Home inFocus Twenty-Five Years Since the First Gulf War (Fall 2015) CENTCOM Before Israel

CENTCOM Before Israel

LTG. Earl Hailston USMC (Ret.) Spring 2023
Michael Kurilla, head of the United States Central Command (left), meets with now former IDF chief Aviv Kohavi. (Photo: Israel Defense Forces)

Lt. Gen. Earl Hailston, USMC (ret.) served as Commanding General of US Marine Corps Forces Pacific, US Marine Forces Central Command, and US Marine Corps Bases Pacific. inFOCUS Editor Shoshana Bryen spoke with him recently about his experiences with CENTCOM before Israel joined.

Shoshana Bryen: You spent a lot of time in CENTCOM with our Arab allies, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, but you never went to Israel in that context, and you never really saw the other half of the Middle East. What were you learning when you were with them about Israel and about the US relationship with Israel?

Earl Hailston: It really was a learning event. I had just moved from being an infantry officer to becoming an aviator, which was at the time of the 1973 War. After 1973, we became very closely attuned to and paid attention to the tremendous strength of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and military-to-military relations between the United States and Israel. Pilots who fought in the ‘73 war came and talked to us.

The ‘Israel Problem’

So, I started with a basis of great respect for and attention to Israeli forces and our Israeli friends. But if you fast forward from that, I found myself in a position preparing US forces in CENTCOM. I’d never been to Israel, I’d never really been in CENTCOM before, but post-9/11 I was very much involved in trying to prepare for our move into Iraq, particularly force buildup. I was the commander of the Marine component, and my orders were to find a place for us to bed down and move into the region.

Every morning I jumped in my airplane and flew out of our base in Bahrain to any number of regional places, particularly Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. And I got tremendous pushback. Although we were welcomed by our hosts in Bahrain, we got pushback in this sense that, “Oh, we’re here. We think a lot of you, we like the United States. But I’d like to help if you can solve the Israeli issue first.”

And I would get no farther than my three cups of tea and I would turn around and leave at the end of the day and find myself at four o’clock in the afternoon at our staff meetings talking to the commander of CENTCOM, Gen. Tommy Franks.

And he’d say, “Well, how’d you do? When can we move in?”

And I’d shake my head and say, “I got absolutely nowhere. I met some people, great conversations, haven’t got an agreement.”

And the conversation was very blunt and forward, “You need to do better. I need some answers.”

And every day the script was passed from one country to the next. “Welcome. However, I can’t help you until you and the United States solve our Israel problem.”

If you do that to somebody for months on end, all of a sudden, I did find myself saying, “I’ve got to take care of these 20 countries over here. I need forces in. We’ve got something going on.” I found myself asking, “How important is Israel?”

And so, Israel became the speed bump in my road to getting things done.

What They Were Saying

During this process, I also learned an awful lot about our Middle East partners, loosely used. And I can’t claim even today in 2023 that I understand them. I understand how difficult it is to understand them, what they’re saying, what they’re doing and what they really mean.

We understood quickly that what you hear is not really what you’re hearing. … Even at that time, there were a lot of undercover talks and missions through a series of those countries. At the time, for example, I did place a lot of American troops into Jordan, but I didn’t understand or appreciate the private relationship between Tel Aviv or Jerusalem and the King of Jordan. So that made life completely different. I got faced with an awful lot of pushback and I wasn’t getting any help.

I had some crazy questions. If the Middle East was so important to us, why did we have this policy and what’s going on? Without covering history, we went through the move into Iraq and then through the region. I grew longer in the tooth and older and I retired.

Visiting Israel

Bryen: When I invited you to visit Israel, how did you feel about that? Did you jump up and say, “Yes, this is my opportunity.” Or did you say, “Eh?”

Hailston: I got the invitation and I had to really think about it for quite a while. And I had in the back of my mind the table just reversed. Instead of sitting there across from a sheik, I was going to be sitting across the table from an Israeli partner and hearing the same: “Why are you here? What’s going on?” I made the decision to go.

Bottom line up front, it is the best program that we had going mil-to-mil and pol-mil meetings across the world and especially in that region. It was terrific. I went to Israel and shortly after I got there and met people, I mean it was a matter of the first few days, my old respect and deep respect was immediately renewed. And life has to be reality. It can’t be the six o’clock news at night. Especially it cannot be CNN.

A couple of things that stick in my mind, but sitting on the beautiful streets of the city of Tel Aviv in the evening after a good day of visiting forces, visiting people, or meeting with the Knesset members, sitting and relaxing in what could have been a street in Paris, having a dinner or an evening cocktail of some sort and chatting with local folks. That’s one. So, it is a peaceful, wonderful place full of people who love democracy and want to expand it through the region.

Back in the Region

Bryen: Let’s go back to the region and if you would give us your thoughts on how Israel integrates. Does it seem to you that the Arab partners have accepted this? If they don’t want to work with Israel, we, the United States, are going to have trouble.

Hailston: We need to understand the deep inside relationships that still remain on Israel’s western border with Egypt, for example. Anybody who remembers the ‘67, the ‘73 wars and what took place has to understand that the relationship there now is incredible and it’s very, very important to the region, but it’s mostly under the table.

This is part of what’s hard to understand. They acknowledge it, but not publicly – “You must keep it quiet that I came here to see you today.” In the rest of the region, I do love to hear them reach out. And there’s a reason for that. If you have common interest. And that’s what Israel has paid attention to. What are our common interests here? And common interest is what goes to the tail end of your question of who is the problem in the region, writ large?

Two Problems

Hailston: Every single country I went to had two problems. One that was fictitious: that was Israel. That is something that was played up and stays there and they use it for a placard. The other one is felt deep in their souls, and it is on the eastern side of the Gulf and that is Iran.

And everybody is paying attention to what Iran does or doesn’t do or how they do it. And so how do I see things going in the region? We’ve taken a terrible step backwards with the expansion of nuclear power out there what we have allowed Iran to do. No one here wants to understand – because it is 5,000 to 7,000 miles away from us – that they need to produce two things: The first one will be sent to Tel Aviv and the second one will be sent to Haifa or someplace like that.

And we let that roll off our backs. I mean that is something that Israeli people cannot accept. And I think people understand that here on the surface, but they don’t pay it enough attention. We have a very, very, very big problem. The poor Iranian people do too, who are subjugated to all of this stuff and they are not allowed to voice their opinions and their opinions are not what the Khamenei’s of the world espouse. We the United States, need to stand arm-in-arm with our Israeli friends.

The Palestinians

Hailston: I do believe someone has to break through on the Palestinian problem – and to let people understand it.

And the front page of what you and I accept as our big newspaper here today, I have to read about deaths caused by Israeli soldiers doing something or other and I won’t go into detail on that. It gives no credit to the fact that actually that comes from the Israeli people protecting their nation from terrorists. There is a Palestinian leadership that is not going to resolve this problem. I don’t know what they’re going to do. But we have to understand that for Israel, it is protection of a sovereign country that is going on. We turn the tables on that to poor Palestinian people being abused.

That’s not the truth.

What Happened in Iraq

Bryen: That is, I think, the point that the Gulf Arabs made. Solve the Israel problem, they said. And for them, the Israel problem was in fact the Palestinian problem. At some point, they took the Palestinians out of the middle, they took the US out of the middle, and they began to look at the region differently. What changes did you see, or have you seen since then in their understanding of what’s going on?

Hailston: Yes, I’ve seen a better understanding from the people that you sit across from at the table. But again, they don’t say that publicly to the world. That is the other issue. They do not give it public support. I’m going to give you a short story that illustrates what I found stem-to-stern in the Middle East.

We were done with our move into Iraq. We’d gone all the way to Tikrit. Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay, were gone, and we were diligently at work trying to find Saddam Hussein.

I had in my headquarters an Iraqi whose entire family was summarily executed by Saddam. We, with him, found their graves. They all died of a disease – a .30 caliber bullet hole somewhere in their foreheads. Mother, father, uncles. We were sitting around much like we did in Tel Aviv after a full day’s work, the meetings were over, we were relaxing a little bit, literally, honestly in the middle of the desert, by the campfire. And he was there with my colonels and a couple of other generals. We were pondering why we can’t find Saddam. This is the son who has lost his family for doing nothing but being in the middle of the fight.

I looked to him and said, “You’ve got to give me an answer. You need to help us here. What are we doing or how do we do this thing?”

And he told me, “I can’t help you. Tonight, if Saddam came to my tent, I would not turn him over. I would hide him and help him to escape.”

I said, “What? You’re kidding me?”

He said, “No, you’re an infidel. He is an Arab and he’s a Muslim. I must help him. I cannot help you in that case.”

The light came on, I put my head in my hands. A man who had lost his entire family to somebody was blinded by something that is not reality, or, as we see the human world, of holding people accountable. And I think we need to put this in our quiver to know when we negotiate and to talk with these folks, it doesn’t matter how many people you have murdered and killed and what you have done to the rest of your country in between. Somehow Lawrence of Arabia had better luck than we did maybe. But that’s the lesson I’ve carried for all these years.

Looking to the Future

Bryen: That’s a depressing lesson.

But it’s always my goal to leave on a positive note. So, if I were looking for a positive takeaway from changes, what do we take away and is there a positive future for the United States in the region?

Hailston: A simple answer to your question is for us continuing to work. I think we make the most of what we have seen, especially recently in the rest of the world. We have a problem, a deep problem here in Washington, but Israel has done so well with Saudi Arabia. We need to continue with that. We cannot back step at all on the Jordanian issue and the relationship, and somehow or other continue to live on and improve and strengthen the relationships with Egypt.

And I think that there is a chance, especially right now with how things are going with a couple of those countries to accentuate common interests. And there is that one central common interest that is held in the region.”

That’s the road that I would embark upon. I would start down that road of common interests, but then common interests expand out into common interests of livelihood and better things for the family and the region, and we can flourish.

Now, can we boil this down to what is in our national interest?

I’ve done a lot of study as a military professional on terrorism and how you undermine a government. And I can’t think of any better example than what is crossing the American border right now. Two Americans were murdered by the cartel, and we’ve had a hundred thousand deaths to poison fentanyl coming across the border. We have criminals that are shooting folks left and right here in the country.

This is going to undermine our government. People are not going to feel safe to sit down in the street (and I mean our Tel Avivs) and have our open lunches and our drinks. I had a series of emails yesterday about who in my church is armed for the guy coming through the door on Sunday? This isn’t only about Jewish people and synagogues. People have to understand that.

And for Israel, with people infiltrating across any of their borders, it can be from Lebanon, or it can be the Palestinians coming and doing what they want. Israel is doing the right thing. They have to pay attention to it. The rest of the world has to understand how they are saving their sovereign citizens. And I think the positive note is we have to understand that. We don’t. We do not understand that now.

Bryen: That’s both positive and negative at the same time.

Hailston: Yes, and that’s how it worked.

A good young friend of mine devoted all of his efforts to preparing his trip to Israel. He wrote up afterwards how everybody needs to visit the Holy Land. He posted it, and I don’t know how many friends he’s got, but everybody saw a tremendous picture of Israel yesterday and he said, “If there is nothing else you do in your life, you must visit Israel.”

Bryen: I’ll go with that. Earl Hailston, thank you for a great and enlightening perspective on the US military relationship with Israel and our Arab friends.