The uniformed leaders of the U.S. military have had a testy relationship with President Barack Obama since he took office in 2009, with a number of relatively public spats revealing discord over how his administration has approached the use of military force. So it might be assumed that when a foreign politician confronts Obama, portraying his policies on threats overseas as naive, many in the senior uniformed ranks would nod in silent affirmation. But that’s not what has happened since House Speaker John Boehner invited Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to attack Obama’s Iran policy in Congress. Instead the speech, planned for next month, has rallied senior military figures behind the president, with some warning that there’s a limit to what U.S. military officers consider acceptable criticism of the commander in chief.
Obama and his generals have clashed privately and publicly since 2009 over his plans to draw down troops and exit from Afghanistan, and a number of respected recently retired top commanders told Congress that what they called the administration’s piecemeal strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria is destined to fail. Some have also publicly recorded misgivings about Obama’s Iran strategy. Still, Netanyahu’s planned speech has prompted a number of senior military men to rally around the office of a president whose policies they regularly, if privately, question.
Serving uniformed officers are loath to comment on an inflammatory political question — “You’re inviting me to end my career,” one senior Pentagon officer told me when asked to comment on Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu, “but, if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not.” But a senior Joint Chiefs of Staff officer who regularly briefs the U.S. high command was willing to speak bluntly in exchange for anonymity. “There’s always been a lot of support for Israel in the military,” the officer said, “but that’s significantly eroded over the last few years. This caps it. It’s one thing for Americans to criticize their president and another entirely for a foreign leader to do it. Netanyahu doesn’t get it. We’re not going to side with him against the commander in chief. Not ever.”
Retired Army Gen. Paul Eaton concurs. He was recently quoted as an avowed friend of Israel in a widely discussed article in the Israeli daily Haaretz. He warned that Netanyahu’s appearance would be “perilous to both countries” but saved his harshest criticism for Boehner, saying, “It is highly inappropriate for the speaker of the House to so publicly meddle in foreign affairs,” he said. “It is a gross breach of protocol to invite a head of state without due coordination with the president.” Eaton was quick to add that, despite the controversy, “Israel will never lose me or the American people as the most loyal of friends.”
But retired U.S. Air Force Col. Richard Klass, an Air Force Academy graduate, isn’t so sure. Writing for War on the Rocks, a website popular with serving officers, Klass called Netanyahu’s scheduled congressional appearance “a new level of chutzpah” and argued that it raised the question of “whether Israel is becoming a strategic liability for America.” Klass pointed out that Netanyahu’s scheduled congressional appearance was specifically timed to derail the Obama administration’s delicate nuclear negotiations with Iran, pointedly describing it as “intrusion” that purposely “undermines U.S. security.” While Klass admits that his argument sparked an outcry from a number of his fellow officers (“several of my War College classmates are upset with the piece” he told me in an email) he staunchly defends his position. “Netanyahu gives new meaning to the term ‘bull in a china shop,’” he said.
Klass isn’t the first military officer to suggest that Israel is becoming more of a liability than an asset. The subject was broached by then–U.S. Central Command (Centcom) Commander Army Gen. David Petraeus in January of 2010, when he told the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Israel’s intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was “jeopardizing U.S. standing” among Arab allies in the Middle East. That observation was part of a briefing to then–Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and he reiterated it two months later before a congressional committee. Petraeus testified that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “foments anti-American sentiment due to the 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 people in the AOR [Centcom’s area of responsibility] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world.”
Petraeus’ comments prompted a firestorm of criticism from pro-Israel quarters in Washington, prompting Petraeus to reassert his support for strong U.S.-Israel ties. Despite these pressures, Petraeus (known for his friendship with pro-Israel Republicans) never backed off the argument he presented about the effect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, his congressional testimony has been reiterated by every officer who has succeeded him as Centcom commander.
One of them was the outspoken Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who quietly maintained communications with Israel’s military attaché based in Washington, D.C., and according to a Mattis colleague, warned the Israeli officer that U.S.-Israeli relations were “trending down.”
“I think there’s been an erosion in the [U.S.-Israel] relationship, no doubt about it,” said retired Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Hoar, a former Centcom commander and a close friend of Mattis’. “I can’t and won’t characterize how current senior military commanders think about the Boehner-Netanyahu dust-up because I just don’t really know, but I can tell you that every Centcom commander since [Gen. Norman] Schwarzkopf has vetoed Israel’s attempts to be a part of that AOR. And I did too. The Israelis would just love to get their nose into our relationship with our Arab allies [Israel is a part of Eucom, the U.S. European Command, but not Centcom], but we just won’t let them. And there’s no doubt — that just drives them nuts.”
Official statements from the Pentagon almost ritually tout the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship and reflect none of the skepticism voiced by Centcom commanders and others over the effect on U.S. interests of Israel’s positions. But there’s widespread concern that by overstepping a line, Netanyahu has weakened the position he seeks to advance.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, a West Point graduate and veteran of two U.S. wars, carefully calibrated his comments to reflect his unease with describing what serving officers think about Israel or Netanyahu. “It’s a really politically freighted question,” he said, “but I can tell you from my own experience that Mr. Netanyahu is way out of his lane. And you can be sure there isn’t a military officer in uniform who would get involved in this issue. It’s not just that Netanyahu is showing disrespect for Mr. Obama. It’s that he’s disrespecting U.S. institutions. He’s thumbing his nose at our way of doing things. Even for those out of uniform, this is a mistake. It’s one thing to show disrespect for President Obama — that happens all the time — but it’s another thing to show disrespect for America. That just can’t be tolerated.”
Gard’s comments suggest that Netanyahu’s planned speech has reignited questions among a significant number of officers over how the U.S.-Israel relationship is played out in Washington. According to one senior U.S. Army officer, for those in uniform — “from [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin] Dempsey on down” — enlisting Netanyahu to intervene in the making of U.S. policy is not simply “inappropriate” or “meddlesome” but might even violate U.S. law. “Take a look at the Logan Act,” the officer said in a telephone conversation earlier this week. “It says that it’s a violation of U.S. law for an American citizen to work with a foreign official to purposely undermine U.S. policy.”
That 1799 legislation makes it a crime when “any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States.”
For Hoar, however, the furor suggests that Netanyahu’s planned speech has backfired. “I think that Mr. Netanyahu is making a mistake, but that’s just my personal opinion. You’ll note that his decision to speak before the Congress was meant to highlight his view that the U.S. should impose more sanctions on Iran. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Israel has become the issue, not Iran. Is that really what he intended? So his strategy to bring us together is actually pulling us apart. It’s unbelievable.”