The Secretary's Epiphany
As a U.S. senator, Chuck Hagel went to great lengths to assure people he was not the "Senator from Israel," and HE seemed surprised when people objected to his remark, "The political reality is ... that the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here." It was never clear who should have been offended -- Jews and/or Israelis, or the colleagues Hagel implied were "intimidated" or were in fact "Senators from Israel."
It is that same Chuck Hagel -- now secretary of defense -- who is in Israel to conclude details of a proposed U.S. arms package including the KC135 refueling aircraft and Osprey V22 transport aircraft. The Osprey had not previously been released for sale abroad. And the KC135 had been denied to Israel by the Bush administration for fear it would appear that the U.S. was encouraging Israel to consider an attack on Iran. The Obama administration is selling it for precisely that reason. "Iran presents a threat in its nuclear program and Israel will make the decisions that Israel must make to protect itself and defend itself," Hagel said.
It isn't only weaponry. Hagel pointedly asserted, "Israel and the U.S. see the threat of Iran in exactly the same [way] ... [s]o I don't think there's any daylight there. When you break down into the specifics of the timing of when and if Iran decides to pursue a nuclear weapon, there may well be some differences but generally I believe our intelligence is generally very close to each other." He visited Yad Vashem.
To begin with, Secretary Hagel's boss, President Obama, appears to have had a bit of an epiphany about the Middle East, about instability, and about Israel. Indeed, Mr. Hagel said President Obama had made "not only maintaining[,] but improving Israel's qualitative [military] edge a top priority."
But there is a bigger picture here.
President Obama came to office determined to change the discourse with countries and groups with which the U.S. had rocky relations in the past -- among them Iran, Syria, Palestinians, and the broader "Muslim world." He set the stage with his Cairo speech, blaming the West for "tension [that] has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies." He promised a new American posture, and he delivered.
The president reached out to the Iranian government and did not respond to the people's democratic protest of the 2009 election; he restored the American ambassador to Damascus and eased the embargo on airplane engines and other goods to Syria (did those engines end up in planes being used now to bomb Syrian citizens?); he demanded a settlement freeze from Israel on behalf of the Palestinians; he embraced Turkey's Islamist-leaning government; and he invited the Muslim Brotherhood to the Cairo speech over the objection of President Mubarak. These were all attempts to "reset" relations, as he had said he wished to do with Russia.
But changing American policies to make new friends generally had the effect of alienating those who thought they were friends, without producing positive results for U.S. interests. King Abdullah II of Jordan, whose relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood is strained at best, was appalled by the inclusion of the Brotherhood in the Cairo audience. The king was also unnerved by the president's 2011 promise that the Palestinians would have a border on the Jordan River. (I was in Jordan in meetings with the king and a variety of high-ranking Jordanian officials on the day of the speech; it didn't help that the Jordanians were unaware of the president's intention to make the announcement.) Libya -- which had been readmitted to the civilized world after turning its WMD programs over to the Bush administration and acknowledging blame for the Lockerbie bombing -- was not a favored country. Iraq was abandoned in the name of ending "Bush's war." Israel was frozen out of NATO-related activities and three State Department-sponsored conferences on international counter-terrorism.
The resets have largely failed, and the president's epiphany appears to be that not everything previously out of favor should be brought back in.
To reassure King Abdullah II, who is horrified by rise of Sunni jihadist forces in Syria and the prospect of spillover into Jordan, the administration sent 150 Special Forces soldiers to assist the Jordanian military. Secretary Hagel just announced another 200 troops from the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division that could "potentially form a joint task force for military operations, if ordered." According to The Heritage Foundation, "[t]he formal U.S. military presence that could grow to 20,000 troops or more, if the Administration activates contingency plans for a military intervention."
The president's positive visit to Israel, the shoring up of the U.S.-Israel alliance against Iran, and the concurrent arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- Iran's primary adversaries in the Gulf -- are positive steps toward restoring the proper proportion of favorable attention to friends and negative attention to adversaries.
The easy thing would be to credit Mr. Hagel's epiphany to an echo of his boss's change. But one might hope it is something more: a new understanding that Israel doesn't "control" American policy; Israel doesn't need to "intimidate" anyone and doesn't require its own "members" in the United States Senate. Israel has friends because it is a friend. Israel receives security consideration because it its enemies are, generally speaking, our enemies.