Moshe Yaalon’s comments about John Kerry appear to have been something of a Kinsleyan gaffe, when a politician is caught telling the truth. The accuracy of the comments may explain the swift and pained How dare you response from Foggy Bottom, and Yaalon declined to immediately deny or disavow the comments, instead preferring to apologize for their offense.
Not much attention has been paid to why Yaalon made the comments, though. Israeli officials do sometimes forget the delicate egos of some Western politicians, so it can perhaps be written off as sabra prickliness. But surely Yaalon knows better. If the Israeli administration–this being the most English-proficient one in memory–had concerns, they could have spelled them out in private. Why cause a stir? Shmuel Rosner floats one rather convincing explanation:
It is funny how both left and right use “messianic” as the ultimate insult. But even if Defense Minister Yaalon should not have publically stated that State Secretary Kerry is “obsessive and messianic”, it doesn’t mean he is not right in making this assessment. David Horovitz aptly summed it up in one sentence: “Ya’alon’s been thoroughly dumb. But he’s not entirely wrong”. In fact, a majority of Israelis would say that he is right. And while the Americans have been rushing to get some diplomatic mileage out of Yaalon’s mistake – to “put Israel in its place, perhaps to put it on the defensive as Kerry comes back to continue his diplomatic efforts”, as Herb Keinon remarks – one would hope that this fact was not lost on them. One would hope that they realized that their initiative hardly impresses the Israeli public and its leadership. In other words, if you want to put a positive spin on Yaalon’s carelessness, try this: He was a messenger that had to be sacrificed in order to send a clear message of dissent to the American mediator, a message that no polite disagreement behind closed doors can convey.
The public fracas was the only way to get the message across. The harsh reaction from the U.S. suggests why: this administration doesn’t listen. Washington was shocked by comments that shouldn’t have surprised them in the least, but they famously pay no attention to the concerns of others.
I wrote about this in November, on the heels of Kerry’s Iran deal. The secretary of state was surprised by virtually everything–French objections, Israeli protestations, Saudi warnings, even Iranian declarations–that everyone else had been hearing for weeks, if not longer. Kerry’s single-minded quest for a deal with Iran had led him to stick his fingers in his ears, which had the practical effect of our secretary of state being the last to know much of the relevant information.
And so it’s important to note that whatever the wisdom of his comments, Yaalon’s not alone, even among close allies. The Daily Beast talks to Hew Strachan, the British military historian and defense advisor, and gets a brutal judgment of the Obama administration’s foreign policy and sense of strategy:
Sir Hew Strachan, an advisor to the Chief of the Defense Staff, told The Daily Beast that the United States and Britain were guilty of total strategic failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Obama’s attempts to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels “has left them in a far worse position than they were before.”
The extraordinary critique by a leading advisor to the United States’ closest military ally comes days after Obama was undermined by the former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who questioned the President’s foreign policy decisions and claimed he was deeply suspicious of the military.
Strachan, a current member of the Chief of the Defense Staff’s Strategic Advisory Panel, cited the “crazy” handling of the Syrian crisis as the most egregious example of a fundamental collapse in military planning that began in the aftermath of 9/11. “If anything it’s gone backwards instead of forwards, Obama seems to be almost chronically incapable of doing this. Bush may have had totally fanciful political objectives in terms of trying to fight a global War on Terror, which was inherently astrategic, but at least he had a clear sense of what he wanted to do in the world. Obama has no sense of what he wants to do in the world,” he said.
In this sense John Kerry is a symptom of the underlying problem: personnel is policy, especially when it comes to the leader of the free world. There were talented, experienced, and well-respected options for Obama’s top Cabinet posts, so it threw many for a loop when he picked Kerry and Chuck Hagel at State and Defense. But Obama doesn’t appreciate constructive criticism or robust debate. Obama, the Washington Post explained a year ago, “spent the last four years immersed in all of this stuff and can now make decisions based on his own observations not the idea that you always just need to get the ‘best person for the job’.”
This lack of talent was deliberate, and our allies noticed. They then tried to mitigate the damage by raising their concerns behind closed doors. They were ignored, of course. As a last resort, they have taken to voicing their alarm aloud. It’s not always constructive or diplomatic. But the administration would be mistaken to assume that Yaalon is an outlier.