The Petraeus Briefing

The Petraeus Briefing

By Mark Perry – Foreign Policy Blog March
13, 2010

On Jan. 16, two days after a killer earthquake hit Haiti, a team of
senior military officers from the U.S. Central Command (responsible for
overseeing American security interests in the Middle East), arrived at
the Pentagon to brief Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen
on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The team had been dispatched by
CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus to underline his growing worries
at the lack of progress in resolving the issue. The 33-slide, 45-minute
PowerPoint briefing stunned Mullen. The briefers 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 Mitchell himself was (as a senior Pentagon officer
later bluntly described it) “too old, too slow … and too late.”

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. “Everywhere
they went, the message was pretty humbling,” a Pentagon officer familiar
with the briefing says. “America was not only viewed as weak, but its
military posture in the region was eroding.” But Petraeus wasn’t
finished: two days after the Mullen briefing, Petraeus sent a paper to
the White House requesting that the West Bank and Gaza (which, with
Israel, is a part of the European Command – or EUCOM), be made a part of
his area of operations. Petraeus’s reason was straightforward: with
U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military had to
be perceived by Arab leaders as engaged in the region’s most
troublesome conflict.

[UPDATE: A senior military officer denied Sunday that Petraeus sent a
paper to the White House.

“CENTCOM did have a team brief the CJCS on concerns revolving around the
Palestinian issue, and CENTCOM did propose a UCP change, but to CJCS,
not to the WH,” the officer said via email. “GEN Petraeus was not
certain what might have been conveyed to the WH (if anything) from that
brief to CJCS.”

(UCP means “unified combatant command,” like CENTCOM; CJCS refers to
Mullen; and WH is the White House.)]

The Mullen briefing and Petraeus’s request hit the White House like a
bombshell. While Petraeus’s request that CENTCOM be expanded to include
the Palestinians was denied (“it was dead on arrival,” a Pentagon
officer confirms), the Obama administration decided it would redouble
its efforts – pressing Israel once again on the settlements issue,
sending Mitchell on a visit to a number of Arab capitals and dispatching
Mullen for a carefully arranged meeting with the chief of the Israeli
General Staff, Lt. General Gabi Ashkenazi. While the American press
speculated that Mullen’s trip focused on Iran, the JCS Chairman actually
carried a blunt, and tough, message on the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict: that Israel had to see its conflict with the Palestinians “in
a larger, regional, context” – as having a direct impact on America’s
status in the region. Certainly, it was thought, Israel would get the

Israel didn’t. When Vice President Joe Biden was embarrassed by an
Israeli announcement that the Netanyahu government was building 1,600
new homes in East Jerusalem, the administration reacted. But no one was
more outraged than Biden who, according to the Israeli daily Yedioth
Ahronoth, engaged in a private, and angry, exchange with the Israeli
Prime Minister. Not surprisingly, what Biden told Netanyahu reflected
the importance the administration attached to Petraeus’s Mullen
briefing: “This is starting to get dangerous for us,” Biden reportedly
told Netanyahu. “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.” Yedioth Ahronoth went on
to report: “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.”
The message couldn’t be plainer: Israel’s intransigence could cost
American lives.

There are important and powerful lobbies in America: the NRA, the
American Medical Association, the lawyers — and the Israeli lobby. But
no lobby is as important, or as powerful, as the U.S. military. While
commentators and pundits might reflect that Joe Biden’s trip to Israel
has forever shifted America’s relationship with its erstwhile ally in
the region, the real break came in January, when David Petraeus sent a
briefing team to the Pentagon with a stark warning: America’s
relationship with Israel is important, but not as important as the lives
of America’s soldiers. Maybe Israel gets the message now.

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