From bashing David Cameron and Saudi Arabia to dismissing the Washington think tank world, President Obama made a lot of news last month in Jeffrey Goldberg’s profile of his foreign policy doctrine. But another seemingly massive news nugget garnered surprisingly little attention. Midway through the article, Goldberg reported that according to Obama’s former Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, the president “has questioned why the U.S. should maintain Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge.”
The qualitative military edge (QME) isn’t an esoteric battlefield concept or peace process buzzword. For decades, it has undergirded the U.S.-Israel alliance: Washington’s legally binding vow to ensure that Jerusalem can “counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat from any individual state or possible coalition of states or from non-state actors.” In challenging it, Obama raises the question of what role the QME currently plays in the U.S.-Israel relationship—and whether the policy is less an advantage than an albatross for both parties.
America’s promise to maintain Israel’s QME dates back to the Six-Day War. For the first two decades of its existence, the Jewish state relied on French arms to keep pace with its Arab adversaries. Just before the conflict, however, France defected to the Arab camp. In 1968, with strong Congressional backing, Lyndon Johnson approved the sale of F-4 Phantom fighters to Israel—beginning the process by which the United States would assume France’s role. By the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the United States had quadrupled defense aid to Israel, making the Jewish state the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance. Washington also provided Jerusalem first access to cutting-edge technology. The F-16 fighter jet, for example, arrived in Egypt in 1983—three years after its first delivery in Israel. After Reagan explicitly committed to preserving Israel’s QME, each administration since has reiterated that promise. And in 2008, Congress codified the commitment into law, establishing a minimum standard for U.S. military aid.
The QME endured thanks to mutual strategic interests between the two nations. During the Cold War, it enabled Israel to serve as a regional bulwark against Soviet expansionism and spared the United States from stationing significant forces in the region. As the late Senator Jesse Helms, a longtime skeptic of foreign aid, later put it, “My question is this: If Israel did not exist, what would U.S. defense costs in the Middle East be? Israel is at least the equivalent of a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Middle East.” That role evolved after September 11. The United States equipped Israel to address new regional threats, such as Hamas and Hezbollah rockets and Iranian ballistic missiles, while Jerusalem shared vital intelligence on terrorist networks and aided Washington in homeland security and urban warfare.
Obama preserved and expanded Israel’s QME. In fact, amid the U.S.-Israel frictions of the Obama years, both sides have at different times turned to their defense relationship as a sign of continued partnership. During the early debate over the settlement freeze, Michael Oren, then the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, praised the Obama administration for its “immediate” reaction to Israeli concerns about the QME. Three years and many rounds of bickering later, Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu told AIPAC that “[Obama] rightly said that our security cooperation is unprecedented… and he has backed those words with deeds.”
But Obama’s QME devotion also caused problems. Long a guarantee of Israel’s security against an Arab bloc with formidable conventional forces, the QME could not anticipate that the danger of those armies would fade. It also could not account for the collapse of the Arab bloc itself—or the de facto partnerships borne out of mutual Arab-Israeli fear of Iran. Strengthening the Gulf States could theoretically help Jerusalem confront Tehran and its nonstate proxies, such as Hezbollah, but the QME complicates that effort.
The QME in some ways has become a political millstone as well. In 2011 and 2012, Israeli officials, unsatisfied with White House efforts to stop Iranian nuclearization, threatened a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Obama responded by showering Israel with defense and intelligence cooperation, but what seemed like the ultimate gesture of friendship also hemmed in Israel’s flexibility. Outright Obama administration opposition would have fueled Netanyahu’s unilateralism, but the juiced-up defense aid sapped Israel of the argument for action—effectively precluding an attack. The White House similarly drew on its defense commitments to parry critics accusing it of unduly pressuring Israel on the peace process. As much as the QME shielded Israel from its enemies, it also gave cover to Obama policies that antagonized Jerusalem.
Perhaps, then, the QME is more trouble than it’s worth. Without it, the White House could feel free to arm other partners in the region, while Israel could escape the pledge’s golden chains. Yet those golden chains are exactly why the QME is crucial to the alliance. Beyond promising invaluable defense assistance, the vow signals diplomatic protection—that the United States places its partnership with the Jewish state above all others. Washington could easily supply Jerusalem with billions of dollars in military aid without a compulsory promise of qualitative advantage. The value of that promise is ultimately political.
At first glance, the Panetta story thus seems deeply consequential. In daring to question the QME, Obama seems open to dismantling the one pillar of the relationship he swore in the darkest of times to uphold—such as last April, when he reiterated that he was “absolutely committed to making sure that [Israelis] maintain their qualitative military edge” amid the height of Israeli anxiety over the Iran deal.
But Obama’s QME restlessness flows directly from his previous policies. From the outset, the president sought to pull the United States out of the Middle East and liberate it from encumbering ties to free-riding allies. Obama hasn’t singled Israel out so much as lumped it in with other allies whom he finds disappointing. In Goldberg’s profile, for example, Israel sits beside Turkey and Saudi Arabia as loci of his exasperation. The president argues that U.S. support enables their bad behavior while cramping or even imperiling American interests. As a result, questioning the QME is a natural consequence of questioning Israel’s—and other allies’—larger geopolitical value, raised at the end simply because it is a more delicate bond to loosen.
Yet Obama’s legacy on Israel also suggests that the problems posed by the QME during the last several years aren’t inherent to the nature of the commitment. Nor are they signs of decay in its strategic worth. Whether the QME is help or hindrance depends on the broader tenor of the alliance. For the next president, the QME can just as easily serve as the leading edge of a realignment with Jerusalem, and a sign that the United States is ready for a political return to Middle East. No doubt Netanyahu hopes that’s the case.