Google “president disengaged” and 1,290,000 entries pop up. Okay, fair enough. Google is not the best way to take the measure of President Obama’s active engagement in the workings of the world. So note that today is the funeral of Maj. Gen. Harold Greene, USA, the highest-ranking American military officer killed in Afghanistan, and the first Major General killed in combat since 1970.The president will be in Martha’s Vineyard, not at Arlington Cemetery.
But the president did, in fact, get down in the weeds on one issue this week — weapons for Israel and Israel’s relationship with the Pentagon. The White House was furious to discover after the fact that Israel used its normal channels with the Pentagon to arrange for access to certain weapons pre-positioned in Israel; no White House or State Department approval was needed. The Pentagon approved the request, and one DOD official noted, “The process for this transfer was followed precisely along the lines that it should have.”
Israel’s next request, however, for a shipment of Hellfire missiles, was, according to the Wall Street Journal, put on hold.
Top officials at the White House instructed the DSCA, the U.S. military’s European Command and other agencies to consult with policy makers at the White House and the State Department before approving any additional requests. A senior Obama administration official said the weapons transfers shouldn’t have been a routine “check-the-box approval” process, given the context. The official said the decision to scrutinize future transfers at the highest levels amounted to “the United States saying, ‘The buck stops here. Wait a second…It’s not OK anymore.’ “
[FYI: Iraq received 5,000 Hellfire missiles from the U.S. last week.]
The Journal further reports that the White House and State Department didn’t like Israel’s battle tactics in Gaza, considering them “heavy handed.” “They were especially concerned that Israel was using artillery, instead of more precision-guided munitions, in densely populated areas.”
What makes the president an expert in Israeli battle tactics is unclear.
But the administration’s intention to punish Israel’s self-defense against Hamas rockets and tunnels is entirely clear. Not for the first time, the administration treats Israel as an arrogant irritant, needing to be put in its place. First, Israel is denied autonomy regarding the primary obligation of a sovereign government — the protection of its citizens. Second, along with the announcement that the White House would review Israel’s formerly routine requests came the supremely telling comment from a senior official, “We have many, many friends around the world. The United States is [Israel’s] strongest friend… The notion that [Israel is] playing the United States, or that they’re manipulating us publicly, completely miscalculates their place in the world.”
Third, the U.S.-Israel security relationship, begun under President Reagan and operating to the benefit of both countries under every president since, is undermined. Pentagon officials who operated according to American regulations now find themselves being second-guessed as well.
There were quick denials that the U.S. would be halting arms sales or shipments to Israel, but as in so many cases, the optics have overtaken any possible reality. The chief optic is that a supremely disengaged president — who can’t leave his vacation to attend the funeral of a top military officer killed in the line of duty — will reroute routine Israeli requests for arms and ammunition through his office and his lens.
Disengagement might be better.