April 8, 2010 | National Review Online

Petraeus’s Israel Problem

Max Boot is a good historian. On Islam, I often disagree with him, finding in his work the wishful thinking common among Islamic Democracy Project enthusiasts. Still, he is thoughtful and civil, so one always expects to learn something from reading him. It was therefore jarring to read his smug attempt to drum Diana West out of the conservative movement. Boot seems to see himself as William F. Buckley Jr. and West as the John Birch Society. If you’re going to play that game, you’d better be right. Boot is dead wrong.

Boot’s attack on West is an effort to defend a surpassingly foolish statement in which Gen. David Petraeus cast Israel as the source of all America’s woes in the Middle East. To his great discredit, the general — in a Clintonesque fashion which, as we shall see, is probably not a coincidence — simultaneously denied making the statement, grudgingly admitted making it while minimizing its significance, and accused West and others of misrepresenting his views. In fact, the general’s critics quoted his words at length, placed them in unmistakable context, and drew from them the same commonsense conclusion drawn by Israel’s gleeful critics — for whom Petraeus is the hero of the moment.

As head of Central Command, General Petraeus’s area of responsibility includes Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. That is, CENTCOM is the U.S. military’s bridge to the Muslim umma, much of which despises America. The vast majority of Americans couldn’t care less about that. It is Islam’s problem, not ours — we’re not dying to be loved by a dysfunctional civilization that produces most of the planet’s terrorists. But for the Wilsonians who deem it worth our time, money, and lives to try to remake the Islamic world, Muslim animus is something that must be addressed — otherwise, they’d have to concede that there is nothing we can do about it, that Muslims resent more than appreciate our help, and that their grand project is thus a fool’s errand.

We need, they tell us, to exhibit a little sympathy. We need to be more understanding of the totalitarian, iniquitous, misogynistic, homophobic, virulently anti-Western and anti-Semitic culture that dominates Muslim countries. We need to project the image of an “honest broker” in the impasse between our stalwart ally Israel and an Islamic world bent on Israel’s elimination as a Jewish state. We need to “live our values,” a favorite slogan of both top Obama officials and General Petraeus. These always turn out to be transnational-progressive values. Under them, our justice is blind: We must make no distinction between (a) a Western-style democracy that permits Muslims to live in dignity as citizens within its borders and (b) incorrigibles who make no secret of desiring that democracy’s annihilation and who consider mass murder to be legitimate resistance.

General Petraeus is a uniquely gifted warrior and intellect. He is also a major enthusiast of the Islamic Democracy Project. As Mark Bowden’s revealing profile in Vanity Fair recounts, the general’s embrace of nation-building put him at odds with the Bush administration, which initially was resistant to the concept of a long-term civil-society project in Iraq. And that’s what Petraeus’s counter-insurgency theory is: a civil-society strategy for an America that no longer believes we have to defeat our enemies first, that pretends most of our enemies are actually our friends, and that thinks we not only owe the world another Marshall Plan but one that starts in 1944 instead of 1947. Bowden notes that Petraeus “called for more reconstruction projects, more cultural sensitivity, and more partnership with the State Department and other civilian agencies.” In his approach, Islam is not a daunting challenge to us but a valuable asset. The State Department with which he anxiously partners is the institution of government foremost dedicated to the view that we must be absolute neutrals in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. No material distinction is to be drawn between one side’s construction of housing and the other’s suicide bombings.

Boot is an unabashed admirer of Petraeus. That’s understandable. Petraeus is an extraordinary man. One ought to be able to acknowledge this welcome fact even in respectful disagreement. Boot is also correct that some of the heated rhetoric directed the general’s way by Petraeus’s critics on the right is disquieting. I share that frustration and sympathize with the bottom-line concerns of these critics. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we are building sharia states hostile to American interests. Elsewhere, we are promoting Islamists as if they were moderates and allies. And the rules of engagement under which Petraeus’s brand of counterinsurgency compels our troops to operate leave them unduly vulnerable. Still, there has to be a way for those of us who revere our military to express dissent without forgetting the patriotism and bravery of those commanders with whom we disagree.

Similarly, there has to be space on the right for good-faith dissent — it cannot be “our commanders, right or wrong.” Some months back, I had occasion to deride what I continue to believe is the wayward Afghanistan strategy of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, formulated under the guidance of his superior, Petraeus. I tried to do it firmly but respectfully (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). It wasn’t always taken that way. It is distasteful to criticize those we admire. This is life and death, however. When our commanders are wrong, it is crucial that we say so rather than make excuses for them. On Israel, Petraeus is wrong and Boot, who knows better, is making excuses for him.

In January, after canvassing opinion from Muslim governments in his area of responsibility, Petraeus sent a team of CENTCOM officials to brief the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As reported by Mark Perry of Foreign Policy, the purpose of that briefing was to underline Petraeus’s “growing worries at the lack of progress in resolving” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The general was doing politics, not combat strategy — and we don’t owe him any deference on politics. In a 33-slide, 45-minute PowerPoint presentation, Petraeus’s briefers reported, among other things, “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, [and] that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region.”

The general repeated this political theme in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 16. Specifically, he averred in a written statement (p. 12) that the

    enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to advance our interest 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 Hizbollah and Hamas.

The upshot of this could not be clearer: Petraeus is echoing the narrative peddled incessantly by leftists in the government he serves and by Islamists in the countries where he works. According to that narrative, Israel’s plight is not a struggle for survival against immovable foes spurred by an Islamist ideology that must be discredited and defeated. To the contrary, this view holds, it is the result of a mere political conflict. It could be resolved, so the theory goes, if only Israel weren’t so intransigent — i.e., if it would just stop taking so seriously its need to secure its citizens against enemies pledged to its destruction. Israel’s stubbornness (which is to say, its insistence on existing as a Jewish state in what Muslims regard as Islamic land) creates tensions that “flare into violence” (Palestinian terrorist attacks undertaken with the approval and encouragement of the region’s most influential Islamic authorities).

Boot is appalled that anyone could suggest Petraeus is anti-Israel. That misses the point. In the world according to Petraeus, there is no “anti-” or “pro-.” It is not for us to judge who is right and who is wrong. This is the age of Obama, and we’re all pragmatic neutrals now. We don’t do the “values” thing . . . unless, of course, we’re talking about closing Gitmo, holding civilian trials for war criminals, or reinstating a Chávez clone in Honduras. Sure, we’ll have to tip the scales toward the Palestinians, but perish the thought that this makes us “anti-Israel.” No, we are just honest brokers trying to correct the flawed “perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel.” After all, it is not Islamist ideology that fuels al-Qaeda recruitment, increases Iranian influence, and harms “moderate” Islamic regimes. It is the notion that we might actually prefer Israelis over Islamists. Obviously, that notion must be treated as a mistaken perception to be corrected, not a principle to be defended.

As night follows day, Islamist sympathizers leapt on a statement from CENTCOM’s commander that Israel causes America’s problems. Stephen Walt, the Kennedy School’s reliable Israel-basher (and, many years ago, Petraeus’s faculty adviser at Princeton), quoted the general’s testimony to bolster Walt’s argument that Israel’s policies threaten American security and interests. Rami Khouri, a renowned Palestinian-American progressive who blames Ariel Sharon for the existence of Hamas and Hezbollah, could barely contain his delight that Petraeus had “openly criticized Israel.” “The top military leadership speaking out in public with such clarity,” he proclaimed in Middle East Online, “is about as serious as it gets in terms of credible criticisms in Washington.” His views were amplified elsewhere: “By now General David Petraeus’s warning that U.S. policy with Israel is negatively affecting the Middle East has spread far and wide,” wrote James Gundun in the Palestinian Chronicle. “Petraeus believed that Israel hadn’t gotten the message yet and so lit a fire under the White House, hoping it too would learn a lesson.” In the Jordan Times, Hassa A. Barari celebrated Petraeus for “stating the obvious,” and expressed his hope that Petraeus’s prestige would give President Obama the cover he “needs to step up his diplomatic pressure on Tel Aviv in a way that can raise the cost of [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s obstructionist policies.” For Uri Avnery, an Israeli leftist and founder of Gush Shalom, a self-described “peace movement,” such testimony by a man of Petraeus’s stature signals that “the U.S. must give up its one-sided support for the Israeli government and impose the two-state solution.”

The same commonsense conclusion inferred by those who merely read what Petraeus said was reached by those who dealt directly with him — and not just at the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mark Bowden, who was given extensive access to Petraeus, and marveled at how accommodating and anxious to explain himself the general was, writes that Petraeus

    has brought an expansive vision to his new job, . . . pushing the Obama administration to rethink its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the broader context of the region. He relies on the cooperation of Arab nations, and so must cope with their unhappiness over America’s inability to make progress in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. It is such a direct problem for Petraeus that he requested in January that the Palestinian territories be added to his command portfolio — they currently reside with EuCom (the European Command). The request was denied, but the general’s thinking has begun to influence the Obama administration’s approach to the issue.

It was all very straightforward. But then, thanks principally to West, the general’s statements began to attract wider attention in a country that — regardless of the current administration’s sentiments — remains strongly pro-Israel and anti-Islamist. At that point, Petraeus’s response was to weasel.

First, he tried to suggest that he hadn’t really made the offending statements to the Armed Services Committee, because they were only in a written “posture statement,” not found in his oral presentation. Although Boot repeats this astounding claim, it doesn’t pass the laugh test. Put aside that the written statements reflect precisely what insiders describe as Petraeus’s views. As West points out, the written “posture statement” is actually entitled “STATEMENT OF GENERAL DAVID H. PETRAEUS . . . BEFORE THE SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE ON THE POSTURE OF U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND” (capitals in original). Until controversy attended it, the general apparently was happy to profess it as his personal statement. Moreover, anyone who has ever testified before Congress knows the drill: The witness submits extensive written testimony, but, because hearing time is short, gives only a short oral statement before taking questions. It is understood that the written submission supplements the oral. This is also the way it works in every courtroom in America: Direct oral testimony is generally succinct, but the opposing side has access to the witness’s written statements; they are deemed proper fodder for cross-examination because they represent his views.

When not distancing himself from his own words, Petraeus tried the usual contradictory devices of grudgingly admitting but minimizing his remarks, blaming others for them, and misrepresenting what they meant. So he groused that one little paragraph had been mined from a 56-page report, as if paragraphs submitted by government officials in congressional hearings were trifles. In fact, that paragraph in question — repeating the sentiments Petraeus had thought worthy of an elaborate PowerPoint presentation to the Joint Chiefs — was plainly significant. It came early in his posture statement, the very first of eleven “Cross-Cutting Challenges to Security and Stability” the general wanted Congress to know about. If you’re keeping score, “insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace” (translation: Israeli intransigence) was given priority in this list, ahead of militant Islamist movements, proliferation of WMD, terrorist financing and facilitation, and several other categories of challenge, each of which also got only one paragraph — and it’s doubtful Petraeus would describe any of those as trifles.

Petraeus also invoked the tired claim that “bloggers” (you know how crazy they are) had taken him “out of context” and “spun” his words — as if journalists were obliged to write 56-page articles whenever an influential public official tucks a crucial policy signal into a 56-page statement. That’s nonsense. In the law, we apply the “rule of completeness” to fact-finding exercises. If a party claims that the witness’s statement has been misrepresented by being ripped from its original context, all he needs to do is present for the court’s consideration those parts of the context that are necessary to an accurate understanding of what he said. The general hasn’t done that here, nor could he — his commentary about Israel was quoted at length, not a couple of words here and there. In addition, those nettlesome bloggers made the full testimony readily available to anyone who cared to read it.

And speaking of spin, Petraeus is not encouraging further perusal of his actual words, because that would undermine his revisionist gloss on the testimony. He is now claiming he never meant to suggest that he thinks Israel is intransigent. He was merely relating the “perception” of Israel’s intransigence and of America’s pro-Israel bias. He was merely making the detached observation that this “perception” makes life difficult for the United States in the region. He didn’t mean to imply that the Muslim regimes are right or that the United States should exhibit a more even-handed approach by pressuring Israel to accommodate Palestinian demands. How could anyone think such a thing?

Well, maybe because it’s true. Maybe because the general framed this “cross-cutting challenge” as “insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace.” Petraeus is not a disinterested raconteur, nor was he pretending to be one. His purpose was not simply to relate facts dispassionately so that political officials could decide what to make of them. He was there to urge a political point of view: the need for “progress.”

Moreover, he claimed the lack of progress was a principal “root cause” of regional instability. That was a telling choice of words. Nowhere in Petraeus’s 56-page statement did he discuss Islamist ideology. Nowhere did he relate the fact that calls for Israel’s destruction, based on scriptural interpretations by Islam’s most influential authorities, are entirely mainstream in his “area of responsibility.” That, somehow, is not a “root cause” of instability; when it comes to Israel, only the “insufficient progress” toward “peace” and the “perception” of American favoritism make the “root cause” list.

Boot’s contention that Petraeus’s double-speak debunked claims by West and others that he is championing the Islamist worldview is risible. Yet Petraeus was quick to cite it at a recent press conference, and admirers anxious to give the general the benefit of the doubt (as if the facts allow for doubt) were equally quick to pronounce the incident over. At The Weekly Standard’s blog, for instance, readers were encouraged to watch a clip from the presser at which the general purportedly “set the record straight.” The clip is very much worth watching. It includes a statement by Petraeus that Boot and others have conveniently ignored:

    Secretary Clinton’s statement the other day very clearly — I thought articulately, strongly, clearly conveyed, obviously, our policy. And that is a policy I strongly support.

Petraeus, it seems, has found a new friend and kindred spirit: the former senator who, in the darkest hours of crisis in Iraq, publicly branded him a liar. Bowden explains:

    The senator who complained that the general’s testimony defied belief, Hillary Clinton, invited Petraeus to her Washington home shortly before being sworn in as secretary of state. The two of them sat before her fireplace and over drinks tacitly agreed to forget past differences and return their relationship to one of mutual admiration.

Well, well, well . . . bygones certainly have become bygones. The very clear, articulate, strong Clinton statement that got Petraeus swooning came in her speech at the recent AIPAC convention. It was a more congenial version of her 43-minute excoriation of Netanyahu for Israel’s construction of apartments in a densely populated Jewish neighborhood in north Jerusalem (i.e., in Israel’s capital). Nothing, Clinton opined at AIPAC, is more important than the utopian vision of “two states for two peoples.” No need to dwell on Islamist ideology or the fact that one of the “two peoples” denies the other’s basic right to exist. Instead, what we really need is “mutual trust” — after all, why wouldn’t you trust people for whom your annihilation is their fondest wish?

One of the better things written about the Obama administration’s recklessly naïve policy toward Israel — the policy Petraeus, while “setting the record straight,” said he “strongly supports” — was an essay in the Los Angeles Times headlined “No Way to Treat a Friend.” It slammed Secretary Clinton for “chewing out” Netanyahu. It skillfully deconstructed the administration’s absurd premises that, as the author put it, “Israeli settlements are the primary obstacle to peace and that an Israeli-Palestinian accord is necessary to defeat the broader terrorist movement.”

It was written by Max Boot.

– Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and the author of Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad (Encounter Books, 2008).