It's a disquieting thing, when one sees four-star general officers thinking that they need to be more proactive and outgoing about their advice on foreign policy and national security issues. It's not that they aren't smart people and don't have good ideas - far from it. They can be very clear thinkers, if not a little impatient with the pace of Beltway politics. For instance, we discover that General David Petraeus is suggesting to the White House that Israel's politics are endangering US military personnel and the chances of their success in stabilizing the region.
On Jan. 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 Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The team had been dispatched by CENTCOM commander Gen. 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."
Without getting into a heated political discussion about Israel's aggressive and untempered national security policies, I'll just note two things. First, for someone to notice that Israel's behavior over the last decade has been unhelpful is not exactly a relevation. It's something that I noted in 2005, and as a commenter notes, retired General Zinni also noted. The road to stabilize Iraq and the Middle East region in general runs through Jerusalem, and until Congress stops letting AIPAC write US foreign policy, it's not going to get fixed.
Second, there was Petraeus's suggestion that Israel be placed within US Central Command's area of responsibility instead of within US European Command, as it has been for decades. He feels, as do others, that this is the logical thing to do, so one can tackle the larger thorny issue of Israeli-Arab relations instead of just managing military issues within the Arab/Persian countries. He's absolutely wrong, if only because the Israeli-Arab issue is intensely political and not (currently) a military issue. Life and death are seldom logical, even as one requires logic to attain a desired goal. It's certainly not an issue that a military officer, even a four-star, can attempt to solve within the three-to-four year term that one has as a combatant commander. Military affairs are subordinate to political strategy, and Petraeus oversteps his authority by suggesting this approach.
And while we're on the subject, other general officers who feel that the US government ought to keep combat troops in Iraq past August for the sake of stability operations ought to be more cognizant of the political overtones of that suggestion. For a culture who worships Clausewitz, it's as if they don't quite get the concept of military operations being an extension of politics. Sometimes it appears that our military leaders' grasp of national strategy is lacking. But then again, I suppose one could say that about political leaders, also.
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