De-Zionising the US empire

The Obama Doctrine may act to “de-Zionise the American empire” and seriously complicate Israeli-US relations.

Protestors Rally Outside Israeli Consulate In NYC During Netanyahu Speech
Critical thinking against the inordinate Israeli influence on US policies predates Obama and has much wider constituencies, writes Dabashi [Getty]

United States President Barack Obama’s speech about the Iran nuclear deal at American University on August 5 marks a decisive feature in his Obama Doctrine that one might venture to call and consider “de-Zionising the American empire”.

Does this speech, and a whole array of presidential remarks before and after it, mark a pivotal departure from past US policy towards Israel? And if so, what would that imply for the region at large? 

Geoffrey Aronson, among many other observers, has already made the poignant remark that this speech marks a significant turning point in the US-Israeli relationship.

Israeli commentators, however, have been far more emphatic in their concern about what it could mean. 

In an article aptly titled, “Obama isolates Netanyahu as head of warmongers,” Barak Ravid has signalled the deep anxiety contingent on such a break.

“The most worrisome part of Obama’s address”, Ravid told his readers, “was his reference to the Israeli government’s opposition to the nuclear agreement. What he said is liable to be seen in the not-so-distant future as a real turning point in the strategic relations between Jerusalem and Washington”.

Love or loathe

In yet another anxiety-ridden piece, Chemi Shalev warned, “Love or loathe Netanyahu, Obama’s payback speech was unsettling.”

But in what sense was it “unsettling”? Indications are that the Obama Doctrine, of which I wrote about soon after the Iran nuclear deal was reached in Vienna on July 14, 2015, may entail a particularly significant component of treating Israel like any other client state – like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, etc.

Inside Story – Resetting the tone of US-Israeli relations?

That possibility may account for the fact that Israel is now showing such hysterical public manifestations of separation anxiety from its ally.

The origin of this possible “de-Zionisation of the US empire” goes back to a point that Marwan Bishara, the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera, has been making for quite some time now:

“Since the US elected a left-centre president and Israel chose a rightist leader six years ago”, he wrote in March 2015, “their differences have sharpened over their contrasted perspectives on the Middle East and foreign policy at large, not their bilateral relations. The rift started after Obama’s re-election in 2012, as he began to decouple the US mind-set from that of Israel’s on doctrinal and regional strategies, especially on Iran”.

The key words in Bishara’s apt reading are: “to decouple the US mind-set from that of Israel”.

Decoupling the mind-set

The deeper roots of this “decoupling” might be traced back to the most serious challenge to the unbridled power of Israeli lobbyists in the US: John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy”. Originally written in 2002, it was not published until 2006 in the UK, before it was published as a book in the US in 2007.

Obama will continue to care for Israel, but as an emperor cares for one among many of his vassals – nothing more or less… On this chessboard, Israel might be the rook or even the queen in the US’ fancy military footwork… But they each have a singular function: To safeguard the king from being checkmated.


It is crucial to keep in mind that the rise of such critical thinking against the inordinate Israeli influence on US policies predates the election of Obama, and thus, today has much wider and deeper constituencies.

A pragmatist to the bone of his political character, Obama would have never ventured so resoundingly to express his position against Israel and its lobbies and strike this deal with Iran, were he not quite sure of their deep-rooted presence in the US’ diplomatic core.

This possible development, of course, does not mean that the members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) are going to collect their belongings and move to Israel.

They will, in fact, fight this potential transition even more violently than they are now fighting the Iran deal in Congress.

The fight will continue until Israeli think-tankers from Washington and New York to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem figure out how to secure a corner office for themselves in the Obama Doctrine and the emerging geopolitics contingent on it.

Reducing Israel to a vassal

Neither Obama nor any other US president will ever abandon Israel. It houses the largest US military base in the region and is central in the operation of the “empire”.

What Obama may have initiated (as a key component of his Obama Doctrine) is to reduce Israel to a vassal, on par with any other vassals it has in the region – ranging from Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Pakistan.

Obama will continue to care for Israel, but as an emperor cares for one among many of his vassals – nothing more or less.

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Each one of these vassals has a function to play. On this chessboard, Israel might be the rook, or even the queen, in the US’ fancy military footwork.

But they each have a singular function: To safeguard the king from being checkmated.

There are serious implications for the Palestinian cause if this possible “de-Zionisation of the American empire” were fully to bloom.

Obama will have, in effect, dropped the Palestinian issue at the doorstep of the Israelis.

Looking for other options

Obama’s state department is already on record for having declared it will not “protect Israeli settlements against boycott”.

The president is also on record for having said he is looking for “other options” now that Netanyahu has pledged there will be no Palestinian state on his watch.


When we put these two statements together, it is clear that not only the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, but also the dead-end of the two-state delusion, are Israel’s problem and not his.

The implications of this for the Palestinian national liberation are hard to exaggerate.

The “de-Zionisation of the US empire” is not something necessarily good or bad for the region at large.

If we are right to read this possible move as integral to the Obama Doctrine of empire by proxy, this means far less US hard power, far more smart power, and far more phantom liberty for specific players like Iran, Israel, or Saudi Arabia to do as they will, while they remain operative within their limited role to protect the king, the emperor, the empire.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.