Do we ‘have Israel’s back’?

US JCS Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey visiting Yad Vashem with Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz in April

US JCS Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey visiting Yad Vashem with Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz in April

There should not be a shred of doubt by now: when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.Barack Obama, March 4, 2012

General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is the top military adviser to the President (although he is not directly part of the chain of command). Last week in London he said,

[An Israeli attack would] clearly delay but probably not destroy Iran’s nuclear programme … I don’t want to be complicit if they [Israel] choose to do it.

One wonders what complicity would consist of. Using American forces to assist Israel in an attack? Striking back at Iran? Providing weapons or aircraft? Providing intelligence information? Even resupplying Israeli forces with ammunition or spare parts in the event of a protracted war? Dempsey didn’t say, but the message implicit in the statement is “if you start it, you will be on your own,” which is hardly consistent with the President’s remark about having Israel’s back.

Does this represent administration thinking? This weekend the White House had the opportunity to walk back Dempsey’s remark, but the best spokesman Jay Carney could do was this:

Cooperation with Israel between our military and intelligence communities has never been closer … Assistance provided to Israel by the United States has never been greater than it has been under President [Barack] Obama. We have an extremely close relationship with Israel, which is appropriate given our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.

Really? A joint American-Israeli missile defense exercise that was planned for October has been greatly scaled down, according to a report in Time Magazine:

The reductions are striking. Instead of the approximately 5,000 U.S. troops originally trumpeted for Austere Challenge 12, as the annual exercise is called, the Pentagon will send only 1,500 service members, and perhaps as few as 1,200.  Patriot anti-missile systems will arrive in Israel as planned, but the crews to operate them will not.  Instead of two Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense warships being dispatched to Israeli waters, the new plan is to send one, though even the remaining vessel is listed as a “maybe,” according to officials in both militaries. [my emphasis]

In Israel gas masks are being distributed and bomb shelters in places like Tel Aviv, unused for years, are being cleared of junk and prepared for use. I’m sure a few more operational Patriot systems would be welcome.

PM Netanyahu reportedly had an angry exchange with US Ambassador Dan Shapiro earlier this week about the US commitment to prevent Iran from going nuclear:

A source that participated in the meeting said that a particularly angry and stressed Netanyahu began a tirade against the US president, attacking him for not doing enough on Iran. “Instead of pressuring Iran in an effective way, Obama and his people are pressuring us not to attack the nuclear facilities,” the source quoted Netanyahu as saying. [my emphasis]

Angered about continued US rhetoric that diplomacy needs more time to work, Netanyahu said flatly: “Time has run out,” Yediot reported.

The American ambassador is said to have responded politely but firmly, telling Netanyahu that he was distorting Obama’s position. Obama promised not to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, he explained, and left all options on the table, including military options.

At that point, diplomatic sources told the paper, “sparks flew” in an escalating shouting match between Netanyahu and Shapiro as the stunned congressman [Rep. Mike Rogers -- R., MI] watched.

Dempsey’s statement and the decision to withhold entirely defensive items from Israel certainly buttress the PM’s contention.

But reliance on the US promises of support is a bad idea in any case. Yoram Ettinger provides some historical examples of why:

From 1950 to 1955, the U.S. promised Israel military systems to deter an Arab offensive. Failure to deliver emboldened Arab terrorism, which led to the 1956 Sinai Campaign.

On Feb. 27, 1957, Israel’s Abba Eban and the U.S.’s John Dulles reached an understanding on Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, including Sharm el-Sheikh, if Israeli passage through the Straits [sic] of Tiran was assured. Jerusalem interpreted the understanding as a U.S. commitment to use force to keep the straits open. However, Washington’s interpretation was that it did not have the right to use force to protect vessels of other flags, which would require congressional action.

In May 1967, Egypt blockaded the Straits of Tiran, deployed its military toward Israel and formed a unified command with Syria and Jordan, proclaiming its intent to annihilate Israel. Israel requested U.S. compliance with the 1957 understanding. But “U.S. intelligence did not expect imminent Arab attack” and President Lyndon Johnson preferred a multilateral U.N. — led action, which was not realistic.

Johnson “emphasized the necessity for Israel not to make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities. Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone.” Secretary of State Dean Rusk stated that “if Israel strikes first, it would have to forget the U.S. … Defense Secretary [Robert] McNamara said that the Israelis would stand alone if they initiated an attack.” The U.S. non-compliance further radicalized Egypt, forcing Israeli pre-emption — the 1967 Six Day War. [my emphasis]

In 1970, the U.S. made a commitment to oppose the deployment of Egyptian missiles toward Sinai. The missiles were deployed, the U.S. reneged and the 1973 war erupted, causing 2,800 Israeli fatalities.

In 1991, Israel agreed to forgo retaliation to Iraqi missile launching. The U.S. promised to dedicate 30 percent of its air force bombing to missile launchers. However, only 3% was dedicated and no missile launchers were hit [and 42 Iraqi Scud missiles were fired into Israel -- ed.].

Today the Obama Administration is backing away from its promise to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Any hope of stopping Iran diplomatically would depend on a credible military threat; but the administration has not made such a threat itself — it has not gone farther than saying that “all options are on the table” — and it has worked to make an Israeli action more difficult and less effective, even to the extent of denying Israel the means to protect its population.

I am not going to speculate on its motives today, except to say that I think there is more involved than a simple desire to avoid instability on the eve of an election.

It should be clear to the architects of this policy that they cannot prevent Israel from acting, as it did in 1967, to guarantee its own survival. I wonder if they do understand this.

I once wrote that it seemed that both the US administration and the Iranian regime shared a common objective, to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran. Today it seems that both are doing their best to bring one about.

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One Response to “Do we ‘have Israel’s back’?”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    This is a very sobering piece. Dempsey clearly does not speak for himself alone and his remark was not a slip-of- the – tongue. The record of past promises broken also shows that any promise given cannot simply be trusted. Once re- elected Obama could find a way to make an agreement with Iran in which they have everything but the last turn- of- the screw before actually having the bomb. This is of course an intolerable situation for Israel.
    It also seems to me that the U.S. is not at all eager for another military engagement given the lack of success in Iraq and Afghanistan and the huge outlays involved in those operations.
    On the other hand the Sunni partners probably are urging that Iran be stopped. And Obama is apparently sensitive to them.
    Still it does seem the promise of U.S. action is not one which can be surely relied on.
    Can the promises of the other candidate Gov. Romney be relied on? Of course, not.
    Romney also will take time to get into the office, adjust, learn the subject and perhaps like his predecessors learn a less favorable approach to Israel than he had as a candidate.
    I am certain most strongly pro- Israel people will be nonetheless choosing Romney. But on the question of stopping Iran they will certainly not have chosen one we can be certain will do the job.