Much ink both real and virtual has been spilled in Israel as well as pro-Israeli outlets in the US praising President Obama for his forthright stance regarding US support of the embattled and increasingly isolated Jewish state. Even a man who has to be a bete noir around the Oval, Benjamin Netanyahu, almost broke his arm patting Obama on the back.
Given the context of the impending UN action on the request for recognition requested by the Palestinian Authority, the outpouring of hosannas is not surprising. However, the Israelis and their American supporters would be well served by taking a close look at the Obama administration's handling of the request by the government of Taiwan for a significant upgrading of their aerial self-defense capacities.
By way of background, it must be recalled that the US is committed to assure that the island nation has sufficient means to defend itself against attack by the Peoples Republic of China. This commitment is contained in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979. This piece of legislation was a key part of the complex mechanism by which the US finished the job of facing the reality that the PRC was a real state with a real government deserving of both American diplomatic recognition and the status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The TRA was designed by members of the Congress to assure that Taiwan would not be taken over by the mainland by either the reality or threat of military attack. It was passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses of the Democrat controlled Congress and quickly signed by Jimmy Carter.
Until recently, the act served to assure that the US sold or provided military means adequate to the task of deterring Beijing's ambitions to reclaim the "rebellious" province. Things changed in the past decade as the Chinese military underwent a transformation. The vast modernization program has resulted over the past few years in the PRC developing a massive preponderance of force.
During the last two years of the George W. Bush administration, the Taiwanese government forwarded a set of requirements for an expansion and modernization program including new F-16 fighters and submarines. A portion of the request was filled before the days of Bush/Cheney came to an end. A second part was filled (along with supplemental items) by the Obama administration. Along the way, the submarines were deleted by the US side. The desired F-16s of the C/D model remained in limbo.
In limbo they stay today. The administration did not deny the request but offered in its stead an upgrade package for the 160 or so F-16 A/B variants in the Taiwanese inventory. The upgrade package for these now aging aircraft (dating back to 1992) do not include new engines capable of higher speeds and greater combat endurance. As a consequence, the improvements in sensor, guidance, and weapons suites do not give the Taiwanese air force the additional capacities needed to survive in the air against the several hundred more modern, more competent, mainland fighters.
In a slight but pardonable exaggeration, the average Taiwanese pilot flying an "upgraded" F-16 might survive long enough to shout, "Mayday" before being shot down. This is not the end the congress had in mind when it passed the TRA.
Whether or not the Nice Young Man From Chicago simply capitulated to Beijing's opposition to this (or any) arms deal with Taiwan is, as they say, "a subject fit for adjudication." The fact remains that the Obama "team" effectively eviscerated the TRA.
Given the continued force draft development of the PRC's air, naval, ground, and missile forces as well as the probable running down of American air and naval power in the Pacific, all that Beijing needs to do is be patient for a couple more years and then take back the "lost" province with a short, sharp, and decisive little war. The US will be able to do nothing other than ask the Security Council for a resolution. That, of course, will be vetoed by the Chinese.
The Obama administration's interpretation of American responsibilities under the TRA gives a strong hint as to the reliability of his steadfastness under pressure. No political leader in Israel should see the president's words at the General Assembly as other than empty rhetoric. Even the prospect of an American veto of the PA's request shows no depth of commitment, no willingness to run real risk.
Should some larger consideration enter the American field of view, the seemingly resolute support of Israel radiated yesterday will evaporate with blinding rapidity. All that need be kept in mind is that before the PRC embarked on its massive rearmament program, Washington went ahead with arming Taiwan, showing total indifference to the whims of Beijing. Now, affairs are a bit different.
Should the OPEC bully boys decide on another oil embargo, the US would be sorely tested in its relation with Israel. Should such a hypothetical occur during the run up to a presidential election, it is doubtful that the smart money would be placed on the Israeli connection trumping.
Fifty years ago, the hard hearted, cold eyed Charles de Gaulle acted on a belief that many Europeans shared when he ordered the creation of an independent French nuclear force. He was of the view that the US would never place Chicago at risk to defend Paris. We will never know if the general was right, but his apprehension was well placed and well rooted in history. The US has not always been noted for consistency over administrations, particularly if new and unpleasant realities develop as they have in China.
The takeaway for Israel is both simple and disheartening. As Taiwan has found out over the past four years, an American promise--even one enshrined in law--is not bankable. How much less is a piece of oratory given by a president up for reelection in a tough environment?