Good or Bad for America?

Washington, DC - March 18, 2016 at the National Press Club

"America is a thing that you can move very easily..." Binyamin Netanyahu, 2001

Israeli Influence on U.S. Foreign Policy

By Col. Lawrence Wilkerson

Moderator Dale Sprusansky: Our next panel is on “Israel’s Influence on U.S. Foreign Policy.” We have three great speakers lined up today. I’m going to keep the intro short, since we’re a little late, but basically Col. Lawrence Wilkerson will begin by speaking about what Israel’s influence is on U.S. foreign policy and that impact. Jim Lobe will be discussing some of the people, particularly the neocons, who push pro-Israel policy. And finally, Justin Raimondo has the delight of looking at how our elections and politicians are impacted by such beliefs.

So, our first speaker will be Col. Lawrence Wilkerson. He’s probably best known for serving as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff from 2002 to 2005. Before that, he served as associate director of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff under Ambassador Richard Haass. Before his time with the State Department, he had 31 years of service in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a faculty member at the U.S. Naval War College and deputy director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College in Quantico, and he retired in 1997 as a colonel. He’s currently working on a book about the George W. Bush administration, which he worked in, and he’s also a distinguished visiting professor of government and public policy at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg.

Lawrence Wilkerson: Thank you, and thank you all for coming out today. Since I’m limited in time, I want to get started right away.

Ever since 1948, Israel has been a foreign and security policy problem. That Israel was a problem—a rather large one as a matter of fact, in ’47 and ’48 even—was most recently pointed out to me by one of my truly brilliant students. In fact, in a decade of teaching at both the George Washington University Honors Program and William & Mary, and six years at two of the nation’s war colleges, I’ve rarely had better papers than the one he submitted. At the end of our semester on fateful decision-making—now, fateful decision-making is what I teach in this seminar—and as the ancient Greek said, it’s when old men send young men, and now women, to die for state purposes—and something we often forget—to kill others for state purposes. He shall go unnamed, the student paper writer, but not unheralded by me, at least. I will say, too, that he had the additional characteristic, if you will, of being a Jewish American, which recalls to mind for me immediately a most unnerving moment as I had just begun my new career in 2001 as an erstwhile diplomat. I just entered the inner sanctum of a man who would prove to be very powerful at State over the next four years. He had only recently discovered that I had chosen to work for Richard Haass, in his capacity as State’s director of policy planning, rather than staying directly under my old mentor, the new Secretary of State Colin Powell. “Why,” he asked, “did you like to work for that self-loathing Jew?” Recovering from mild shock, I looked him straight in the eye and replied, “I’ll forget I heard that.” I turned and evacuated his inner sanctum while he harrumphed to my rear.
I recall this little anecdote because it reveals what many use as a riposting device against any Jewish American who, through critical thinking, questions from time to time the policies of the modern state of Israel and the U.S. relationship with that state. Its complement, of course, for gentiles like me is anti-Semite. I have no doubt were someone such as Alan Dershowitz, from whom I have heard, for example, to read my student’s paper, the response “self-loathing Jew” would not be far from his lips.

In 1948, I would submit, there’s no explicit such challenge for Jewish Americans or for any other American for that matter. The ingrained and highly partisan nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship and the neoconservative adoption of it in particular—Jim, my hat off to you, he’ll talk more about that—had not yet come about. What my student rehearsed in the opening to his paper were the profound objections of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff of the iconic hero of World War II—after all, Harry Truman in a moment of apoplexy has essentially said, he won the war, he won the war; he couldn’t think of anything more to say about this man George Marshall, who was now secretary of state—and others who objected to what Harry Truman was about to do with regard to the State of Israel.
My student summed these objections that the Joint Chiefs had penned as the vehement Arab opposition to a Jewish state, the threats such opposition presented to the key oil imports from neighboring Arab countries, and then my student quoted the Joint Chiefs verbatim: “The decision to partition Palestine, that the decision were supported by the United States, would prejudice United States strategic interests in the Near and Middle East to the point that United States influence in the area would be”—and here come the words—“curtailed to that which could be maintained by military force.” Is that prescience, or is that prescience?
Harry Truman, on the other hand, as my student pointed out, summed up the case for, if you will, thusly. “I’m sorry, gentlemen,” the president said, “but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism. I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”
Marshall, in a tale that is not apocryphal, when Truman did decide that he was going to essentially recognize the state that had stood up, Israel, threatened not to vote for the president if he did. Coming from a man like Marshall, who as a military professional never voted in his life, this was almost stunning for Truman to hear. Of course, he went ahead, and so we began our relationship.
There were to be sure more counterarguments in the president’s re-elections, as my student also pointed out in his excellent paper: the horrors of Holocaust, the plight of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees, and the need to make up for the wrongs committed against the Jewish people, all spoke for recognition by Truman. My student continued, also in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British promised the Jewish people a homeland in Palestine. And in the eyes of many Americans after World War II, it was up to the U.S. to give that home to them, and Harry S. Truman did just that.

Today, we can look back on a line of post-World War II presidents who tried to deal with the challenges and more that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had so presciently laid out. And to be honest, and as many of you in this audience probably are well aware of, the Joint Chiefs were not breaking new ground. Ever since World War I and Louis Brandeis’ influence on Woodrow Wilson and his foremost adviser, Edward House, the U.S. State Department’s position on the potential for a Jewish state in Palestine had been quite clear. It opposed the Zionist movement because it was a minority group interfering in United States foreign affairs. Again, talk about prescience and there we have it—prescience par excellence.

Even so, could State at that time have envisioned the power of AIPAC today, particularly after Bill Clinton decided in 1995, as I recall, to make presidential appearances there de rigueur? I love that French phrase. I looked it up in Merriam Webster to see what English definitions were given to it. The second one was this: “necessary if you want to be popular.” Oh, Bill, the things you did for popularity’s sake.

But despite these heavily adverse conditions, most U.S. presidents managed a rather precarious balance, whether it’s in the beginning—it was Eisenhower in ’56, as we’ve heard before, telling the Israelis, British and French to get their invading military forces out of the Suez Canal area. Or it was Ronald Reagan in mid- to late 1980s, selling AWACS aircraft to the Saudis. Or George H.W. Bush insisting on real and serious work on the Middle East peace process following the first Gulf war in 1991, in which the U.S. had gained quite a bit of new leverage applicable to that process of survival and potential success. And you all know probably, too, there are some critics who’ve written quite eloquently in my view that George H.W. Bush lost the election in ’92 because of his vehement opposition to Israeli settlements. And then came George W. Bush, Dick ­Cheney and a presidency captured by the neoconservatives of which I was a part.

In a flash, Israel became publicly a strategic ally. Its Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in every Arab eye dripping blood all over Oval Office carpet, blood from Israel’s invasion and occupation of Lebanon in 1982 and ’83. I might add, an invasion we had to haul their asses out of, and ultimately at the cost of the greatest single-day casualty of Marines since Tarawa in World War II. This man, Ariel Sharon, became, in President Bush’s own words, “a man of peace.”
And all the fears of the 1948 Joint Chiefs of Staff loomed so largely in the rearview mirror of history that some of us in the U.S. government sucked in our collective breaths and found it hard to exhale thereafter. But, of course, we did, and ever since people just like us have been trying—clearly to little avail, with some brilliant exceptions, of which the Iran nuclear agreement is the most exceptional and recent—to restore that precarious balance maintained since World War II by all of the presidents.

And so, today, where are we in this relationship so fraught with danger—and, as has been pointed out, danger to both parties, to Israel and the United States? Today, how does U.S. policy toward Israel impact our overall foreign and security policy in adverse or positive ways?

To start, we have the unguarded words of Gen. David Petraeus to illuminate our inquiries, before he was himself subjected to the ritual of head-bashing that accompany such remarks. In a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March of 2010, Petraeus said quite straightforwardly that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict foments anti-American sentiment in the region due to a perception of U.S. favoritism toward Israel, and it makes military operations that much more difficult. These remarks came amidst a U.S.-Israeli dispute over housing units, 1,600 of them, in Jerusalem—illegal under international law, in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and destabilizing to the max. I can tell you that in the military councils, of which I’ve been part over three decades plus, this sentiment was often voiced, and at times in far more dramatic terms.

When my old mentor and boss, Colin Powell, and I used to talk about the issues here, we rarely if ever complimented Israel on its additions to U.S. security posture in the region—quite the opposite, as a matter of fact. Although today I suspect he would deny such conversations, and frankly I wouldn’t blame him, it would prove my point.
But there’s more, there’s concrete evidence of Israel detracting from U.S. security and of being a strategic liability rather than an asset. Where is, after all, U.S. hard power in southwest Asia, in Africa, and the Persian Gulf today? First, it isn’t in Israel—nor could it be, unless the world was at war and all bets were off. I’ll come to that scenario in a minute.

Under any other conceivable scenario, the U.S. will never land meaningful military forces on the unsinkable Middle East aircraft carrier of Israel. That’s a phrase used by some of my neoconservative colleagues. Every instance of the use of force by the U.S. in the region to date has proven that reality beyond a shadow of a doubt.
So where, exactly, is the hard power? It’s in Qatar, it’s in Bahrain, it’s in Saudi Arabia, it’s in Kuwait, Oman, Egypt, Djibouti and a host of other lesser places. The largest U.S. Air Force complex on earth, for example, by some measures, is in Qatar. The most powerful fleet headquarters in the U.S. arsenal, The Fifth, is in Bahrain. The land-based aircraft carrier, if there is one, is Kuwait, not Israel, as both Gulf wars have proven. As a matter of fact, my comment during the first Gulf war, when we landed over half a million U.S. soldiers and all the supplies that went with them, was, “My God, another Marine, another soldier, we’ll sink Kuwait.”
In fact, in all my years in the military and beyond, I’ve never heard a serious suggestion of using Israel to help defend U.S. interests in the region. Instead, what I have heard many times is advice and decision-making to stay totally away from such use.

Moreover, each one of those genuine hard-power interests that I just enumerated is threatened, as General Petraeus pointed out indirectly, by the U.S. unbalanced role as Israel’s lawyer and unquestioning great power supporter. In fact, examining the single strategic scenario in which use of Israel might be a viable option is so grim as to be self-defeating in conception as well as execution. God forbid.
Imagine, if you will, a general war in southwest Asia, with Turks fighting Russians, allied with Greeks; Iranians and Hezbollah, fighting Saudi proxies; Iraqis plunged into sectarian warfare, while the Kurds try desperately to survive; ISIS spread from Kabul through Aleppo, through Tripoli, and perhaps beyond; and the U.S. deciding to do more than provide special operating forces and air power. Imagine, in other words, the beginnings of a region-wide and then possibly global conflict.
Imagine, too, the only ally the U.S. will have in this is Israel—an Israel about to be overwhelmed itself, in all likelihood. People would be choosing sides. Jordan and Egypt would choose sides, as will 350 million to 400 million others. So, the U.S. lands major military forces on the unsinkable aircraft carrier Israel. This is, of course, after we mobilized fully, conscript at a minimum two million men and women, spend a year training them, and then enter the fray—inconceivable? I hope so.

Another major and overwhelming negative influence that I saw up close and personal, besides these hard power facts, was every time Rich Armitage, the deputy secretary of state at the time, took us through the budget drill. It’s been highlighted here earlier, but I want to highlight it for you in even more graphic terms. We would go into the room with all the assistant secretaries, undersecretaries, office heads, directors and so forth, assembled to battle the budget. And mind you, it’s really kind of an anemic battle, because the Defense Department was getting around $600 billion and we were getting around $30 billion. Donald Rumsfeld said he lost more money in a year than we got. He was right.
But we would go in there, and we would look at the money for U.S. foreign affairs. Yes, U.S. foreign affairs. We would take out immediately $3-plus billion for Israel and $3-plus billion for Egypt to bribe them to keep the peace treaty with Israel, and then we would look at the rest. We’d then factor out international military education and training, and those other things that are just more or less fixed, and we’d say, wow, we’ve got less than a billion dollars left for the entire foreign policy of the United States of America. Now do you understand a little bit why diplomacy is not really an instrument we reach for very often?

And I’m not refraining either from pointing out possibly more insidious factors that demonstrate to me rather conclusively that Israel is an untenable ally, or that when Israel—you’ve got Israeli arms merchants often selling arms to our most likely enemies, UAVs to Russia here lately, when the UAVs were a problem for Russia—they’re no longer a problem—or that when Israel breaks U.S. law and does things that we don’t do anything but démarche them from.
These are other aspects of a relationship that I’ve been very close to that have been disturbing, but mostly have enlightened me as to what it means to have this ally.

Now, let me conclude with the recognition of reality. First, President Obama, as I earlier intimated, with the JCPOA has regained a little ground, but at considerable cost—not least of which is an even more robust military-to-military relationship, intelligence relationship and, as has been highlighted here, an increase in funding maybe to $5 billion. If Israel went away tomorrow, if all the previous military-diplomatic advice had been followed and if we’d not assisted Perfidious Albion in setting up an experiment that would result in ethnic cleansing akin to our own Indian Wars in the heart of Palestine—even if we had not then managed to unbalance majorly our own approach to the precarious dance required to manage such a concoction, even if all had gone swimmingly since 1948 with regard to Israel, the region in question, southwest Asia—or the Middle East, call it what you will—would still be a boiling cauldron of instability, chaos and wreckage.
In short, were there no state of Israel at all, the region will still be a mess, or settle the Israeli-Palestinian challenge tomorrow with a decent two-state solution that worked and the same would adhere—the region would remain in turmoil. But the United States would not be painted with the broad brush of favoritism and prejudiced policy that it is every day, 24/7, impacting its security and foreign policy. Now, it must be acknowledged as well that part of this reality of a volatile region is our fault, too, because we have coddled, supported, funded, advised and used tyrant after tyrant to fulfill our wishes, whether it was the Shah of Iran for 26 years, the king in Riyadh, the emir in Qatar or whomever—how many dictators have we accommodated, or worse?

The region’s calamities have many causes—a majority religion that has seen no reformation to haul it kicking and screaming into modernity, tyrants who have sucked its people’s blood dry, and, as I said, the distinct lack of entrepreneurial talent or desire nourished by dependency on black gold—interestingly, one of the most entrepreneurial people in the region are the Palestinians—a surfeit of strategic water ways and the adjacent land masses begging to be contested, tribal instincts of the very worse sort, not to mention the legacy of English missteps, misdemeanors, crimes, artificial border drawings and double dealings that all by themselves would damn any people to purgatory at best, and to hell at worse.
But that is no reason for the United States of America to so tie its foreign and security policy to a tiny enclave in the midst of chaos that, when the enclave goes, the master might be sucked into the morass that results, and for no positive purpose of power whatsoever.

Does the unbiased policy of the U.S. toward this enclave jeopardize U.S. national security interest? You bet it does, big time. All we should ask, all I’m asking, all I asked for four years in the State Department, is that the American people be told the unvarnished truth and then decide if they’re willing to do it. Do they want their foreign and security policy based on sound principles of power management, or do they want it based on passions, ideology and unbridled favoritism? Now, I’m not quite certain what their answer is going to be, but I’m dead certain we need to give them the essential facts and then ask the question. Thank you. [Applause]

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