Restraint as a US Foreign Policy Strategy and the Future of the US–Israel Relationship:
An Exchange of Views

by January 2023
US President Joe Biden. Photo credit: Reuters


Our friendship goes back to graduate school days at Princeton and continued throughout our careers in US government service. We have moved in opposite directions politically—you to center-left and me to center-right—though we probably still agree on a lot. Let’s explore two issues—the general issue of whether or not the US needs to retrench and generally exercise restraint overseas and the specific issue of whether or not the US and Israel are gradually moving away from their special relationship.

Let’s start by acknowledging an issue that you got right—US restraint in Syria in 2012–2013. You were among the National Security Council staff during the Obama administration urging that the US refrain from engaging in direct military intervention, after the Syrian regime crossed Obama’s red line of chemical weapons use. On the other side of that debate were some powerful voices—political appointees arguing a “responsibility to protect,” Middle East experts in the State Department, and others worried about a loss of US credibility if force wasn’t exercised. President Obama sided with your view that the costs of direct US military intervention in Syria would be higher than the costs of inaction. You were right.

My concern is with universalizing a policy of restraint and applying it to cases where the costs of inaction are likely to be much higher than they were in Syria in 2012–2013. We read in graduate school Ernest May’s work on “The Uses and Misuses of History in American Foreign Policy.” May cites cases where American policymakers took lessons from the recent past and applied them to new situations with disastrous results. Are you and others who advocate a general policy of US restraint falling into the Ernest May trap? There’s also George Kennan, who criticized US interventions in Vietnam and Iraq but who also thought an American policy of restraint was wrong in cases where action—including sometimes military intervention—was, in his view, required by the national interest.

Underlying a general policy of American restraint overseas, I suspect, is a notion that the US is in relative decline and must therefore refrain from overseas commitments. I disagree. American decline might be arithmetically true only if one takes an artificial unipolar moment as the point of reference, for instance US domination for a few years after World War II. But here is a relevant indicator: The US has remained over the past 50 years at roughly one quarter of world economic output, which is higher than Britain’s share of world output when it was the world’s superpower. China has grown in power, but at the expense of Europe’s relative share; the US share of world power has remained remarkably consistent over the past 50 years. Since 1983 when you and I were in graduate school, the US has enjoyed the two longest economic expansions in its history. Anecdotal experiences of American diplomats support this reality: The US is the most important country in the eyes of nearly every other government in the world. We remain the indispensable power.

Now if we convince everyone of the assumption that the US is in decline, and a US administration acts in line with that assumption, then it can become self-fulfilling. The goal should be to manage expectations, to borrow a concept from the world of central bankers who manage interest rate expectations as the best way of influencing inflation. For me, the key question for exercising US power overseas is about our ability to mobilize allies and manage their expectations of a decisive use of American power. We need situations like the first Gulf War (hundreds of thousands of allied troops) and not the second Gulf War (a paltry “coalition of the willing”). Even the Roman Empire, at its height, relied extensively on its allies’ auxiliary troops for much of its fighting and policing.

Assumptions of US decline corrode our ability to mobilize allies (and also the American public) for future cases where restraint will not be the right policy. The message from our government should be of our readiness and willingness to act, to lead from the front, not from behind, when the national interest is involved. I believe the Biden administration has done a decent job of this message on the Russo–Ukraine war; I don’t know if you agree.

I also see daylight between us on the specific issue of the special relationship between the US and Israel. Six years ago, you warned that this relationship was in danger because of the “fraying of shared values,” caused by politics in Israel drifting rightward. You believe Israel’s democracy is in danger and thus the US–Israel relationship is endangered over the long term. But others look at Israel and, despite all its problems, see a thriving democracy and a society with institutions and a political culture that embrace civil liberties. Freedom House once again in 2022 ranked Israel as “free,” the only liberal democracy in the greater Middle East.

You write of a concern that the US–Israel relationship will become a “pale version” of what it once was. When exactly was this Camelot? There have always been frictions between the US and Israel, which is common in close relationships between two countries. The reality I see is that US–Israel relations have only grown closer over the decades by any objective measure.

We probably agree on some of the problems inside Israel. For instance, there is discrimination toward Israeli Arabs in Israeli society. But we draw different conclusions. You look at this society and see reasons for the US and Israel to grow apart. I see the same problems but note that Israelis themselves are focused on them and have made progress, sometimes with fits and starts but progress nonetheless. For instance, in 2021, for the first time in Israel’s history, an Israel Arab political party joined a governing coalition. How does that fit in with your 2016 prediction of Israel and US moving inexorably in “their separate ways”?

I know that you do not share the anti-Israel animus of some in American academia who would like your predictions of a fraying US–Israel relationship to come true. You do not support a boycott, divestment or sanctions campaign against Israel. Thus, I would like to give you space to describe your position on Israel, six years after writing this dire prediction for US–Israel relations, and perhaps to contrast your policy recommendations with those who would like to break off the relationship.

I look forward to your reply on both the place of the US in the world and on US–Israel relations. As my esteemed colleague and elder, I give you the last word. Warmly, Bob

Steven Simon


Your letter is thoughtful as always. I’ve learned a great deal from you over the years and hope that tradition continues well into the future.

To your questions about restraint, retrenchment, and decline: Restrainers are a diverse group. It’s difficult to generalize about their worldviews, let alone their policy prescriptions. The Quincy Institute, which seems to have become a standard bearer for restraint in the American context, defines itself as transpartisan and cultivates relationships on both sides of the aisle, from the progressive caucus to the freedom caucus. This covers a lot of ground. For me, and I suspect many others, it’s a policy orientation linked to the Realist school of international relations theory. For those who reflexively favor the use of military force, it’s become an epithet.

Whether restraint is a kind of Democratic Party affliction should be answerable on the basis of the record. Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressives were imperial warriors. Woodrow Wilson led the US into World War I, and FDR brought the US into World War II. Truman waged war in Korea, LBJ in Vietnam, while Clinton and Obama had their share of military adventures on a more modest scale. Republicans were responsible for two major US interventions in this period, both in the Middle East. In historical perspective, Republican administrations prior to George H. W. Bush have been more reluctant to use force, but since then, they have been more enthusiastic than Democrats. And their wars have been distinctly counterproductive.

My reading of the restraint community writ large is that it is skeptical of the use of force because, in the post-war US experience, it has not been notably successful in achieving its objectives. Israel, as Chuck Freilich has pointed out, has also failed to achieve its war aims after 1967; hence “ha-ma’arakhot beyn ha-milḥamot” (the campaigns between wars). Whatever one might postulate about the future cost of inaction, the costs of action in the real world have been carefully and responsibly calculated by scholars at Harvard and Brown universities. And that cost has been massive. Perhaps the meaning of the sacrifice would be different had the use of force advanced US strategic interests, but regrettably, it has not been done. The costs, after all, are geopolitical as well as human and financial. Iran’s influence in Iraq, for example, is the result of US intervention.

Have restrainers fallen into Ernest May’s historical thinking trap? The fact, as May observed, is that everyone thinks “in time.” And those who emphasize the putative costs of inaction are no exception. As he and many others have pointed out, the evergreen Munich analogy has spurred much mischief by those who dwell on the possible cost of inaction in the context of current disputes. The analogies and precedents that inform foreign policy thinking can be interpreted in diverse—and perverse—ways. In a sense, there is no such thing as thinking outside the box.

Restrainers strike me primarily as pragmatists. As the old joke goes, I’m in favor of pragmatism so long as it works. Pragmatists do, in fact, ask whether inaction is likely to be more costly than action or vice versa. The Quincy Institute—the only organized part of the broader restraint community that I’m familiar with—has been notably supportive of the Biden administration’s overall handling of the Ukraine crisis, while carefully reminding the administration of the need to seize diplomatic opportunities that might arise over time. No doubt there are other “restrainers,” such as John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago, who are fiercely critical of US support for Ukraine and the NATO alliance, but I can’t speak for them.

You are certainly right that there is a desire for US leadership. But it’s a peculiar desire. Let’s take the Iran nuclear deal as an example. The Americans led this, organized a multilateral negotiating effort, got the Iranians to agree to terms that would have made the creation of a nuclear weapon well-nigh impossible for 15 years. American leadership, however, was rejected by Israel and certain Arab Gulf States. Fair enough; if Israel and the other states truly believed that there were better alternatives to the deal, then that was their privilege. But this turn of events suggested that for Israel and the Arab Gulf States, American leadership had been paradoxically redefined as the US following the lead of the very states clamoring for its leadership.

The one theme that seems to be missing from the restraint discourse that I have encountered is American decline as a predicate for restraint. It is commonplace that the US has experienced relative decline in terms of its share of global gross domestic product virtually since the moment that the smoke cleared in 1945. It is also commonplace that the size of the US economy, the depth of its credit markets, its enormous defense budget, and nuclear posture confer a global preeminence on the US, putting its relative decline in perspective. My own view is that the threat to America’s power and influence are, for the most part, internal. Disinvestment in education, infrastructure, public health and health care delivery, vast income inequality, and deep societal divisions constitute the real basis for decline. Reading through Dan Ben-David’s latest reports on these sectors in Israel—and I am grateful to you for introducing him to me—one might come to the same conclusion about Israel. In any case, the restrainers I know tend to focus on foreign—not domestic—policy and on the core questions of US interests, the threats to those interests, and the most efficient way to defend against them. And generally speaking, their analysis indicates that military intervention has proven to be neither efficient nor effective, while recognizing that at times the threat of force might be the only plausible response option in a crisis.

As for our respective views on Israel, my fervent wish is that it enjoys a strong relationship with the US and American Jews of every denominational stripe. Yet, as Dana Allin and I argued in “Our Separate Ways: The Struggle for the U.S.–Israel Alliance,” there are—as typical in life—impediments to wish fulfillment. As you point out, the US–Israel relationship has had some tense periods virtually since the founding of the state. But, until Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, the two states were, if somewhat inconsistently, in sync in the realm of shared values. This was expressed, importantly, by the bipartisan nature of the American interest in and support for Israel. My sense is that since then, Israel’s leaders have placed a strategic bet on the Republican Party, reckoning that, over the long run, Israel’s interests would be best served if the Republican Party held the reins.

Thus, for the US and Israel, much will depend on how the tug of war between Democrats and Republicans plays out in the coming years. This explains why the funding arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) supported 37 Republicans who voted not to certify Biden’s election on January 6, 2021, and why Israel has cultivated the support of Evangelicals. If the Democrats consolidate their gains while the Republican Party is distracted by a debate about its post-Trump purposes, the gap between US and Israeli values will widen, even as the perceived strategic significance of Israel shrinks—especially if the new Israeli government implements the domestic policies for which it has advocated. In this scenario, the relationship will weaken over time. If, on the other hand, the Republicans accede to power, the values animating their politics will permeate their foreign policy, and the US–Israel relationship will flourish even as its American constituency narrows. But these are not the values for which Americans have fought in the past. And in the absence of compelling strategic interest, they won’t fight for them in the future. That large-scale, sophisticated opinion surveys indicate that younger Americans are less likely to think about Israel in positive terms suggests that this is a real risk for Israel. Better “hasbara” (public diplomacy), I’m afraid, will not be the answer.

Back to you, Bob!

Robert Silverman
Managing Editor
A former US diplomat and president of the American Foreign Service Association, Robert Silverman is a lecturer at Shalem College, senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, and president of the Inter Jewish Muslim Alliance. @silverrj99
Steven Simon
Steven Simon is the Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a research analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He served as the National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East in the Obama administration and in other US Government foreign policy positions.
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