Despite the White House’s efforts to deny Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s assertion that Obama “has thrown Israel under the bus”, and contrary to US President Obama’s assertion that he has Israel’s back, there are many signs that this support is doubtful.
The latest omen is America’s drastic scaling down of a joint military exercise with Israel in October:
Against a background of friction between the US and Israel over thwarting Iran’s nuclear drive, Washington says it will scale down its participation in what was planned to be the largest ever joint Israeli-American military exercise, Time Magazine reported Friday.
But the report quoted sources in Washington as saying only 1,500 US troops — perhaps even 1,200 — would be sent to participate in the exercise instead of the original 5,000. In addition, sources in both Jerusalem and Washington told Time that it was probable that only one Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense warship — instead of two — would be sent to Israel.
The Patriot anti-missile systems set to be dispatched to Israel would reportedly arrive as planned, but not the crews to operate them.
Denials and rebuttals were quick to follow on the heels of this disturbing report:
Following the report, sources in Washington immediately denied that the move conveyed mistrust. “Austere Challenge 12 remains the largest-ever ballistic missile defense exercise between our nations and a significant increase from the previous event in 2009,” Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jack Miller, a Pentagon spokesman, told Reuters later on Friday.
“The exercise has not changed in scope and will include the same types of systems as planned. All deployed systems will be fully operational with associated operators,” Miller said.
Commander Wendy L. Snyder of the US Army, meanwhile, was quoted by Time as saying that “throughout all the planning and coordination, we’ve been lock-step with the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and will continue to do so.”
However, sources in the Israeli defense establishment were reportedly unconvinced, with one senior military official telling Time, “Basically what the Americans are saying is, ‘We don’t trust you.’”
The Jerusalem Post’s article confirms the Americans’ claim that nothing much has changed:
Responding to the report, the defense source said, “All of the commentary on this has been wrong. There is no great significance. Nothing has changed.”
The source stressed that the drill is still the largest held by the US and Israel to date, even with the smaller American force.
“Defense cooperation between Israel and the US has never been better,” the source added.
The Pentagon confirmed on Friday that fewer US military personnel will take part than initially planned, but it rejected the claim that ‘mistrust’ of Israel was behind the change.
However, further confirming Israel’s fears was the outspoken statement by US Chief of Staff Martin Dempsey who said:
The US should not become embroiled in an Israeli military strike on Iran that would not only fail to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, but could also undo international diplomatic pressure on Tehran, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said Thursday in London.
Such an attack by Israel would “clearly delay but probably not destroy Iran’s nuclear program,” Dempsey said, adding: ”I don’t want to be complicit if they [Israel] choose to do it.”
Personally, I find that word “complicit” highly disturbing. Its definition, according to dictionary.com is:
choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others; having complicity.
The fact that an American Chief of Staff would regard a clearly defensive act by Israel, attacking Iran’s nuclear program, as illegal is both outrageous and ill-informed.
On further reading, I find myself in good company in objecting to the term “complicit”. The Times of Israel reports:
Israel responded bitterly on Friday to comments by the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who said on Thursday that he did not want “to be complicit” if Israel were to strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Dempsey’s comments were “strange” and characterized the failure of the United States to take a determined position against Iran’s nuclear drive, a source in Jerusalem was quoted as saying.
The comments “show once again that the US is not demonstrating determination against Iran’s nuclear program,” the source said, according to Israel’s Channel 2 news.
“It is strange that next to the oaths and blood libels of [Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei, the production in Iran [a reference to this week's Non-Aligned Movement summit], and the [latest] IAEA report — which states that Iran is speeding up uranium enrichment under its nose — the American chief of staff decides to talk about [an Israeli strike] rather than giving a determined message to the Iranians,” the source said.
Israeli commentators made much Friday of Dempsey’s use of the word “complicit.” The US army chief could have said he did not want to be Israel’s “partner” or its “ally” in an attack on Iran, noted analyst Oren Nahari on Channel 1 state TV, but instead Dempsey employed a term with criminal connotations.
The ToI expands on the implications of Dempsey’s remarks, explaining that the US attitude is only making Israel more likely, not less, to attack Iran’s nuclear program:
On the same channel, analyst Ari Shavit said that the events of the past week — including the publication of the IAEA report showing Iran expanding its nuclear enrichment program, and Iran’s hosting of the Non-Aligned Movement at which it declared it would continue its nuclear drive — showed that both diplomacy and sanctions have failed, and yet the US was doing nothing to ratchet up pressure on Iran.
Two weeks ago, Shavit noted, Israel’s President Shimon Peres publicly placed his faith in President Obama to thwart Iran’s drive to the bomb. America’s current policy, emblemized by Dempsey’s comments, said Shavit, “constitutes a resounding slap in the office for Peres and those other Israeli moderates who want to place their faith in the US.”
Given the US’s publicly stressed disinclination to act, “Israel is being pushed into a corner, in a way that is really dangerous,” said Shavit. “If all these moderate players, in the US and Europe, are so concerned about a dangerous Israeli action [against Iran], why haven’t they taken any meaningful action?” he asked.
Why, for instance, Shavit went on, did the US not condemn the Non-Aligned Movement gathering in Tehran. And why, asked Shavit, didn’t Obama “respond in his own voice to the IAEA report, which essentially said, ‘Mr Obama, you have failed’?”
The Jerusalem Post takes a milder tone on this issue, and writes that the Israelis are “puzzled” by Dempsey’s words, saying that they don’t represent the White House’s position.
Dempsey further stated that:
The US’s top general – the Guardian reported – said that he could not presume to know Iran’s ultimate intentions in pursuing a nuclear program, as intelligence was inconclusive on that score. It was clear, however, he maintained, that mounting pressure from the American-led “international coalition… could be undone if [Iran] was attacked prematurely.”
For a top military chief, Dempsey appears woefully ill-informed as to Iran’s intentions. The Guardian itself, which quotes his bothersome words, reports that according to the IAEA’s latest quarterly report,
Tehran is increasing its stockpile of potent nuclear material at underground Fordow bunker
has doubled the number of uranium enrichment machines it has in an underground bunker, a UN report said on Thursday, showing Tehran continued to defy western pressure to stop its atomic work.
The Jerusalem Post further reports that
The UN nuclear watchdog will attempt in new talks with Iran on Friday to make progress towards answering questions about suspected atom bomb research in the Islamic state, more than two months after the previous meeting ended in failure.
Barack Obama is fond of insisting that he “has Israel’s back.” Maybe he should mention that to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
In remarks to journalists in London quoted by the Guardian, General Martin Dempsey warned that any Israeli attack on Iran would “clearly delay but probably not destroy Iran’s nuclear programs.” He also said economic sanctions on Iran were having an effect and needed more time to work, but that the good they were doing “could be undone if [Iran] was attacked prematurely.”
And to underscore the firmness of his opposition to an Israeli strike, the Chairman added that “I don’t want to be complicit if they choose to do it.”
We don’t know what exactly Gen. Dempsey thinks American non-complicity might entail in the event of a strike. Should the Administration refuse to resupply Israel with jets and bombs, or condemn an Israeli strike at the U.N.? Nor do we know if the General was conducting freelance diplomacy or sending a signal from an Administration that feels the same way but doesn’t want to say so during a political season.
Whatever the case, the remarks were counterproductive and oddly timed, with this week’s report by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran’s nuclear programs haven’t been slowed in the least by U.S. or international sanctions. In fact, they are accelerating.
Administration officials have also repeatedly told the media that they aren’t entirely sure if Iran really intends to build a bomb. We’ll grant that ultimate intentions are usually unknowable, especially in closed societies such as Iran’s.
Yet as the IAEA noted, “the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” These activities, by the way, “continued after 2003,” according to the report. This puts paid for the umpteenth time the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that misleadingly claimed the contrary.
No wonder the Israelis are upset—at the U.S. Administration. It’s one thing to hear from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that he wants to wipe you off the map: At least it has the ring of honesty. It’s quite another to hear from President Obama that he has your back, even as his Administration tries to sell to the public a make-believe world in which Iran’s nuclear intentions are potentially peaceful, sanctions are working and diplomacy hasn’t failed after three and half years.
The irony for the Administration is that its head-in-the-sand performance is why many Israeli decision-makers believe they had better strike sooner than later.
If Gen. Dempsey or Administration officials really wanted to avert an Israeli strike, they would seek to reassure Jerusalem that the U.S. is under no illusions about the mullahs’ nuclear goals—or about their proximity to achieving them. They’re doing the opposite.
Since coming to office, Obama Administration policy toward Israel has alternated between animus and incompetence. We don’t know what motivated Gen. Dempsey’s outburst, but a President who really had Israel’s back would publicly contradict it.
Is anyone in the American administration listening?