Commentary Magazine


RE: The F-35 and the Israel-Obama Relationship

Evelyn Gordon’s post from Thursday highlights a Team Obama method that increasingly comes across as precious, annoying, and insidious. I’m not sure there’s a single word to describe it, but it involves a sort of inversion by which the administration of policy conveniently supersedes the purpose and substance of policy. In some cases, obstacles are allowed to dictate outcomes as if the U.S. administration has no discretion over them. In other cases, bureaucratic arcana serve as dodges. And in others, like Obama’s approach to Iran, procedural checklists are wielded as surrogates for policy, generating a kind of lottery in which we all watch to see what fate the procedures will eventually confer on us.

The case of the F-35 and Israel appears to fall into the first category. The F-35, or Joint Strike Fighter, has been known for some time to be ill-suited to modifications in its avionics and weapons-control systems. Israel expressed concern about that almost two years ago – and Israel isn’t the only F-35 customer to have reservations, as this Congressional Research Service study from April 2010 outlines. The tightly integrated nature of the F-35’s avionics was intended to be a design feature, not a bug. It is also, however, a 1990s-era design concept that will probably be updated eventually to accommodate more interchangeability of components in future production blocks of the F-35.

A constructive approach to this impasse would certainly be possible. A U.S. administration eager to tend alliances would review the sunk costs of the current design, balance that consideration with the importance of America’s global partnerships, and probably make the commitment now to begin a design migration that would work better for allies. Israel might well find it acceptable to be met halfway and may agree without complaint to buy the first 20 fighters as-is.

But this situation is tailor-made for Team Obama’s unique methods. In negotiations with one of our closest allies, the administration has simply left a known sticking point to fester. From the standpoint of professionalism, there is no good excuse for this: the issue has been recognized in the halls of government and industry for some time. But as Evelyn Gordon observes, it’s something the public knows little about. Obama pays no real price for his administration’s behavior.

An explanation for that behavior has to be deduced by process of elimination. Neither a well-intentioned ally nor a motivated seller behaves this way, so we are left with fecklessness or bad intentions. The Obama image is not enhanced by either possibility. When it comes to his administration’s foreign-policy posture, I’m reminded often of P.J. O’Rourke’s characterization of the French, in a 1986 Rolling Stone article (“Among the Euro-Weenies”), as “masters of the ‘dog ate my homework’ school of diplomatic relations.” It doesn’t quite reach the level of a “Twinkie defense” school of diplomatic relations, but it’s still unbecoming in the leader of the free world.