Jeffrey Goldberg. Photographer: Evan Sung/Bloomberg
Jeffrey Goldberg. Photographer: Evan Sung/Bloomberg

During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, I interviewed then-Senator Barack Obama on the subject of the Middle East. Much of our discussion was pro forma -- he was trying to convince certain hawkish elements of the American Jewish community that he wasn’t Yasser Arafat in mufti -- and so he expressed, at some length, his appreciation for Israel as a haven for Jews and as a friend of the U.S.

When I asked him whether he thought Israel is a drag on America’s reputation overseas, however, he gave an interesting answer. He said no, Israel wasn’t a drag, but then he added: “What I think is that this constant wound, that this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy. The lack of a resolution to this problem provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions, and so we have a national-security interest in solving this, and I also believe that Israel has a security interest in solving this because I believe that the status quo is unsustainable.”

Almost immediately after this interview was published, the Republican Party’s Center for the Exploitation of Misplaced Pronouns rushed to the ramparts. Representatives John Boehner and Eric Cantor denounced Obama. Cantor issued a statement saying, “It is truly disappointing that Senator Obama called Israel ‘a constant wound,’ ‘a constant sore,’ and that it ‘infect(s) all of our foreign policy.’”

Obama’s “this” wasn’t referring to Israel, of course, but to the Middle East conflict. We were in the middle of a campaign, so the truth didn’t matter, and the “this” became the subject of an enervating, days-long dust-up. The squabbling kept me from recognizing that Obama had, in fact, argued for something that even at the time seemed empirically insupportable.

‘Linkage’ View

It is an article of faith among so-called foreign-policy realists -- and Obama definitely is one -- that the key to American happiness in the Middle East is a resolution to the Israeli-Arab conflict. “Linkage” is the shorthand for this view.

That statement of Obama’s came to mind recently as I read a convincing article by the Middle East scholar Martin Kramer about the views of Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, Senator Chuck Hagel, whose Senate confirmation hearing began this morning. The hearing didn’t go well for Hagel (he could’ve used a dose of whatever it was Alex Rodriguez may or may not have been taking). In it, members of the Armed Services Committee questioned him sharply on Israel, Hezbollah and Iran, but didn’t ask him to expand on his long-standing theory of Middle East interconnectedness.

“The core of all challenges in the Middle East remains the underlying Arab-Israeli conflict,” Hagel said in 2006. “The failure to address this root cause will allow Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorists to continue to sustain popular Muslim and Arab support -- a dynamic that continues to undermine America’s standing in the region and the Governments of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and others, whose support is critical for any Middle East resolution.”

As Kramer wrote: “The vocabulary here -- ‘core,’ ‘root cause,’ ‘underlying’ -- is taken from the standard linkage lexicon, which elevates the Arab-Israeli or Palestinian-Israeli conflict to a preeminent status.” He continued: “It is this conflict, practically alone, that prompts the rise of terrorists, weakens friendly governments, and makes it impossible for the United States to win Arabs and Muslims over to the good cause.”

‘Placid Lake’

In his 2008 book, “America: Our Next Chapter,” Hagel wrote that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “cannot be looked at in isolation. Like a stone dropped into a placid lake, its ripples extend out farther and farther. Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon feel the effects most noticeably. Farther still, Afghanistan and Pakistan; anything that impacts their political stability also affects the two emerging economic superpowers, India and China.”

I would love to hear Hagel’s views on this subject today, because his theory of linkage -- and his belief that a Middle East freed from the Israeli-Palestinian dispute would be a “placid lake” -- has been utterly discredited by events. It is, of course, vital to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And it is true that some Islamist terrorist groups exploit the conflict as a recruiting tool. But these same terrorists are unalterably opposed to a compromise that would allow two states, Israel and Palestine, to live side by side, because they are opposed to the very existence of Israel. They try to subvert the peace process because they fear it will legitimize the existence of a country they hate.

Never mind this technical detail. The past two years have proved the theory of linkage to be comprehensively false anyway.

Come with me on a quick tour of the greater Middle East. The Syrian civil war? Unrelated to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. The slow disintegration of Yemen? Unrelated. Chaos and violence in Libya? Unrelated. Chaos and fundamentalism in Egypt? The creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank would not have stopped the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, nor would it have stopped the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Terrorism in Algeria? Unrelated. The Iranian nuclear program? How would the creation of a Palestinian state have persuaded the Iranian regime to cease its pursuit of nuclear weapons? Someone please explain. Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq? The unrest in Bahrain? Pakistani havens for al-Qaeda affiliates? All unrelated.

Why does this matter? Because our leaders should have a realistic -- as opposed to a “realist” -- understanding of the root causes of Middle East strife. How can they protect us from threats if they don’t understand the causes of these threats? Decades of dictatorship (with the acquiescence, in many cases, of the U.S. government and the realists who guided its foreign policy) brought the Middle East to its current condition, along with misogyny, poor education, corruption, the politicizing of Islam and sectarian hatred.

Hagel wants to lead the U.S. Defense Department. I would like to know if he still believes in linkage. More important, I would like to know if Obama is still captive to this same, flawed concept.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this column: Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.