In Foreign Policy, Mark Perry describes an extraordinary Pentagon briefing on Israel’s impact on conflicts across the Middle East. Here is an excerpt and following some comments of my own, the author has provided me with additional background on his reporting.
[Important update: A senior military officer told Foreign Policy by email that one rather minor detail in Perry’s report was incorrect. A request from Gen Petraeus for the Palestinian occupied territories to be brought within CENTCOM’s region of operations was sent to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, and not directly to the White House (who may or may not have subsequently been consulted). It is significant that the Pentagon made this correction, not because it was an important detail but on the contrary, because it was inconsequential to the overall narrative. In effect, the Pentagon clearly but discreetly said that there was virtually nothing in this report that could be denied.]
On January 16, two days after a killer earthquake hit Haiti, a team of senior military officers from the U.S. Central Command (responsible for overseeing American security interests in the Middle East), arrived at the Pentagon to brief JCS Chairman Michael Mullen on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The team had been dispatched by CENTCOM commander David Petraeus to underline his growing worries at the lack of progress in resolving the issue. The 33-slide 45-minute PowerPoint briefing stunned Mullen. The briefers reported that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CENTCOM’s mostly Arab constituency was losing faith in American promises, that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region, and that Mitchell himself was (as a senior Pentagon officer later bluntly described it) “too old, too slow…and too late.”
The January Mullen briefing was unprecedented. No previous CENTCOM commander had ever expressed himself on what is essentially a political issue; which is why the briefers were careful to tell Mullen that their conclusions followed from a December 2009 tour of the region where, on Petraeus’s instructions, they spoke to senior Arab leaders. “Everywhere they went, the message was pretty humbling,” a Pentagon officer familiar with the briefing says. “America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding.” But Petraeus wasn’t finished: two days after the Mullen briefing, Petraeus sent a paper to the White House requesting that the West Bank and Gaza (which, with Israel, is a part of the European Command – or EUCOM), be made a part of his area of operations. Petraeus’s reason was straightforward: with U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military had to be perceived by Arab leaders as engaged in the region’s most troublesome conflict.
The Mullen briefing and Petraeus’s request hit the White House like a bombshell. While Petraeus’s request that CENTCOM be expanded to include the Palestinians was denied (“it was dead on arrival,” a Pentagon officer confirms), the Obama Administration decided it would redouble its efforts – pressing Israel once again on the settlements issue, sending Mitchell on a visit to a number of Arab capitals and dispatching Mullen for a carefully arranged meeting with Chief of the Israeli General Staff, Lt. General Gabi Ashkenazi. While the American press speculated that Mullen’s trip focused on Iran, the JCS Chairman actually carried a blunt, and tough, message on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: that Israel had to see its conflict with the Palestinians “in a larger, regional, context” – as having a direct impact on America’s status in the region. Certainly, it was thought, Israel would get the message. [Read the rest of the report here.]
In December 2006, the Iraq Study Group Report was explicit in making this linkage: “The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability.”
What Mark Perry’s report indicates is that for the Obama administration a tipping point has been crossed in its perception of Israel’s effect on the conflicts that span the region.
Until now, the necessity for a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been framed in quasi-positive terms — such as that it would help defuse some of the hostility that the US now faces, or, that it would strengthen an alliance of nations attempting to curtail Iran’s nuclear program.
The shift, as expressed by Joe Biden last week and by the Petraeus briefing in January is that Israel is now being seen as a liability: the Jewish state is putting American lives at risk. “This is starting to get dangerous for us,” Biden reportedly told Netanyahu.
Such a shift marks a watershed in US-Israeli relations and so Perry’s report naturally raises questions. Indeed, the first line of defense from Israel and its supporters will be to claim that, on the contrary, recent events are nothing more than a bump in the road; that we can expect a quick resumption of business as usual between such close allies.
For this reason, I asked Mark — who I have had the privilege of working with in recent years — to provide some background to his report. This is what he said:
My piece on the briefing of Admiral Mullen by CENTCOM senior officers has occasioned a great deal of comment, as well as some skepticism: how accurate is the account? Was it told to me by direct participants in the briefing? Is there any basis for imagining that Petraeus has any kind of hidden agenda, whether that is a desire to expand CENTCOM – or even hostility towards Israel.
I won’t name my sources, even though it’s clear to people in the Pentagon – and certainly to General Petraeus – who they are. Was I told of the briefing by the briefers themselves? I will only say that there were four people in the briefing – the two briefers, Admiral Mullen, and Admiral Mullen’s primary adviser on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I know two of the people involved in the briefing. Whether or not they are my sources is something for the reader to determine. The account is not only accurate, it’s a precis of what actually happened. There is a lot more to it. The White House, State Department and Pentagon have not denied the account, and for good reason: it’s true.
Is there any basis for imagining that Petraeus has any kind of hidden agenda in ordering the briefing?
I have been reporting on the American military for thirty years. My work on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Four Stars, is the authoritative account on the subject. I have deeply rooted contacts in the military that go back thirty years. I have never met a senior military officer whom I do not admire. There is no greater insult than to believe that General Petraeus or any other senior American military officer would use the lives of American soldiers as a lever to enhance their own political future. My sense is that General Petraeus neither likes nor dislikes Israel: but he loves his country and he wants to protect our soldiers. The current crisis in American relations with Israel is not a litmus test of General Petraeus’s loyalty to Israel, but of his, and our, concern for those Americans in uniform in the Middle East.
It is, perhaps, a sign of the depth of “the Biden crisis” that every controversy of this type seems to get translated into whether or not America and its leaders are committed to Israel’s security. This isn’t about Israel’s security, it’s about our security.