Strategic Misstep or Prelude to Meltdown?

On Thursday, March 11, during Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel to herald the re-initiation of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Israel’s Interior Ministry announced the construction of 1,600 housing units in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, an area Palestinians want to include in their state should it ever come into existence. Biden initially condemned the move but then, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained it to him and apologized for the timing of the announcement, the Vice President stated the incident was "behind them." Then, on Friday, Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton phoned Netanyahu to scold him. Since protocol requires such admonishments be administered "laterally" between heads of state, the call constituted a diplomatic insult in and of itself. Saturday, the Anti-Defamation League stated its shock over the Obama administration’s "public dressing down" of Israel.

Given that Israel is America’s closest and only reliable ally in the Middle East, an administration seemingly speaking from distinctly different directions on this particular incident raises a number of troubling questions:
First and foremost, was this simply a strategic misstep, perhaps prompted by a conflict within the administration between Secretary of State Clinton and her boss, who, notably, marginalized his greatest political rival’s career in public service by consigning her to Foggy Bottom in an administration focused on "transforming" America domestically while conducting a foreign policy based on self-deprecating platitudes? Less cynically, the incident might be seen as a pitiful example of miscommunication between the "highest levels" of the administration and the Department of State.

Or, giving the Obama administration credit for political moxie, how about this scenario? Perhaps anticipating a predicted political tsunami at the polls in November, President Barack Obama was trying to retain as much Jewish support as possible by letting his most potent political nemesis take the heat while he remained above the fray concentrating on healthcare reform.

Whatever the answer, either way, a strategic misstep resulted.

Or perhaps it wasn’t a misstep but a variation on the "old Potomac two-step?" Consider:

The Obama administration’s initial gambit of attempted dialogue with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—Iran’s Holocaust-denying, 9/11-Truther, certifiably insane president—in hopes of deterring Teheran’s nuclear ambitions having failed, President Obama desperately needed to show his "Rocky" side to Middle East leaders, many of whom understand (and fear) the perils inherent in Iranian regional hegemony. If so, beating up on Israel continues the historical precedent practiced by European despots from czars to commissars, one embraced by Arab leaders: when in trouble, blame the Jews.

Or, something even more sinister may be involved. The Obama administration knows only decisive military action can stop Iran’s nuclear program. The administration also knows that while it will not use military force, Israel might. In that case, instead of thanking Israel, Middle Eastern leaders will condemn the Jewish state along with the United States. Instead of supporting Israel, Washington may join the cacophony of condemnation based on having previously opposed Israel’s "apartheid" policies. In any case, the Israeli Air Force, as good as it is, can only delay but not totally destroy Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Only American air power can obliterate Teheran’s nuclear ambitions. And it won’t.

Why won’t President Obama use force against Iran? He fears that if he did, Iran might retaliate by sending ground forces to attack U.S. units in Iraq and Afghanistan. An American military stretched thin by eight years of war, and with its Cold War "legacy force" armaments wearing out, could face catastrophic defeat. Combine a military debacle with a likely oil embargo wrecking a U.S. economy—one already burdened by enormous public debt inflicted by the Obama administration—and the expected political tsunami surges beyond November 2010 all the way to November 2012.

Or, one final option: Is American foreign policy in a meltdown prompted by the Obama administration’s focus on radicalizing the American healthcare industry while negating any remnants of American "exceptionalism" in U.S. foreign policy? If so, a nuclear capable Iran may embolden Israel’s enemies into renewed attacks by Hamas guerrillas in Gaza and from southern Lebanon, where fanatically determined Hezbollah units, well armed and trained by Iran and Syria, stand ready to attack. Washington will condemn the aggressors as well as the inevitable strong responses by Israel, but will do nothing to support Israel. In that case, American foreign policy, whether from ineptitude or chicanery, will have engendered a Middle Eastern catastrophe. Meltdown.

— Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he is writing a history of the University of Alabama in the 1960s. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.