, the Soviet Union’s crash and burn, and Communist regimes falling all over Eastern Europe, Americans experienced a euphoric sense of ideological triumph, economic prosperity, and military and technological superiority. America emerged as the world’s lone superpower and Americans became “dizzy with success,” bursting with confidence that a liberal international order was dawning.

This triumphalism was short-lived.

This sense of political, military and cultural superiority fed policy overreach and spasms of hubris about our capacity to universalize the world on American lines. American foreign policy was based on experts’ perceptions of the state of the country and the state of the post-Cold War world that “turned out not to be true.”

Mead’s predictable indictment: “Perceptions were dissociated from reality.” (350) Too often, America succumbed to quixotic foreign ventures that have resulted in humiliation, if not utter defeat.

Before long, Islamic extremism – suicide bombers, aircraft hijacking, kidnappings, and the proliferation of transnational technology in the hands of media savvy extremist ideologues, and, of course, the shock and trauma of 9/11, cut short the nineties buoyant optimism.

In addition, the country’s difficult responses to the challenge of China’s rising star and to Putinesque Russia’s robust rebound exposed the limits of American military power, have cast a pall over the golden age, shook American sell-confidence in its power and authority, and even triggered a crisis of national identity.

Others’ perceptions of a vulnerable, declining American empire have made the management of the Israel relation infinitely more complex and the achievement of Middle East peace more elusive.

According to Mead, despite their differences, both Arabs and Israeli Jews now share one thing in common: A waning faith in Pax Americana, as both parties to the Middle East peace process have become dubious about America’s intellectual authority, diplomatic negotiating skills, and its promotion of a liberal international order as a prescription for their respective well-being.

To Israelis, Clinton’s disappointing peacemaking efforts, Bush’s reckless invasion of Iraq and elimination of Saddam Hussein as a counterweight to a nuclear-capable Iran provided evidence of ineptitude. As for Obama, he often read the situation in the Middle East correctly, yet he pursued a disastrous policy of “make nice” with both sides. His Iran nuclear deal, Libyan misstep, and timid response to Crimea have fueled skepticism about American conflict management.

To many Jews, Obama’s strategy of conciliatory even-handedness among players in the Middle East and his cool logic and intellectualism also came across as tepid commitment to Israeli interests and security.

Finally, Trump comes off well in Mead’s telling, for he judges him to be a Jacksonian by political instinct and calculation.

Supporting Israel was not a problem for Trump because he disdained critics of Israel, knew a pro-Israel stance pandered to the home base he was trying to consolidate and his Jerusalem move would redound to his benefit by undermining the credibility of the feckless Republican establishment he was trying to replace.

However, whatever success one may wish to grant to Trump’s strategy and realism, however Israel-friendly he may seem, Mead glosses over the exorbitant price in serious domestic institutional damage, domestic political and cultural havoc, and international insecurity, of his so-called realism.

Mead ends with the hope that Palestinians and Israelis can agree to a two-state solution, if only because it has become clear that they are “stuck with each other.” His hope is that his account and diagnosis of the errors and missteps in American policymaking will inform more realistic policymaking.

What that might mean for Israel and the “fate of the Jews,” which is more uncertain today than it has been in decades, one can only guess, for any policy advice, as Mead himself observes, has a limited shelf-life.

If you are a poorly informed amateur like me, this book offers an excellent crash course on the vicissitudes of US Israel policy over last two centuries. Its 600-page length may be off-putting, but it is a fluently written, enjoyable read, though we do sometimes get detail we do not really need to know. (Who knew Benjamin Harrison always wore gloves because his hands suffered from psoriasis?)   

Whatever his political and religious inclinations, Mead is usually measured in his judgments and well-backed by ample references. If you manage to complete the marathon, you will cross the finish line a well-informed amateur; if you are already wonky on US-Israel, the Arc is still well worth your consideration.

About Brien Brothman 1 Article
Brien Brothman hails from Montreal Canada, where he received a BA (McGill University) and Ph.D (Université Laval ),  specializing in the history of Canada and modern European imperialism. Over the course of his career his work has focused on modern intellectual history. During the past decade, he has been exploring how secularization and changing attitudes to religion since the French Revolution have influenced our sense of the past.  Currently, he is also devoting time to the study of Jewish history. His work has been published in North America, England, and Europe as well as Australia and South Africa. He currently lives in South Jersey.

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