There is an intensifying debate over how exactly Gen. David Petraeus regards Israel. (I have written about it here, here and here.) On the one hand are the general's words -- first, as related in a blog posted at Foreign Policy, and, later, in the general's own written statement recently submitted to the US Senate Armed Services Committee. On the other hand are his supporters, who don't believe his words, either as reported in Foreign Policy (which they don't believe, either) or even as presented to the Senate.
Max Boot writing at Contentions is leading the Petraeus-is-pro-Israel defense (or at least that it is "a lie" that he is "anti-Israel"). Boot claims, first, that the Foreign Policy report -- the essence being that Petraeus sent staffers to brief Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen in January to the effect that Israel is an obstacle to American interests because Arab leaders in the Arab nations of Centcom regard Israel as an obstacle to American interests -- was debunked when only secondary, even minor aspects of the Foreign Policy report were later disupted (e.g., Mullen said in follow-up story that he wasn't "stunned") or simply corrected -- specifically that Petraeus did not, as initially reported, petition the White House to put "the Palestinian territories" under his command, but rather asked the Joint Chiefs.
Here's the correction Foreign Policy ran:
[UPDATE: A senior military officer denied Sunday that Petraeus sent a paper to the White House.
"CENTCOM did have a team brief the CJCS on concerns revolving around the Palestinian issue, and CENTCOM did propose a UCP change, but to CJCS, not to the WH," the officer said via email. "GEN Petraeus was not certain what might have been conveyed to the WH (if anything) from that brief to CJCS."
(UCP means "unified combatant command," like CENTCOM; CJCS refers to Mullen; and WH is the White House.)]
In other words, the officer has confirmed that the Centcom briefing of Mullen took place as reported, and that substance of the briefing -- "on concerns revolving around the Palestinian issue" -- also took place as reported. It is no leap of logic to conclude that any discussion on "concerns revolving around the Palestinian issue" is a discussion about the "concerns" of the people who frame the Islamic jihad on Israel as "revolving around the Palestinian issue" -- i.e., the concerns of the Arabs. "Israeli intransigence" is, of course, their eternal narrative, which is what Petraeus is reported to have wanted conveyed to Mullen as being an obstacle to US interests.
Boot doesn't see it that way. He writes:
That [the Foreign Policy post] didn’t ring true to me, so I asked a military officer who is familiar with the briefing in question and with Petraeus’s thinking on the issue to clarify matters. He told me that Perry’s [Foreign Policy] item was “incorrect.” In the first place, Petraeus never recommended shifting the Palestinian territories to Centcom’s purview from European Command, as claimed by Perry. [See correction above.] Nor did Petraeus belittle George Mitchell, whom he holds in high regard. [The Perry item doesn't say Petraeus belittled George Mitchell, but rather an anonymous actor.] All that happened, this officer told me, is that there was a “staff-officer briefing … on the situation in the West Bank, because that situation is a concern that Centcom hears in the Arab world all the time. Nothing more than that.”
In one sentence, the essence of the original story! If Centcom is briefing the Joint Chiefs on "the stituation in the West Bank" due to concerns Centcom hears in the Arab world "all the time," it makes sense that Centcom is going to convey those same concerns it is hearing from the Arab world in its briefing -- as, indeed, Foreign Policy reported. Now. Did Petraeus want those Arab concerns known to the Joint Chiefs because he believes they are bunk, or because he takes them as, um, Gospel? So far, there has been no correction of the Foreign Policy point that Petraeus shares the Arab view.
Indeed, there would seem to be a straight line between Arab "concern," as related from Petraeus to the Joint Chiefs in January, to this statement attributed to VP Biden in Israel last week :"This [building housing in Jerusalem] is starting to get dangerous for us. What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan."
In this same context, Petraeus' recent Senate testimony (discussed here), with its talk of "Arab anger" over "the Palestinian question" limiting US effectiveness simply underscores the essence of the Foreign Policy report. Here's the Petraeus Senate statement in question, his first example of what he called "root causes of instability" or "obstacles to security":
Insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace. The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [Area of Responsibility] Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas.
Actually, that’s not what Petraeus said. Rather, it’s pulled from the 56-page Central Command “Posture Statement” filed by his staff with the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Well, it's from a 56-page written statement, but it's called:
STATEMENT OF GENERAL DAVID H. PETRAEUS, U.S. ARMY
COMMANDER U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND
BEFORE THE SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE ON
THE POSTURE OF U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND
16 MAR 2010
Filed by his staff?
Boot goes on to cite Petraeus' spoken testimony on Israel, pointing out that the general did not read aloud the paragraph concerning Israel-Palestinian hostilities from his prepared statement. You can read the whole except of what Petraeus said here. Here is the money quote:
Again, clearly, the tensions, the issues and so forth have an enormous effect. They set the strategic context within which we operate in the Central Command area of responsibility. ...
This is the axis on which the Arab narrative turns: that Israeli-Palestinian tensions are the main problem in the world; that all grievances flow from it; that what happens there drives what happens everywhere -- or, as Petraeus says, "they set the context within which we operate in the Central Command area of responsibility." But Boot doesn't see this. His analysis:
So there you have it. General Petraeus obviously doesn’t see the Israeli-Arab “peace process” as a top issue for his command, because he didn’t even raise it in his opening statement. When he was pressed on it, he made a fairly anodyne statement about the need to encourage negotiations to help moderate Arab regimes. That’s it.
It is up to Petraeus to refute the Arabist, anti-Israel attitudes now far and widely attributed to him by media now taking his words, written and spoken and reported on, at face value if they are truly incorrect. Personally, I'm not holding my breath. The fact is, assuaging "Arab anger" is, when you think of it, is the very heart of "hearts and minds" current counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN) -- and Petraeus wrote the book.
He also wrote a Ph. D. thesis at Princeton in 1987 called “The American military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era” (available here).
One of his two faculty advisors, it is interesting to note in light of this recent debate was ... Stephen Walt -- of Walt and Mearshimer infamy (hat tip Andrew Bostom). In acknowledgements, Petraeus writes:
Professor Stephen Walt also deserves my gratitude. As my second faculty adviser – replacing Professor Barry Posen during the writing of my dissertation – Professor Walt offered numerous sound suggestions and comments. Like Professor Ullman, he displayed tremendous competence not only as an academic, but as a teacher as well.
Petraeus is delivering the 2010 Irving Kristol Lecture at the American Enterprise Association this spring. Maybe he'll take the opportunity of his lecture to explain what he learned.