In 2008, William Wunderle and Andre Briere, political military planners in the Joint Strategic Plans and Policy (J-5) Directorate of the Joint Staff, penned a piece for the Middle East Quarterly looking at the notion of Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME). Every president since Lyndon Johnson has noted the importance of maintaining Israel’s QME. The logic was simple: Israel would be outnumbered in both men in uniform and hardware by its neighbors: The Arab League contains moire than 400 million people; Israel tops out at less than 8 million. The 2012 Democratic Party Platform paid lip service to the QME, noting, “The administration has also worked to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region. And we have deepened defense cooperation—including funding the Iron Dome system—to help Israel address its most pressing threats, including the growing danger posed by rockets and missiles emanating from the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran.”
In their article, Wunderle and Briere describe how the Pentagon calculates the QME and they make a persuasive case that, from time to time, the United States must recalibrate and readjust the notion of QME to take events into account. This will certainly be the case with the next QME. No longer can Israel (and American policymakers) assume the vitality of the Camp David Accords or that a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egypt would not pose a military threat to Israel. Jordan’s stability can no longer be taken for granted. This year could very well be the year the Arab Spring strikes down its first Arab monarch. Likewise, the QME cannot simply be an Arab-vs.-Israel calculation because when it comes to Iran, Israel finds itself on the same side as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.
Hagel has always worn his philosophy on his sleeve, but as a senator, he has never needed to really delve into the details. He was for the Iraq war before he was against it: It was a lot easier for the populist senator to pull the rug out from under the troops on America’s frontline than partake in the far harder task of crafting a strategy to win. Likewise, it is easy to propose unconditional talks with Iran; it is far more difficult to discuss the metrics by which Hagel would judge those talks or detail redlines if, indeed, he feels the United States should subscribe to any.
When it comes to Israel’s QME, perhaps one of the first questions the Senate should ask their former colleague is whether he believes that maintaining Israel’s QME continues to have a place in America’s national security, how recent events should mandate that QME be calculated, what cost is acceptable to maintain the QME, and what changes, if any, he would like to see made to it. He might also be asked to speculate the cost of maintaining the QME versus the cost of Israel losing it, assuming Hagel saw it as an American national interest to defend an ally facing an existential threat (much as we did in 1990 when, to protect Saudi Arabia and liberate Kuwait, the United States went to war in the Middle East).