Beltway domino theory: On the departure of Admiral Dennis Blair

The resignation of Dennis Blair is significant in two respects. First, it creates a wonderful opportunity for the Obama administration to reconsider the misbegotten idea of the Directorate of National Intelligence. This entire costly bureaucratic layer could be rendered obsolete if only the president chose to empower the director of central intelligence to do the job he was intended to do in the first place -- which is to coordinate intelligence flows among the multiple agencies of the intelligence community and to channel the intelligence effectively to policymakers. Just because past presidents have been unwilling to do this is doesn't mean Obama or his successors can't or shouldn't.

Quite the contrary, the tensions between Blair and CIA Director Leon Panetta and the degree to which the DNI and his bureaucracy either slowed intel flows and processes or failed to improve them to a degree worthy of their cost suggests a good, hard look in the direction of this undoing of the Bush mistake would be warranted.

Next, it is the first rumbling of what could be a truly major restructuring of the Obama national security team in the next six or seven months. While Washington rumors are just about as dependable as Washington promises, there is widespread expectation that the post-midterm election period will see several major departures. Among these could be Gen. Jim Jones at the NSC and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. In the words of one senior official with whom I have spoken recently, they have offered Gates "everything but the kitchen sink to stay" but he has been intractable. Given that Gates is almost certainly the second-most-powerful man in Washington -- because he is Obama's most important validator in a policy realm in which the president is extremely vulnerable, because he is almost certainly the best defense secretary in modern U.S. history, and because he is a vital ally to people like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- his departure would be an especially heavy and widely felt blow.

Indeed, it is Obama's vulnerability on the national security front that makes the changes that are likely to come so significant. With deadlines looming in Iraq and Afghanistan that are unlikely to be satisfactorily met, with the Iran nuclear process itself the victim of many missed deadlines and initiatives that have been or are likely to be unsuccessful, with the Israel-Palestinian issue festering, possible war between Israel, Lebanon and Syria brewing for the summer, unabated terrorist threats, and an out-of-control and unaffordable defense budget, this is no time for a house cleaning.

Add to the mix the rumored departures of key political players who have had big roles on these issues like Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod and this early tremor seems especially foreboding. Among the rumored replacements for Gates, by the way, we find not only Sen. Jack Reed and former Sen. Chuck Hagel, but because both have chinks in their armor -- Reed is a Democratic senator from a state with a Republican governor (meaning if he left his replacement might not be a Democrat), and Hagel is smart and respected but has a reputation for being a bit challenging to deal with at times -- a new name has joined the list being buzzed about: Hillary Clinton.

She has Armed Services Committee chops, might like the bigger budget, and many covet her job at State. Also relevant as the games of possible musical chairs go is the fact that Tom Donilon, Jones's deputy, would not only be a candidate to replace him, he might be a candidate to replace Emanuel. This, were it true, would only create further turnover on the national-security side.  (This is why I think he is unlikely to get that position which, in my opinion, should go to the guy who should have had it in the first place, former Sen. Tom Daschle.)

One last point: Denny Blair is an exceptionally gifted man who has contributed enormously to the U.S. throughout a remarkable career of public service. He is one of those guys about whom the glowing words spoken about him at the time of his departure ceremonies will actually be true.


David Rothkopf

It is time for Israel to understand the new normal

I have met Peter Beinart once or twice. While he seemed like a good guy, I was disturbed by his unsettling combination of youth and smarts. I prefer my young commentators on the rise to be more easily dismissible. Unfortunately, even when I disagree with his views, I find he's one of those voices that is hard to shrug off.

That's particularly salient at the moment given his recent piece in the New York Review of Books that has stirred up such a fuss over its (hard to deny) arguments that many among the younger generation American Jews have turned away from Zionism in part because major "pro-Israel" Jewish organizations embraced hard-line policies that were in conflict with younger Jews' "liberal" values. ("Pro-Israel" is in quotes because I find it hard to describe policies as pro-Israel that are actually in the long-term damaging to Israel... and the policies to which he refers fall into that category. "Liberal" is in quotes because I have no idea what that means anymore.)

I think Beinart is on to something. But I think it is only part of the equation. Something larger and deeper is at work here: the passage of time, specifically that potent cocktail that is the combination of history and demographic change.

Even comparatively young older folks like me and, for example, my former graduate school roommate who is now the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., were 11 or 12 when the 1967 war took place. And we and those older than us starting their careers at the time (the really grey heads today) were heavily influenced by it. (My former roommate, Mike Oren, even wrote the definitive history of the war, a truly great account.)

The story of tiny Israel, surrounded by enemies, greatly outnumbered, fighting for a haven against a world that had only two decades before completed a period of unimaginable atrocities against the Jewish people, was incredibly heroic and compelling. For my father's generation of course, Holocaust survivors and those who lived through that dark era, the story  was even more trenchant and Zionism was an even more natural impulse.

Thus for the generations that have dominated the U.S. political and policy scene since the days of the Second World War through 1967 and beyond, that narrative -- Israel fighting against the odds to redress millennia of injustices -- was an inspirational subtext that not only influenced our views but colored countless news stories and government policy decisions not just in Israel but in the U.S. and elsewhere. Of course, there were many other reasons that Israel and the U.S. forged a strong alliance. Many -- like America's strategic interests in the Middle East and the need for strong allies in the context of the Cold War -- were more important than the narrative, but the narrative was very important in selling them and in explaining the U.S.-Israeli special relationship in terms that helped to justify it.

The problem for Israel and Israel's current leadership however, is that even if that old narrative seems as compelling as ever to them, it is increasingly falling on deaf ears in the United States. Indeed, it is clear that many of the problems that exist not only in the Israel-U.S. relationship at the moment but also in Israel's broader relations with the world are associated with a failure to recognize the sea-change in perceptions of Israel and its situation that has taken place.

Let me frame it in terms that are easy to understand.

When the Six Day War took place, Barack Obama was 4. He was just entering elementary school at the time of the Yom Kippur War. The first major regional conflict that could have entered his consciousness and had a major impression on him took place when he was just finishing his junior year of college. It was a year after he had gone on family trips to Indonesia, India and Pakistan. I don't say this to pander to the vile baiting of the fringe elements of American far right, but rather to help set the stage for the intellectual coming of age of the current U.S. president.  

In June 1982, the First Lebanon War began. Not only was the war the first major Middle Eastern conflict of Obama's adult years, it was also the trigger for a change in how Israel was viewed internationally that has defined the past three decades. Lebanon was where Israel gave up the moral high ground in its conflict with its Arab neighbors. The massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in September 1982, although conducted by Phalangists seeking retribution for not only the assassination of the Lebanese president but also for past blows inflicted on them, were widely seen as being enabled by the Israeli troops that surrounded the camps and stood by while the massacres were taking place.

Within five years of the massacres, the Palestinian leadership initiated an extraordinarily effective strategy of confronting the Israelis via intifada, uprisings that seemed one-sided to the advantage of the Israelis militarily but were in fact, one-sided to the advantage of the Palestinians politically and strategically. Because the Palestinians recognized long before the Israelis that the balance of power in modern conflicts often lay with those who won the television war for support, those who claimed the narrative. Poor Palestinian boys throwing rocks at Israeli tanks snatched the "against-the-odds" narrative from the State of Israel and brilliantly turned it against them.

During the 1980s, as a consequence, the tide began to turn toward the Palestinians among the American left -- from academia to politicized Hollywood. (It is worth noting that if the Jews do control the media as conspiracy theorists love to suggest, they sure haven't done much to help the image of Israel over the past several decades.)

In the two decades since, a series of other developments have taken place that have transformed the U.S. political environment in terms of support for Israel and in particular in terms of support for the kind of joined-at-the-hip policies that seemed to define the relationship during the sixties, seventies and early eighties.

Each of these changes has had a profound impact which is amplified in its significance by the fact that many in the Israeli leadership seem somewhere between being baffled and in complete denial by them. They include:

The Shift from the Strategic Center, Part I: The End of the Cold War

During the '60s and '70s and '80s it was easy to make the case that America needed a strategic ally in the Middle East. Our oil came from there. It was on the southern flank of our great enemy. And that great enemy was cosy with a lot of Israel's enemies in the region. The Cold War, however, ended and as it did, Israel began to drift away from being strategically central to the United States.

The Shift from the Strategic Center, Part II: The Aftermath of 9/11

In the eyes of many Israelis, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon should have drawn the U.S. and Israel closer. But quite the opposite has happened. Because Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan become more central to the U.S., and because the U.S. put troops on the ground in those countries, we were less in need of a tiny foothold, in fact, we might be building long-term presences in those countries and in the Gulf that make Israel less important relatively speaking. Furthermore, we began to see threats from terrorists or loose nukes in Pakistan as more important to us than the Israeli-Arab tension. Indeed, as American General David Petraeus has observed-representing an increasingly popular view-America's ties to Israel and the unresolved nature of their conflict with the Palestinians may be exacerbating our problems with terrorists and potential supporters throughout the greater Middle East. Not only has our center of attention in the region shifted Eastward, our ties in Israel are seen not as an advantage re: U.S. interests there but as quite the opposite.

The Rise of Partisanship: The Curse of the Neocons and the Realist Corollary

Making matters worse is the fact that the unpopular U.S. invasion of Iraq was seen in part as the product of efforts by a small group of neocons who popular fiction has associated with advancing Israeli interests. Thus, many Democrats blame the war in Iraq on a group of people seen to be sacrificing U.S. interests to advance an Israeli agenda. Whether this is true, an exaggeration or a facile misreading of the facts, this viewpoint has helped partisanize this issue. Polling data shows that Republicans are more willing to associate themselves with strong support of Israel and Democrats are more inclined to see a change in the policies. That's not to say Israel is unpopular. It is more that Democrats increasingly seek to distinguish their policies as being more "balanced" toward Palestinians and moderate Arab states. 

The American Retreat and the Advance of the BRICs

On top of the above, America is burdened by domestic economic problems and the economic as well as the human cost of the wars in the region has greatly diminished the country's appetite for further such entanglements. Indeed, the only way the president could justify adding troops in Afghanistan was promising at the same time a firm date for withdrawal. America is not going to get deeply involved in other conflicts in this part of the world if it can avoid it. The bad actors in the region know it. Do the Israelis? At the same time, as the U.S. seeks multilateral solutions for the big diplomatic problems in the region, other players are increasingly important such as the BRICs (see the Iranian issue below). They are almost universally of a school of thought that is skeptical of the Israelis and closer to the moderate Arab states in the region. Since the U.S. is disinclined to go it alone, these new players' views become much more important.

The Shift from the Strategic Center, Part III: The Iranian Nuclear Problem

Nowhere is this shift more clear than with the Iranian nuclear stand off. This is the first major conflict in the region in which the most important international player was not the U.S. but the Chinese. Why? Because if the Chinese don't go along with sanctions, there just can't be effective sanctions. They know it. We know it. And that's why there aren't sanctions today. This also means it is almost certain that Iran will end up being nearly nuclear or nuclear and that the world will be forced to accept it. Israel, anxious for years to get the U.S. to focus on Iran, may regret getting what they wished for. Because once there is a nuclear Iran, the issue becomes containment. And if that's the issue, moderate Arab states are a key part of the strategy. They'll want to go along... but they will want the U.S. to pressure Israel more on reaching a solution with the Palestinians in exchange.

Of course, Israel bears a great deal of responsibility for this. They have utterly disregarded these developments as they took place and have recklessly failed on the public diplomacy front. Today, they are perceived as the aggressor and the bias against them is so acute in the media that when Palestinians launch thousands of missiles against Israel and Israel responds, the world thinks of Israel as the aggressor or when a couple of years ago a missile threat from Lebanon provoked an effective Israeli response, world public opinion concluded both that Israel started the conflict and lost it despite the fact that neither assertion is actually true.

The Israelis are in denial and the clock is ticking. Rather than addressing the question of how to return to strategic centrality for the U.S. or how to reclaim the moral high ground in the conflict and thus win back international support, they play the settlements game, a needless and for all the above reasons, dangerous distraction from the real business at hand. 

My own view is that they ought to lean into the peace process and do whatever else they must to reclaim the moral high ground and the narrative they need to underpin the strong U.S.-Israel relationship that is critical to their future. If they fear that this might me concessions that are too great to the Palestinians, I say, it is worth the risk because the alternative is eroding support at critical places in the international foundations of their security.  

My sense is this is a lower risk proposition than many hard-liners might think. Because I think that ultimately the Palestinian will cede the moral and political high ground in this fairly easily given their chronic dysfunctionality. As for the issue of restoring strategic centrality, the Syrians and Hezbollah and Iran seem to be working overtime to restore the narrative that it still is tiny Israel against very hostile neighbors who seek regional hegemony rather than to redress the grievances of the poor displaced Palestinians (about whom history shows they care not at all except for what utility they may have as pawns in a greater Middle East chess game.) Lean into peace, show more restraint than is comfortable, win the battle of the Internet and the cable news networks and talk radio because that is the one that is most critical to restoring the political support of the kind Israel needs.

If you wish to argue the specifics of the preceding point, fine. But let's agree on one thing: What will be fatal is waiting and hoping for the good old days to return. Skepticism and the search for a new paradigm -- see the President's Cairo speech for clues -- are not going to retreat. Neither is time, demographic change or history. Things will not go back to normal. This is the new normal. Israel must deal with it or fall victim to it.

Baz Ratner-Pool/Getty Images