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Slow-Roll to Diego Garcia?

It’s going to be impossible to keep up with these reports and rumors, but one new item merits discussion. Emanuele Ottolenghi has pretty thoroughly discredited the originators of the rumor that bombs shipped to Diego Garcia are for an imminent attack on Iran. Now, however, there’s a report from a less-dismissible source that the original intention may have been to ship the bombs to Israel. Much of the blogosphere is running with the story that Obama “diverted” the shipment, with the timing of these revelations apparently related to Washington’s ongoing tiff with Jerusalem.

My assessment up front: the blogosphere’s got that story wrong. The U.S. may well have decided to change the destination of bombs being prepositioned overseas, but the decision was clearly made at least two months ago, before the January 2010 contract to ship the munitions to Diego Garcia was posted. Nevertheless, if the World Tribune report is valid, that change in our prepositioning plan could be part of a disquieting trend in the Obama administration’s arms policy toward Israel.

A key fact in this tangled tale is that Israel has been one of the U.S. military’s principal foreign prepositioning sites for the last 20 years. (Others are South Korea and Thailand.) Munitions we store with these hosts, while intended for our own forces’ use in contingencies, can be used by the host nations in the case of national emergency. We only store such stockpiles in nations with which we have defense agreements. A previous ammunition shipment to the storage sites in Israel became quite famous a year ago when the cargo ship bearing it was originally scheduled to arrive during the IDF operations in Gaza. In light of a December 2009 agreement on doubling the size of our munitions stockpile in Israel, it’s quite probable that we intended to ship additional bombs to the storage sites there this year.

The World Tribune piece appears to be discussing a U.S. policy-related shipment of this kind, rather than the diversion of arms that were actually sold to Israel. I don’t believe that a weapons sale is being reneged on. But a decision to suspend further prepositioning of U.S. munitions at the Israeli sites would be in character with the Obama administration’s emerging policy of delaying and blocking military sales to Israel. The most notable instance involves the Apache Longbow helicopter: a pending sale of Apaches to Israel was blocked by the administration in June 2009, due to the concern that they would be used to threaten Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

The U.S. has delayed arms sales to Israel before, but as the JINSA article above notes, Obama’s policy of slow-rolling Israel while concluding major arms deals with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan is a new one. His administration’s bumpy history with Israel lends weight to the possibility that our military prepositioning strategy is being modified to prevent further growth in the munitions stockpile Israel might be able to drawn on. Implementing policy by this arcane method has the advantage of being a quiet and attritional approach.

We should note that Israel already has the types of bombs listed in the manifest for the Diego Garcia shipment.  We sold the IDF several thousand of them in the last decade. There is no need to hyperventilate over the erroneous implication that a type of weapon Israel desperately needs is being withheld. But the possibility that the Obama administration hopes to control the limits on Israel’s options is not so easily dismissed.

Deciding what we do with our own weapons is, of course, America’s sovereign right. The discretion and logistic convenience we retain by storing bombs at Diego Garcia are things any administration might seek. But while this bomb shipment may be a politically unremarkable logistic decision, reports that it may have implications about our relations with Israel are credible after months of one-sided policy from the Obama administration.



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