There is an element within the US foreign policy establishment that believes that virtually every problem we have with Arab and/or Muslim countries can be tied to our support for Israel. They take the realpolitik view that since this is what their counterparts from these countries say then we should adapt our policies accordingly to gain traction with them. There is no question that our alliance with Israel makes our relations with many countries more difficult. The question remains as to whether changing this will actually benefit us and if that is worth throwing one of the few true allies we have in the region under the bus.
It is fair for our military leaders to examine the political and diplomatic issues which affect their areas of operation, but that should be a fairy limited exercise. This report about Gen. Petraeus and his actions and requests about the CENTCOM theater is a little disturbing.
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."
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.
As I said a certain amount of engagement in the politics and foreign policy of your region is proper and necessary. This sounds like a major step into one of the longest-running and most intransigent problems of diplomacy there is. It affects military operations in some ways but it is hardly a central strategic or tactical consideration for our military commanders, unless you consider contingency planning for an Israeli strike on Iran. This looks like a request to alter our force posture and a major alliance to produce better relations with other countries concerned about Israel v. the Palestinians.
Now I am hardly a fan of the State Department, but that sure seems like their job. The military is sometimes used to increase our government to government relations, and my team went to Singapore when the Philippines announced they wanted to close our bases there specifically to do this. But I think it is a stretch, and one in the wrong direction, for a theater commander to be requesting a change to his AO that would reverse decades of US policy. If this happened as it is portrayed, then those within the State Department who have been complaining about mission creep from the military may have a point. As Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means, but we should not consider that to be an invitation to reverse the flow.