Gen. David Petraeus caused quite a stir last week with his written statement (pdf) to the Senate Armed Services Committee, in which he included “insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace” as the first among “a number of cross-cutting issues that serve as major drivers of instability, inter-state tensions, and conflict” that “can serve as root causes of instability or as obstacles to security.”
While none of this is really surprising to anyone who has spent much time studying the Middle East, it does run afoul of one of the most treasured articles of faith of the neocons, which is the idea that the U.S.-Israel relationship exists is a sort of hermetically sealed bubble, separated from the U.S.’s other challenges in the region, generating no negative externalities for U.S. interests. For many Israel hawks, the idea that there is “linkage” between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to other problems in the region is not only a myth, but espousing such ideas is quite enough to qualify one as “anti-Israel.”
In New Hampshire yesterday, Philip Klein of the American Spectator asked Gen. Petraeus to clarify his views. While Petraeus disapproved of the way that some of “the blogs” had presented his written statement, he ended up strongly re-affirming the substance of the linkage argument.
Saying that the written statement “describes the various factors that affect the strategic context in which we [CENTCOM] operate,” Petraeus told Klein that “the Middle East peace process — and whether there’s progress or is not progress — has a great deal to do with” that context. The lack of progress, Petraeus said, “is something that influences our area.”
Notably, Petraeus said that he thought that Secretary of State Clinton’s recent speech to AIPAC — in which Clinton strongly reiterated American support for Israel, but said that “new construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank… undermines America’s unique ability to play a role in the peace process” — “articulately and clearly conveyed our policy.”
While denying both that he had requested, as Mark Perry originally reported, to have Israel-Palestine transferred into CENTCOM’s area of responsibility, and that he had made any specific reference to the stalled peace process endangering American lives, Petraeus affirmed that the lack of progress toward a resolution “does make situations more challenging, particularly for moderate leaders” in the Middle East:
If you go to moderate leaders in the Arab world, they will tell you that the lack of progress in the Middle East peace process causes them problems, because their concern is that those who promote violence in Gaza and the West Bank will claim that because there’s no progress diplomatically that the only way to get progress is through violence. And that’s their concern. And that was really what we were trying to convey.
That’s why we support Senator Mitchell so much. We have invited Senator Mitchell to every single conference that I have hosted — for ambassadors, for chiefs of defense staff, what have you, which we do about three times a year — because everyone is so keenly riveted on that issue even though, again, it is not in our area. And we keep an eye on it, because we need to know the atmospherics there because they do — there is a certain spillover effect.
“There is a certain spillover effect.” Ladies and gentlemen, the reality of linkage.
Petraeus also cited a blog post from Commentary’s Max Boot defending him from the charge of being “anti-Israel.” The irony, of course, is that the people who relentlessly caricature the linkage argument as “anti-Israel” are mainly the type of people who read and write for Commentary.
Spencer Ackerman reports that Defense Secretary Gates has also re-affirmed “linkage”:
Asked by Yochi Dreazen of The Wall Street Journal at a press conference this morning to address Gen. David Petraeus’ recent testimony that the Israel-Palestinian conflict’s persistence “foments anti-American sentiment,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that he didn’t know if it had a “direct” influence on U.S. security, but “the lack of progress toward Middle East peace clearly is an issue that is exploited by our adversaries in the region, and is a source of, certainly, political challenges.” There’s “no question,” Gates said, that the “absence of Middle East peace” impacts U.S. interests in the region.
Seeming like he was dissatisfied over the level of discourse on the issue, Gates added that “the U.S. has considered peace in the Middle East to be a national security interest for decades.”