Jonathan Tobin is right to be concerned about the thinking evinced by the CENTCOM Red Team about Hezbollah and Hamas. But it doesn’t surprise me that much. It’s a natural outgrowth of the operational situation CENTCOM has been in since 9/11, fighting ground wars in two Muslim nations, establishing new bases in others, and maintaining military-to-military relations with every Muslim nation in the region except Iran and Syria. CENTCOM’s daily foreign contacts in the “AOR” — area of responsibility — are with Muslims, virtually all of whom are, in the context of their personal and professional lives, politically moderate and pragmatic. When they shake their heads over the problem of Israel, they don’t foam at the mouth or burn flags in the street. It becomes natural to accept that their view of things governs their behavior and requires accommodation, even if we don’t hold that view.
This is especially true because the one nation CENTCOM does not interact with is Israel. Israel is in the European Command’s (EUCOM’s) AOR. This separation between AORs is deliberate. It’s not unique: CENTCOM and the Pacific Command (PACOM) also divide Pakistan and India between them. Both AOR divisions were undertaken for the purpose of easing U.S. relations with the nations in confrontation on either side of the divide. In the case of CENTCOM, the influence of the Muslim side in each confrontation is the one our officials engage with daily. CENTCOM is tasked with maintaining effective military relations and getting a set of jobs done — and in its AOR, that means working with Muslim militaries and populations.
For a number of reasons, I have long favored the arrangement that keeps Israel in the EUCOM AOR. For one thing, Israel is a Western nation with strong cultural ties to Europe and the U.S. There are reasons remaining, which prevent us from putting together an effective AOR that includes both Israel and all the Muslim nations of the Middle East. Our ability to engage with Israel should not be subject to de facto vetoes by the Muslim nations that would deal with our officials in the same regional headquarters.
But during the flap earlier this year over General Petraeus’s comments about Israel and the Palestinians, one key point got little play outside of the foreign-policy wonkosphere, and that is that Petraeus actually requested the transfer of the West Bank and Gaza to the CENTCOM AOR. The reasoning was that doing so would improve the appearance of the U.S. engaging with the problem dearest to the hearts of the region’s Muslims. The reasons not to do this are, of course, obvious: the U.S. has endorsed no division of Israel and should not do anything to imply such an endorsement while a solution for the Palestinian Arabs remains to be negotiated.
Israel is a foreign-policy issue that requires top-level national thinking — like Russia, China, global terrorism, and nuclear proliferation. Even so sound a tactical thinker as David Petraeus took a limited regional view of Israel and the Palestinians when he weighed in on CENTCOM’s preferences. This isn’t surprising, really — and if we asked EUCOM to address Hezbollah and Hamas, we could probably expect a different answer from the one advanced by CENTCOM’s Red Team.