What Truman’s Israel Policy Can Teach Obama about ISIL

September 30, 2014

In early 1948, Harry Truman’s policy of support for the partition of Palestine — and thereby the creation of the state of Israel — appeared dead in the water. As an Israeli defeat at the hands of joint Arab forces seemed inevitable, State Department Arabists — with CIA and the Department of Defense in tow — seized the moment to scuttle the president’s policy. Truman’s illustrious Secretary of State, George Marshall, had the courtesy to excoriate the president to his face, telling Truman that he would not vote for him in the coming election if he maintained his support for a Jewish state. On March 25, 1948, Truman caved to the Washington consensus, announcing his decision to postpone partition.

President Obama has gone through a remarkably similar process over the past few months regarding his policy in Syria and Iraq. The comparison with Truman in 1948 illuminates important elements of the current debate. The battlefield successes of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and, in particular, the group’s videotaped beheadings of American journalists, have caused official Washington to close ranks against Obama’s prior policy of non-intervention in either country. Like Truman, Obama found both Washington elite pressure and Middle Eastern developments conspiring against him. The result was the campaign of American airstrikes in Iraq and, as of the past week, Syria to “destroy” ISIL. The consensus, once again, seems to have won out.


There is another key parallel between the 1948 Palestine debate and today’s Syria-Iraq conversation: the analytical shortcuts taken by each president’s opponents.

In 1948, it seemed obvious both to policymakers like Marshall and specialists like Director of the State Department’s Office of Near Eastern Affairs Loy W. Henderson that Truman had irrevocably mishandled Palestine. By acceding to a Jewish state in Palestine, in part due to successful Zionist lobbying in the United States, Truman, they believed, was sacrificing American interests in the Arab world at the altar of domestic politics. Yet, every aspect of this dire vision proved incorrect: Israel rebuffed Soviet overtures, and Arab oil monarchies remained in the American column.

Flawed policy proposals flowed from these faulty assumptions. Above all, Middle East specialists were unable to logically connect means and ends — i.e. to candidly assess the best way to achieve U.S. objectives. The ends of U.S. policy — maintaining American access to Gulf oil and preventing Soviet inroads in the region — were clear, but Henderson and the Arabists had tenuous notions of how non-recognition of Israel would advance or protect these aims. Obscuring this analytical gap, Truman’s opponents grabbed at the crutch of threat inflation. Among the catastrophes they claimed would flow from partition were a Saudi oil embargo, spontaneous violence against Americans across the Arab world, and Soviet tanks rolling into Arab capitals. The Middle East, they believed, would fall to the Soviets in much the same way Eastern Europe had. In reality, the Arabists were willfully ignorant of the fact that Arab monarchies’ oil and security interests trumped their professed antipathy to Israel.

Such analytical errors by specialists in the Middle East are echoed by problematic aspects of the current Iraq-Syria debate. In particular, the flood of op-eds by latter-day State Department Arabists such as Robert Ford, Ryan Crocker, and Frederic Hof throws the present failure to connect means and ends into sharp relief. A close reading of Crocker’s recent pro-intervention cri de coeur in the Wall Street Journal is representative of interventionist thinking.

Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria comprise two of Crocker’s three main policy prescriptions to combat ISIL. Yet if, as Crocker puts it, the U.S. objective is to “win” against ISIL, the article is blithely free from specific explanations of how airstrikes could achieve that. Airstrikes, he posits, will “change the balance” of the fighting on the ground, but given the well-documented problems with America’s potential allies in Syria and Iraq, it is incumbent on those making the case for intervention to explain in concrete detail how airstrikes might produce such a shift. Unfortunately, President Obama no longer seems to demand such rigor from interventionists, at least in public.

Perhaps in quiet concession to this explanatory gap, pro-interventionists give a cursory nod to the importance of a simultaneous “high-level political effort.” As Crocker writes, “Degrading the forces of radical Islam may change the political dynamics among the different factions in a way that may make it possible to begin a political process.” Disregarding the fact that Crocker’s implicit assumption here flies in the face of everything the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq demonstrated about the near impossibility of solving political problems through the barrel of a gun, the bigger problem with this line is that it comes no closer to a clear explanation of how airstrikes will roll back ISIL.

One need only pose a few basic questions to spot the holes in both the military and political arguments:

  • Is the goal of American airstrikes the battlefield destruction of ISIL, political progress in Syria and Iraq, or both? If the first, do local armed forces and militia truly require the largely psychological boost of limited airstrikes? If so, what does that say about their fighting capability? Conversely, if local actors — particularly the Iraqi Security Forces — cannot independently summon the political will to defeat ISIL with their vastly greater numbers and firepower, what makes anyone think airstrikes, even if vastly expanded, will tip the balance? Could airstrikes paired with a new effort to train and equip Syrian rebels do any better? Even the most sensible proposals leave unanswered the major questions about such a scheme that have been present since the beginning of the conflict.
  • If the point of an American campaign is political progress in Iraq and Syria, why would airstrikes achieve results when, in Iraq, over a hundred thousand U.S. troops could not? What is more, is ISIL a symptom or a cause of Iraqi and Syrian political collapse? If, as most analysts agree, it is a symptom, why will “rolling it back” have any political impact whatsoever?

That Crocker provides no clear answers to these questions should give any reader pause. (And, to confirm that the failure to connect means and ends is not unique to Crocker, try applying a similar line of questioning to a June op-ed by Robert Ford asserting the potential decisiveness of arming the Syrian opposition.)

Like the Arabists in 1948, Crocker and other pro-interventionists fall back on threat inflation. Crocker writes, “It is hard to overstate the threat that [ISIL] poses.” This statement alone is an analytical red flag, and the author confirms this impression by tossing an alarmist jumble at the reader. To take just one example, Crocker claims that the geographic expansion implicit in ISIL’s name shifts (from “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” to “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” to simply “the Islamic State”) demonstrate its ambition to threaten “the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.” Besides the first part of Crocker’s claim being factually inaccurate (ISIS and ISIL, after all, are translations of the same Arabic name — ad-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi’l ‘Iraq wa ash-Sham), the claim is unclear about how ISIL could immediately threaten entire Saudi cities, much less what connection a name change might realistically have to such a goal. And this, of course, is to say nothing of the spurious “homeland security” argument, given the U.S. intelligence community’s almost unanimous agreement that any ISIL threat to the United States remains long-term, if it exists at all.


Given the congruity between 1948 and today, the obvious question is how otherwise experienced observers of the Middle East could produce such clearly flawed analysis. In 1948, it was, ironically, precisely this regional experience that left State Department Arabists and other American strategists unable to candidly assess American interests in the region. Above all, a lifetime of immersion in Arab politics, culture, and language infused diplomats (and their superiors at State) with certainty that they had access to a higher truth about the region. They believed that their specialized knowledge gave them unique insight into U.S. interests, which, in turn, blinded them to the strategic logic of Truman’s support for partition. It made them rigid and resistant to new thinking.

Back in Washington, the inevitable result was an instinctive dismissal of Truman and his advisors as political hacks concerned only with the next election. In effect, the Arabists were mirroring Dr. Strangelove’s Gen. Jack D. Ripper in twisting Clemenceau’s old admonition to read instead: “War is too important to be left to politicians.” To their thinking, the Middle East was simply too important to be left to the President of the United States.

The worldview of today’s interventionists is not identical to that of their Arabist forbears, but there is more than a passing resemblance. Crucially, the same appeal to “expertise” — to a rarefied and inaccessible kind of gnosis — gives today’s interventionists a sense of analytical superiority. This, of course, is not to demean true expertise but rather to call attention to the ways in which claims of expertise can deflect attention from shallow analysis. Shadi Hamid of Brookings illustrated this phenomenon in a recent interview:

Syria experts were warning this administration a year-and-a-half ago, saying that if…this power vacuum continues and we can’t support the more mainstream rebel forces, extremist groups like ISIS are going to gain ground.

This kind of I-told-you-so argument checks two primary interventionist boxes, simultaneously confining itself to the realm of the hypothetical (where the demands to connect means and ends are markedly less) and burnishing their supposedly superior insights. And, of course, conspicuously missing from such forms of self-justification is the reality that many specialists — although not Hamid himself — supported the president back in 2011-2012, when they incorrectly believed that the Assad regime would fall to the rebels in a matter of months. In short, the problem is not expertise itself, but rather analytical blind spots caused by the certitudes of expert knowledge.

Like the 1948 Arabists, today’s interventionists fall into the trap of ascribing the White House’s reluctance to adopt their policies to ignorance, cynicism, or worse. Former State Department staffer Ali Khedery put it bluntly in a mock letter to the president:

Most of your White House staff working on the Middle East don’t speak the languages of the region, while some haven’t even served in the countries they are advising you on…What you need instead is an NSC filled with…civil servants who have spent their entire careers on the ground in the region and understand its cultures, its languages, its religions, its geography, its history and its neuroses. In short, you need a couple dozen junior Ryan Crockers…

On a purely factual basis, the trope that Obama’s advisors do not include Middle East experts is dubious. Yet, more tellingly, the statement also reveals the “expert” impulse to dismiss dissenters — even those in the White House — as amateurs incapable of perceiving American interests in Iraq and Syria. The irony of this accusation, given interventionists’ demonstrated inability to execute the basics of what would normally be considered an interests-based Middle East policy, is, of course, obscured in the mudslinging.


Demanding the rigorous connection of means and ends from those pushing for renewed war is neither to adopt neo-isolationism nor to advocate that the United States take no action to mitigate ISIL’s potential threat. Indeed, a handful of analysts have written about the limited policy options available to the United States and have put forth tempered, realistic suggestions for containing ISIL.

Given the paucity of strategic thought behind so many of the proposals for military intervention in Syria and Iraq, it is, at first glance, dismaying that Obama seems now to have embraced their illogic. Yet, the 1948 Truman comparison may here again be instructive. By mid-1948, just as quickly as circumstances had forced Truman to jettison his pro-partition policy, events on the ground vindicated his original approach. The Israeli army held fast, and victory made partition a fait accompli. Truman, having adopted a wait-and-see stance, was primed to seize this opportunity by immediately recognizing Israel.

Admittedly, with airstrikes underway, it will be difficult for Obama to pull a Truman. The momentum of escalating military engagement (and accompanying political pressures) will be hard to resist. But there is reason to think that Obama would still like to do just that. Veiled behind the bellicose rhetoric of his Sept. 10 address to the nation was a fundamentally cautious core. Allusions to the drone campaigns in Yemen and Somalia reveal the degree to which Obama seeks continuity in Iraq and Syria. Circumstances — political and practical — have temporarily cornered the president, but if, as is possible, the campaign stalls or fails to deliver, Obama has recourse to a more limited containment strategy. While accepting his critics’ approach for the moment, Obama may, like Truman, be forced by facts on the ground to adjust policy once again.


James Fromson is a 2014-2015 Fulbright Research Fellow in Jordan. The views expressed do not reflect those of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.


Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Ryan Crocker’s claim that ISIL’s name change from “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” to ISIL to simply “the Islamic State” demonstrates expansionist goals was factually inaccurate.  The text has been amended to be clear that it was the initial change to which Crocker referred that was factually inaccurate.


Photo credit: Dennis Burlingham