The theory of "linkage" -- which argues that the U.S.-Israeli relationship in light of Israeli behavior costs American lives on Middle Eastern battlefields -- is perfectly named for our age of cyber punditry. Those red-lined bits of prose littered throughout blog posts and news articles act as brightly furnished stamps of authority substantiating any put forth thesis, however absurd or ill-conceived or unfalsifiable. For certain lazy minds linking is a fair substitute for original thought, an encoded ditto, where writing out what one means to say might actually compromise the writer's belief in it.
A week or so ago, Mark Perry, a former aide to Yasser Arafat and now the author of a book called Talking to Terrorists, of which idea he's very fond, published at a blog post at Foreign Policy magazine in which he made two big disclosures. The first was that Gen. David Petraeus had advocated inclusion of Gaza and the West Bank into U.S. Central Command's zone of operations (those territories are currently within the European Command's). The second was that Petraeus suggested that Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories was affecting the standing of the United States in the Middle East and making it harder for the United States to fight wars there. Petraeus had dispatched a CENTCOM briefing team to the White House which duly
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 [U.S. Mideast envoy George] Mitchell himself was (as a senior Pentagon officer later bluntly described it) "too old, too slow ... and too late."
Perry later corrected himself; the briefers were only sent to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, said to be "stunned" by the idea of incorporating Gaza and West Bank into the U.S. military purview. Other corrections--deemed insignificant details by Perry--followed.
Nevertheless, this story made the rounds with the usual suspects of Israel critics, though not nearly so much as when the contents of Central Command's report to the Senate Armed Services Committee was published in the aftermath of a very well ventilated spat over Vice President Biden's visit to Israel coinciding with an announced east Jerusalem housing project. Within a document that ran the length of 56 pages there appeared the following:
The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [CentCom's area of operation, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as much of the Middle East]. 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-Qaida 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.
Suddenly, "linkage" was confirmed by a top American military figure and one not typically associated with progressive politics, making it all the more credible according to the "evidence against interest" axiom of weighing the merit of an argument. And these words were attributed to Petraeus himself in his testimony before the Armed Services Committee.
You'll note that nowhere in the above excerpt is it alleged that U.S. lives were being lost or imperiled at the expense of Washington's special relationship with Jerusalem, a relationship that has flagged noticeably during the Obama administration's repeated chivvying of Benjamin Netanyahu and his repeated inability to make sense of what's gone wrong. No matter. This idea fixe of Israel causing dead Americans gained traction in certain leftist and anti-Zionist quarters of blogland. Philip Weiss (who dreams of "Zionists" accosting him on Manhattan subway platforms), John Mearsheimer (co-author of the "Israel Lobby" thesis, which credits Ariel Sharon as the decisive factor in the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq), Robert Wright (a New York Times commentator who thinks jihadism is enabled by fighting jihadism), and other, more credible sources helped circulate it.
Max Boot twice went to the trouble
of examining Petraeus' very public thoughts on military strategy and the broader U.S. involvement in the Middle East, but to no avail.
Now comes Petraeus' direct response, well caught
by Philip Klein of The American Spectator
, during a speech the general gave at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. Here is Klein:
To start with, Petraeus said he never requested to have the West Bank and Gaza added to his responsibilities as leader of the military’s Central Command. He said that “every year or so” commanders submit a plan that takes a geographic look at their areas of responsibility, and then there’s discussion about whether it would make sense to redraw the boundaries. For instance, he said, last time Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti were shifted to the Africa Command.
“Typically, there’s a question of should we ask to have Israel and Palestinian territories included, because what goes on there is obviously of enormous interest to the rest of the Central Command area, which is the bulk of the Arab world,” Petraeus said. However, he emphasized that it was “flat wrong” to claim he actually requested responsibility for the areas.
He said the report was “based on ‘bad gouges,’ as a sailor would say -- bad information.”
He also refuted the claim that he had sent a request to the White House, saying he “very rarely” sends things to the President, and only does so if he’s specifically asked.
In addition, he explained that the quote that bloggers attributed to his Senate testimony was actually plucked out of context from a report that Central Command had sent the Armed Services committee.
“There’s a 56-page document that we submitted that has a statement in it that describes various factors that influence the strategic context in which we operate and among those we listed the Mideast peace process,” he said. “We noted in there that there was a perception at times that America sides with Israel and so forth. And I mean, that is a perception. It is there. I don’t think that’s disputable. But I think people inferred from what that said and then repeated it a couple of times and bloggers picked it up and spun it. And I think that has been unhelpful, frankly.”
He also noted that there were plenty of other important factors that were mentioned in the report, including “a whole bunch of extremist organizations, some of which by the way deny Israel’s right to exist. There’s a country that has a nuclear program who denies that the Holocaust took place.”
Petraeus continued, “So we have all the factors in there, but this is just one, and it was pulled out of this 56-page document, which was not what I read to the Senate at all.”
The italics are mine, but the point is unmissable: Petraeus never "said" the widely distributed paragraph at all, but rather it appeared in a report CENTCOM handed to the Armed Services Committee. To expand on these direct comments, there is the content of that report itself, which does indeed carry a section entitled "U.S. Interests and the Most Significant Threats to Them." The interests are these:
•the security of U.S. citizens and the U.S. homeland;
•international access to strategic resources, critical infrastructure, and markets; and
•the promotion of human rights, the rule of law, responsible and effective
governance, and broad-based economic growth and opportunity.
The most significant threats to them are these:
•Instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan
•Iran’s Destabilizing Activities and Policies
•Situation in Iraq
•Instability in Yemen
The only section in which Israel is mentioned is titled "Cross-cutting Challenges to Security and Stability," which ranges in significance from nuclear weapons to the absence of the modern infrastructure for globalization:
•Insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace [the excerpt reproduced and propagated]
•Militant Islamist movements
•Proliferation of WMD
•Ungoverned, poorly governed, and alternatively governed spaces
•Significant sources of terrorist financing and facilitation
•Ethnic, tribal, and sectarian rivalries
•Disputed territories and access to vital resources
•Criminal activities, such as weapons, narcotics, and human trafficking
•Uneven economic development and lack of employment opportunities
•Lack of regional and global economic integration
Petraeus also told Klein that bloggers had dangerously "spun" his Armed Services Committee testimony and, by way of offering apology for the misunderstanding to General Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, was compelled to forwarded Max Boot's original “astute” analysis of the whole affair.
When a right-wing ultra-Orthodox party commissions 1,600 apartment units in east Jerusalem, it's called a binational "crisis." What's it called when a senior American military commander is forced to clarify his strategy for the Middle East to counterpart in a valued ally nation and all because a collection of ideologically motivated bloggers have trouble reading?