Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and current Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon have much in common in terms of understanding that the cost of telling the truth is often very high. In his memoir, Duty, Gates recounts the resistance of President Obama to winning wars, especially in Afghanistan. He wrote: “The President doesn’t trust his commander . . . doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” In Washington, this kind of honesty is no way to win friends and influence people.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon, one of the most trusted leaders in Israel, has just made a similar discovery. At a recent private lecture he stated (with reference to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and Asia): “If you sit and wait at home, the terrorism will come again. Even if you hunker down, it will come. This is a war of civilizations. If your image is feebleness, it doesn’t pay in the world. Nobody will replace the United States as global policeman. I hope the United States comes to its senses.”
In response, the United States used unprecedented language to condemn Ya’alon for his politically-incorrect honesty. Nor was this the first time Ya’alon has vocally and publically attacked U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Back in January, he said that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was “acting out of misplaced obsession and messianic fervor” during the latest round of talks between Israel and the Palestinians. “No agreement with the Palestinians will be reached in our lifetime,” he said, and he was quoted in Yedioth Ahronoth as dismissing the American security plan as “not worth the paper it’s written on. It contains no peace and no security.” The Defense Minister argued that in practice there are no negotiations taking place because Abbas refuses to recognize Israel as the Jewish nation state, refuses to give up on the right of return, and refuses to sign an agreement which will bring all claims to an end. This truth may be painful, but someone has to say it – and that’s what Ya’alon did.
As Jonathan S. Tobin wrote on his Commentary blog (January 14th): “The question facing both Israel and the United States is not so much what to do about Ya’alon ….. but at what point it will behoove the two governments to acknowledge the futility of Kerry’s endeavor.” That is, when exactly should Israelis be told the truth that a Palestinian Arab State will rain missiles down on Tel Aviv – after it happens, or before it happens? True, the Defense Minister’s choice of the words “obsessive” and “messianic” to describe the American Secretary of State may not be graceful, but these statements include something refreshing and much more important than manners – a direct and sincere dialogue with the citizens of Israel.
Then, again, on March 19th at what was thought to be a “closed” forum at Tel Aviv University, Ya’alon criticized the U.S. as too “weak” to deal with Iran and that Israel was going to be forced to act on its own. He correctly pointed out that, as a result of American passivity and indecisiveness, a massive void has been created by Obama’s foreign policy failures which has led to America’s rapidly declining regional and international status – failures that have included acquiescing in the overthrow of long-time U.S. ally and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, punishing the Egyptian military for overthrowing the highly unpopular Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi by stopping the supply of advanced Apache combat helicopters to the Egyptian army – military equipment that was to be used against jihadist groups threatening Egypt from Gaza and the Sinai peninsula, procrastinating on the continuing slaughter in Syria, inaction and perceived weakness in the face of Russia’s annexing the Crimean peninsula, China’s increased aggression in southeast Asia, and Iran’s continuing march towards obtaining nuclear weapons capability – policies that are forcing states in the Middle East to alter their alliance framework.
Ya’alon accurately noted that the perception of the international community is that the United States is afflicted with “feebleness,” which is jeopardizing the current world order and undermining the security of the democratic nations, including the United States.
It is no secret that the Sunni Arab states in particular are irate with the White House for a host of reasons, including Obama’s erasable “red line” in Syria and his accommodationist attitude toward Iran. The interim nuclear deal with Iran signed in Geneva last November allows Iran to continue to enrich uranium, erasing yet another American red line. It makes no mention of Iranian support for terror or human rights abuses. It is silent about the development of Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles, and it permits construction to remain on course at the Arak heavy water reactor – construction necessary solely for the production of plutonium whose only purpose is the development of a nuclear weapon. Its inspection provisions are not serious and as a consequence, the Iranians justifiably praised the deal as “surrender” by the West. Part of the cockiness in Tehran is due to the belief that the U.S. has withdrawn itself from the regional, if not international, equation.
Ya’alon’s comments again produced anger in the State Department and demands for an apology from the Israeli government primarily because the State Department can’t argue with him on substance. Nor is the Defense Minister alone in thinking that the Obama administration’s retreats in the Middle East and its weakness in dealing with Russia and Syria have undermined Israel’s security and U.S. credibility in the region. Ya’alon is just repeating out loud what everyone is thinking. Nor did he say anything that hasn’t been said before. Similar statements are being heard from spurned U.S. allies around the region and the world. Not only were Ya’alon’s statements reasonable, but the vast majority of Israelis share his views both on the untrustworthiness of U.S. security guarantees and on the absence of prospects for peace with the PLO.
If people in the State Department think there’s a problem, the problem is not what Ya’alon said, but with whoever developed a foreign policy so out-of-touch with Middle East realities. He owes no apology to anyone for publicly telling the truth – painful as it is. After all, his comments accurately reflect State Department policies. If anything, it is the Obama Administration that owes an apology to the American people for shirking its responsibilities as leader of the free world and it’s worth noting that the State Department’s reaction to Ya’alon’s remarks – which, in January at least, were made in private – is completely disproportionate to its reaction when other countries, including its allies, criticize the U.S. In fact, Obama and Kerry say far worse things about Israel’s leaders as a matter of course than Ya’alon said about either of them.
It’s not wrong to be right and besides, it’s too late now to try and stop the conversation. So rather than getting furious at Ya’alon blunt candor for stating what for many is the obvious, the Administration may wish to consider that if this is what a senior leader of one of its staunchest ally in the world is thinking – one that wants to see a powerful and respected U.S. – then what must be going through the minds of our enemies?