The General, the Journalist, and the Power of Israel
“As You Know, I Didn’t Say That”
by Gary Leupp / July 5th, 2010
Philip Weiss, who runs a blog called Mondoweiss (War of Ideas in the Middle East) has just posted a remarkable piece entitled “Petraeus Emails Show General Scheming with Journalist to Get out pro-Israel storyline.”
If true, it is a tale of honesty and dishonesty, opportunism, and cowardice. It indicates that Gen. David Petraeus, who just replaced Gen. McChrystal as commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, has frankly assessed that the intimate U.S. relationship with Israel is costing U.S. lives in the Middle East. But he’s concerned that his views may cost him politically and so uses buddies in the media to conceal them.
Since the story’s a bit complicated I thought I’d arrange the material in a straightforward chronology.
Dec. 2009: on orders from Gen. Petraeus, then Commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), a team of military officers tours the Middle East, interviewing senior Arab leaders who tell them that U.S. inability to force Israel to end settlements is making the U.S. look weak and also spreading anti-American feeling throughout the region.
Jan. 16, 2010: this team is sent by Petraeus to the Pentagon to brief Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The 45-minute 33 slide PowerPoint briefing stuns Mullen with its message that U.S. failure to constrain Israel is damaging U.S. interests throughout Southwest Asia.
Jan. 18: Petraeus sends a paper to Mullen (or according to another report, the White House) requesting that the West Bank and Gaza (which now, with Israel, falls under the European Command [EUCOM]), be included within CENTCOM. He argues that this would indicate to Arab leaders that the U.S. understood that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the central one in the region. (An unnamed Pentagon official has confirmed that this proposal was “dead on arrival”).
March: White House sends special envoy for the Middle East, George Mitchell, on a visit to Arab capitals and Israel to encourage Israeli-Palestinian talks. He is in Israel March 9.
March 9: Mullen visits Israel to meet with Israeli Chief of General Staff, Lt. General Gabi Ashkenazi. He tells him that Israel has to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “in a larger, regional, context” as having a direct impact on America’s status in the region. (That is to say: continued defiance of Obama’s call for a freeze on settlement on the West Bank is directly hurting U.S. interests throughout the Arab world.)
March 9: On the very same day, Vice President Joe Biden is also in Israel. He’s embarrassed by an Israeli announcement that the Netanyahu government will be building 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem in defiance of Obama’s urging that there be a freeze to allow for Israeli-Palestinian talks. Biden has a private, angry exchange with the Israeli Prime Minister, telling him: “This is starting to get dangerous for us. What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. That endangers us, and it endangers regional peace.”
March 11: Israeli journalist, Shimon Shiffer, publishes article entitled “Biden: You’re Jeopardizing Regional Peace” in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. He reports: “The vice president told his Israeli hosts that since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel’s actions and US policy, any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism.”
March 13: Mark Perry, a military and intelligence analyst on the Middle East for 20 years, posts an article on the Foreign Policy blog entitled “The Petraeus briefing: Biden’s embarrassment is not the whole story” revealing Petraeus’ actions and noting the “January Mullen briefing was unprecedented. No previous CENTCOM commander had ever expressed himself on what is essentially a political issue; which is why the briefers were careful to tell Mullen that their conclusions followed from a December 2009 tour of the region where, on Petraeus’s instructions, they spoke to senior Arab leaders.”
March 16: neocon, Max Boot, member of the Council of Foreign Relations, tries to refute Perry’s piece on the blog of Commentary magazine (a monthly on politics and Judaism and considered a leading voice of neoconservatism), stating “I asked a military officer who is familiar with the briefing in question and with Petraeus’s thinking on the issue to clarify matters. He told me that Perry’s item was ‘incorrect.’” He quotes the unnamed officer [whom Perry believes is Petreus, for reasons which will become clear] as stating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only “one of many issues, among which also is the unwillingness to recognize Israel and the unwillingness to confront the extremists who threaten Israelis.” Boot adds: “That’s about what I expected: Petraeus holds a much more realistic and nuanced view than the one attributed to him by terrorist groupie Mark Perry.” (This is an allusion to the fact that Perry has interviewed members of Hezbollah and Hamas, and written a book entitled Talking to Terrorists.)
March 16: Petraeus in written testimony tells Congress: “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests. . . 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 [region] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. . .”
March 16: On her Facebook page, Sarah Palin calls concerns about Israeli settlements “this manufactured Israeli controversy.” She writes “the Obama Administration has decided to escalate, make unilateral demands of Israel, and threaten the very foundation of the US-Israel relationship. This is quickly leading to the worst crisis in US-Israel relations in decades, and yet this did not have to happen. More importantly, it needs to stop before it spirals out of control.”
March 18: M. J. Rosenberg writes a piece entitled “On The Middle East: It’s Palin vs. Petraeus & New Poll” posted on the Political Correction blog of the Media Matters Action Network in which he praises Petraeus’s views on Israel/Palestine. He notes that Petraeus is spoken of as a Republican candidate for President and contrasts his views with those of Palin.
March 18, 2:18: Michael Gfoeller, a State Department Policy Advisor serving CENTCOM, forwards Rosenberg’s story to Petraeus with the subject line: “FW: On the Middle East: It’s Palin vs Petraeus.” His message is short: “Sir: FYI. Mike.”
2:27: Petraeus forwards the story to Commentary’s Boot, stating: “As you know, I didn’t say that. It’s in a written submission for the record…” He means that the above-quoted Congressional testimony wasn’t in his oral remarks but in the 56-page document plainly entitled “Statement of General David H. Petraeus, U.S. Army Commander, US Central Command before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the posture of US Central Command, 16 Mar 2010.”
2:31: Boot responds to Petraeus: “Oh brother. Luckily it’s only media matters [the Media Matters Network] which has no credibility but think I will do another short item pointing people to what you actually said as opposed to what’s in the posture statement.”
2:37: Petraeus responds to Boot: “Thx, Max. (Does it help if folks know that I hosted Elie Wiesel and his wife at our quarters last Sun night?! And that I will be the speaker at the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps in mid-Apr at the Capitol Dome…)”
2:45: Boot to Petraeus: “No don’t think that’s relevant because you’re not being accused of being anti-Semitic.”
2:57: Petraeus: “Roger! :-)”
3:11: Boot files a story on the Commentary blog, “A Lie: David Petraeus, Anti-Israel.” He attacks “misleading commentary that continues to emerge, attributing anti-Israeli sentiment to Gen. David Petraeus.” He dismisses the “posture statement” as a filing from “Petraeus’s staff.” Concludes: “General Petraeus obviously doesn’t see the Israeli-Arab ‘peace process’ as a top issue for his command, because he didn’t even raise it in his opening statement. When he was pressed on it, he made a fairly anodyne [pain-soothing] statement about the need to encourage negotiations to help moderate Arab regimes. That’s it. He didn’t say that all settlements had to be stopped or that Israel is to blame for the lack of progress in negotiations. And he definitely didn’t say that the administration should engineer a crisis in Israeli-U.S. relations in order to end the construction of new housing for Jews in East Jerusalem.”
March 19: Activist James Morris, who runs the website “Neocon Zionist Threat to America” and sends out endless emails with detailed links to media and officials, sends Petraeus an email congratulating him on his statement to Congress. Petraeus merely responds by forwarding the Commentary piece by Boot and the message: “FYI.” The general doesn’t realize it, but underneath the Commentary piece is the entire exchange with Boot quoted above. That’s why we know about it.
March 20: Morris emails Petraeus trying to engage him further on the issue. Petraeus replies: “Thanks, James. Frankly, I’d like to let all this die down at this point, if that’s possible! All best —”
May: Morris shares the emails with Philip Weiss of the Mondoweiss (War of Ideas in the Middle East) blog. (This is affiliated with The Nation magazine). Weiss overlooks it at the time.
Late June: after McChrystal is fired and replaced by Petraeus, Morris sends Weiss an email with subject line: “Did you read my exchange with Petraeus” and Weiss finally reads it
July 2: Weiss posts his article. Now, what — if the story’s true –does all this tell us? It seems to me it indicates the following:
(1) Petraeus genuinely believes that Israeli actions threaten what he sees as U.S. interests in the region, and endanger U.S. troops;
(2) he doesn’t want to say this too loudly or want the voting public to think about this;
(3) he wants to run for president, and to position himself against Palin;
(4) there are people in the State Department (like Gfoeller) who’d like to help him do that;
(5) he’s deeply concerned about the Jewish vote (Does it help if folks know that I hosted Elie Wiesel and his wife at our quarters last Sun night?! );
(6) he has a close relationship with Boot, whom you notice, doesn’t bother to call him “Sir;” and
(7) he’s indiscreet in handling his email correspondence.
The people fighting the 94,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan are mainly Pashtun nationalists energized by jihadist Islam. They’re not much interested in Israel-Palestine which is very far away but when they hear about the plight of the Palestinians it probably increases their anger at the invaders. In that sense, the close U.S.-Israeli partnership may indeed threaten their lives. Maybe the troops ought to know that a general who believes that (but doesn’t want to say so out loud) is now leading them.
Oh, and could some journalist ask about this at the next Defense Department news briefing?
A little background on Petraeus’s friend, Max, can be obtained on Wikipedia.
“Boot supports what he calls American imperialism based on nation building and the pursuit of spreading democracy across the non-Western world. He sees this as the only way to prevent another event like the 9/11 attacks. He has written, “[u]nlike 19th-century European colonialists, we would not aim to impose our rule permanently. Instead… occupation would be a temporary expedient to allow the people to get back on their feet.”
“Boot wrote Savage Wars of Peace, a study of small wars in American history, with Basic Books in 2002. The title came from Kipling’s poem ‘White Man’s Burden.’ James A. Russell in Journal of Cold War Studies criticized the book, saying that “Boot did none of the critical research, and thus the inferences he draws from his uncritical rendition of history are essentially meaningless.”
“John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s controversial 2007 book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy named Boot as a neo-conservative ‘pundit’ that represented the Israeli lobby’s positions, notably within the Council of Foreign Relations. The authors argued that Boot and other figures dishonestly warp American foreign policy away from its national interest.”
But read the whole thing.
Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.