When President Obama wants to impress Jewish audiences, such as AIPAC, he frequently casts U.S.-Israel relations in a military context. How much military aid Israel receives (although he had nothing to do with the level; President Bush set the level in a 10-year deal), how many exercises the two militaries do together (the last one was canceled; previous ones were on a regular multi-year schedule); provision of the X-Band radar to Israel (done single-handedly by now-Sen. Mark Kirk during the Bush Administration) and missile defense cooperation (for which the Administration has reduced its financial request for 2013). Intelligence cooperation is assumed. "I've got Israel's back," he says.
But how good is the Obama administration on security for Israel? And how does that impact upon American security interests in the Middle East and Southwest Asia?
There have been a series of media reports recently suggesting that intelligence cooperation has been reduced, in part because of a "trust gap" that developed when Israel became concerned that the U.S. did not share Israel's sense of urgency on Iran. A visit to Israel by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Donilon's subsequent report to Capitol Hill did not help. Testimony by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called Israel's strategic security choices "imprudent" – a line repeated and expanded upon by other American military officers, both active and retired.
Last week, a Foreign Policy article by Mark Perry shows American military intelligence officials and diplomats being snide, cutting and condescending – both toward Israel and toward Azerbaijan, a country that sits on Iran's border and has its own serious problems with the Iranian style of radicalism exported to it.
Perry makes several points, each of which, if your assumption was that the President stands behind Israel, raises eyebrows:
1. Israeli military cooperation with Azerbaijan "complicates U.S. efforts to dampen Israeli-Iranian tensions." When did "dampening tensions" become the goal of U.S. policy toward Iran? The President did not say he wanted to "dampen tensions;" he said a nuclear Iran is unacceptable to the United States. But if lowering the volume were the goal, there were two ways to go about it – one by reassuring Israel, the other by reassuring Iran. Exposing Israeli defense choices and publicly mocking its capabilities (see below) just reassures Iran. Why would this be the Administration's choice?
2. Israeli-Azeri cooperation requires that U.S. military planners "must now plan not only for a war scenario that includes the Persian Gulf – but one that could include the Caucasus." What is true for American military planners is equally true for the Iranians – and there is something to be said for making your adversary worry that there is more than one avenue of attack. Through America's obvious irritation with Israel and the exposure of Israeli assets in a third country, the administration is choosing to provide Iran with information it can use, to the detriment of Israel. Why would this be the Administration's choice?
3. The US finds surveillance of both our adversaries and our friends irritating. "We're watching what Iran does closely… but we are now watching what Israel is doing in Azerbaijan. And we are not happy about it." How Iran must appreciate the conflation of the two countries: an Israel that makes its patron America unhappy is a country that can be harassed, boycotted, and delegitimized with less fear of an American response than a country that believes its patron is also its friend – a friend that "has its back." Why would the Administration want to give Iran this impression?
4. The Iranians do not have to worry about Israel's refueling capability, which was described as "pretty minimal." Israel is also, according to "military planners," "just not very good at it." That is true mainly because Israel's enemies are so close, but if the U.S. can quash Israeli-Azeri military cooperation, the Iranians will not have much to fear from an Israeli air strike. Why would the administration want to reassure the Iranians on this point?
5. Turkey's irritation with the Israeli-Azeri relationship has the ear of American "senior officials." The Turkish government threw over a long and bilaterally beneficial relationship with Israel to polish its pro-Arab and pro-Islamist bona fides. Its Prime Minister is a booster of Hamas, does big business with Iran and has offered blood libel against the IDF. Turkey also has plans for regional hegemony in Central Asia, hence its irritation with Azerbaijan for daring to have a relationship with Israel. It is unclear from the article how the U.S. government responds to Turkey's concerns, but PM Erdogan appears to be President Obama's "go to guy" in the region and the President was fawning over him in Seoul last week. Does this suggest an answer at Israel's expense?
6. Azerbaijan is not a sovereign country; it is simply a puppet of whoever comes with the money. "The Israelis have bought an airfield, and the airfield is called Azerbaijan," according to a "senior administration official." Iran and Azerbaijan have serious border and ethnic issues, and it is much to Iran's benefit to find that the U.S. does not think much of its northern neighbor. While Azerbaijan is certainly not a paragon of democracy, neither should it be the object of derision because it turns to Israel for support. The U.S. is supporting a wide variety of less-than-adorable governments, including the one in Afghanistan – which we are supporting with American blood. Why are Israel's limited choices for alliances ridiculed, while the administration insists that Hamid Karzai – and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Vladimir Putin for that matter – are legitimate rulers because the President wants to work with them?
And finally, one the administration gets almost right.
7. "Israel's main goal is to preserve Azerbaijan as an ally against Iran, a platform for reconnaissance of that country and as a market for military hardware." Israel's main goal is delaying or ending Iran's march toward nuclear weapons capability. But when a small country finds itself snubbed, denigrated and sniffed at by the one country that should share its goals for a variety of philosophical, historical, governmental and military reasons, it needs to find other allies. Azerbaijan – and Greece and Cyprus, among others – shares Israel's fundamental concerns about Iran. Why does the administration find this both problematic and worthy of contempt?
The next time the President or the Secretary of State laud Israel as a friend, an ally and a partner, it is worth considering the conclusion of longtime Israeli defense analyst Ron Ben-Yishai:
In recent weeks the administration shifted from persuasion efforts vis-à-vis decision-makers and Israel's public opinion to a practical, targeted assassination of potential Israeli operations in Iran… The campaign's aims are fully operational: To make it more difficult for Israeli decision-makers to order the IDF to carry out a strike, and what's even graver, to erode the IDF's capacity to launch such strike with minimal casualties.
Yes, it is possible that the U.S. is playing "good cop/bad cop" with Israel, but what kind of ally does that?
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center. She was previously Senior Director for Security Policy at JINSA and author of JINSA Reports from 1995-2011.