When David Howell Petraeus was writing his doctoral thesis at Princeton University, on how the lessons of the Vietnam War shaped the relations between the military and civilian echelons in Washington, he came across a remark by his father-in-law, who also happened to be superintendent of West Point Military Academy when Petraeus was at the outset of his U.S. Army career there. “Those who ordered the meal,” retired General William A. Knowlton reminded young officers in 1985, about that war, “were not there when the waiter brought the check.”
Petraeus, of Dutch extraction, a scholar-soldier-spy – the last term a reference to his short stint as CIA director under President Barack Obama (2011-2012) – went on after his studies to lead troops in Iraq, devise the American doctrine on counterinsurgency, and assume command in three 4-star positions including Central Command (CENTCOM). Along the way, he also developed strong ties with such Israeli military figures former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and former head of Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin, who now directs the Institute for National Security Studies, in Tel Aviv. Later this month, Petraeus will appear at the annual conference of the INSS.
In an extensive interview with Haaretz, Petraeus sounded skepticism about a moderate turn in Iran’s regional policies and the chances for a successful final push by the Obama administration in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. He has praise for both the Palestinian security services and for former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad – as of now, a very long shot to succeed President Mahmoud Abbas – and compliments the outgoing chief of the Mossad, Tamir Pardo, and his predecessor, Meir Dagan.
Based on your vast military and intelligence experience, how would you rank Russia, China, ISIS and Iran when it comes to serious security threats to world and regional stability?
“I don’t believe that it is particularly useful to ‘rate’ threats to national security in order of precedence or priority. In truth, we face a number of significant challenges, and each of these needs to be understood on its own terms. Beyond that, we do not have the luxury of picking and choosing among them, as some would like to do – or of appearing to elevate one region of the planet at the expense of others. We live in a world where we must combat non-state actors, like the Islamic State, that have genocidal and totalitarian ambitions, while simultaneously countering nation-states that have hegemonic ambitions and that seek to overturn key tenets of the existing international order, like the Iranian government and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
“The Middle East is unique in that all of these threats are present in this region, they are intertwined, and failure to manage them here has been shown to have consequences not just for the region, but for the rest of the world.
“The basic challenge in the Middle East is the unraveling of legitimate state authority in a number of countries across a significant swath of territory, and this in turn has precipitated a violent struggle for power and control over these spaces. These are struggles between rival elements within the failed states and ungoverned spaces whose future is seen as being up for grabs, but these struggles also draw in external powers from within the region and beyond, powers that are pursuing their own rivalries and dreams of dominance.
“Unfortunately, the chief beneficiaries of this dynamic so far have been the most radical and ruthless forces in the Middle East – groups like the Islamic State and Al-Qaida, on the one side, and the Iranian regime, on the other.
“What is also common among all of these challenges is that they are creating unprecedented demand for U.S. leadership and involvement across the world. Whether fairly or not, I think there is a perception in a variety of geographies today that the U.S. over the past few years – particularly after the frustrations of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – has been weary of war; and, in turn, this has probably emboldened some actors to try their luck at challenging the international order. It is going to be very important for the U.S. to address this problem and to restore a sense of certainty and confidence – among friends and foes alike – in America’s security commitments.”
Do you believe that for the next 10-15 years, while Iran is being monitored for any violations, that its nuclear weapons program will for all practical purposes be dormant and that this period can be used to pursue a bold American – and Israeli – strategy vis-a-vis the various domestic forces in the Iranian system?
“I think it would be a significant mistake to assume that the Iranian nuclear program will be dormant under the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed upon with Iran last summer]. Perhaps the Iranians really will adhere to their obligations under the agreement. But if they do so, it will be among the few times in a quarter-century that they haven’t tried to cheat on their nuclear commitments.
“That is why it is so important for the United States and our allies to use the JCPOA to pursue the most robust possible inspections and verification, and for us also to signal clearly to the Iranians that any violations – especially on the margins of the deal, which is where such activity will inevitably begin – will prompt a very firm and credible response. I am, in fact, concerned that the Iranians have already been trying, with some success, to deter us from holding them to their obligations, by threatening to walk away from the JCPOA, when we are the ones who need to be in the business of deterring them from cheating.
“Regardless of Iran’s nuclear behavior, we must also recognize that the practical effect of the JCPOA will be to bolster Iran’s capability to pursue its hegemonic ambitions, as Tehran comes out from under sanctions, reintegrates with the global economy, and receives more revenue (and $50 billion-$100 billion in frozen assets) – at least a portion of which are going to be used to bolster the Iran Revolutionary Guards Quds Force and regional proxies like Lebanese Hezballah, Shi’ite militias in Iraq, Palestinian terrorist groups, and the Houthi [rebels] in Yemen. It is unfortunate that this will happen at a moment when, for a variety of reasons, the region is already particularly susceptible to Iranian power projection. The second element of our strategy, therefore, must be to intensify our efforts to counter Iran’s expansionism and to empower those elements in the region that can serve as a bulwark against Tehran.
“There are some who argue that, because we are at war with the Islamic State, Iran therefore becomes our natural ally, because it is also battling the Islamic State. I strongly disagree. Sometimes the enemy of your enemy is still your enemy, and I believe that is the case in this situation. In fact, we must recognize that it has been Iranian expansionism that has helped fan the flames of Sunni extremism – whether by enabling Bashar Assad’s campaign of slaughter in Syria or backing sectarian elements in Iraq or Yemen. That is why, at the same time that we step up our campaign to combat the Islamic State, we also need a reinvigorated effort to counter and roll back Iran’s malign activities across the region.
“More broadly, we in the United States face a very fundamental question concerning our role in the Middle East, namely: What will be our relationship with Iranian power? Do we seek to balance and counter it, or should we seek to accommodate and partner with it, in the hope of exercising some kind of moderating influence over it? My own view is that the former is the right approach – but I am not sure the U.S. has adequately clarified its approach to this question.
“Finally, as I testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee several months ago, it is very important that the White House and Congress together state that Iran will never be allowed to enrich uranium to weapons grade. Nothing will reassure our allies and partners in the region more than such a statement of national policy, backed up by maintaining the capabilities and readiness of the military forces needed to implement such a policy if necessary.”
‘Strategic dead end’
How important is a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Middle East stability? What outline do you see for such a solution?
“I think it is increasingly clear that the old notion that the path to peace and stability in the Middle East runs through a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is mistaken. (And I acknowledge that I was one of those who shared that notion until a few years ago.) There are multiple interlocking conflicts unfolding across the region right now – and to be blunt, the Israeli-Palestinian issue is peripheral to all of them. Those who suggest that, if peace were to break out tomorrow between Israelis and Palestinians, such a development would stabilize, say, Syria or Libya or Iraq, are simply detached from reality.
“That said, I do think that the status quo between the Israelis and Palestinians is deeply problematic for Israelis and Palestinians, and it should be a source of concern for Israel’s friends and supporters. The question is, of course: What can realistically be done about it?
“I think we also need to be very clear that – whatever the frustrations and disappointments of the current situation – there is simply no excuse or rationalization for terrorism, nor for moral equivalence between those who set out to kill innocent civilians and those trying to prevent attacks. Beyond that, clearly, incitement and glorification of violence against civilians constitute a moral and strategic dead end. This is, frankly, a lesson that should have been learned long ago.
“As for what to do, I am skeptical [of the idea] that a peace deal is within reach if only the U.S. makes another big, public diplomatic push for it. It seems to me that, for a number of reasons, the stars just aren’t in alignment for meaningful negotiations right now. Instead, it might be more productive to explore other, quieter steps that might be taken to stabilize the situation, prevent it from worsening, and perhaps begin to achieve some positive momentum on the ground. To that end, I think that some of the confidence-building measures put forward are worth serious consideration.
“Beyond those, arguably one of the rare success stories of the last decade was the development of the Palestinian security forces. Are there further actions that can be taken to reinforce and expand on that kind of institution-building in the West Bank – supporting the growth of responsible Palestinian state structures and promoting economic opportunities that can significantly improve day-to-day life for Palestinians and give real meaning and substance to the state that hopefully will emerge on that territory one day? Perhaps so. In addition, there certainly are individuals, like former Prime Minister Fayyad, within Palestinian society who are pushing for reform and economic development, and they deserve greater support than they have received.”
Should Israel be kept in EUCOM [the U.S. military’s European Command] or moved to CENTCOM, along with the Palestinian Authority? Does the current Unified Command Plan make sense, when Egypt and Jordan are in the CENTCOM Area of Responsibility, but the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Israel are not?
“This is an interesting question, and one that we have looked at periodically over the years. In truth, regardless of where the lines between the different U.S. combatant commands are drawn, there will always be difficult divisions of the sort you describe, as there are in any military campaign, as well.
“My personal instinct is that, rather than rejigging the map, the better response is to prioritize strong functional coordination and cooperation among the combatant commands. That is what we attempted to do when I was commander of CENTCOM. In truth, as you know, the original reason that Israel was in the so-called Area of Responsibility, or AOR, of EUCOM rather than CENTCOM was, in a way, to firewall the Israel-U.S. military relationship. The concern was that, if the military commander who had responsibility for the Arab states also had responsibility for Israel, there might be the temptation to make decisions about Israel through the prism of our relations with our Arab partners – or pressure for this kind of linkage.
“Although I think the risk of this is significantly lower today – not least because Israel is, ironically, in alignment with many of those Arab neighbors on the key threats facing the region – I think it is probably still wisest to maintain the current arrangement. (It is worth noting the EUCOM is responsible for Turkey, as well, even though a number of the forces under the operational control of CENTCOM for the fight against ISIS are based there.)”
You have studied civil-military relations in Washington and in the field from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. Are there any permanent lessons, or are times changing and personal and societal factors transforming this issue?
“As the saying goes, history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it often rhymes. When you look at the national security experience of the United States over the past 60 or 70 years, since the end of World War II and arguably before, you do see some recurring themes and patterns. Indeed, even in the quarter-century of our military involvement with Iraq – from Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 up until the present day – we can see this.
“One such pattern is that the U.S. all too often sets an ambitious military objective, engages in a furious debate about whether we are succeeding or not, and then finds itself largely unprepared for the consequences when we do in fact achieve the objective. That was arguably what happened in Iraq in 1991 after we kicked Saddam [Hussein] out of Kuwait, again in 2003 after we overthrew his regime in Baghdad, and, in a sense, after the Surge of 2007-2008; in each case, there was a failure to consolidate and capitalize on the gains we achieved. I worry now, in fact, that we are at risk of repeating this mistake with respect to the Islamic State – as we focus so much on defeating the group militarily and not enough on what comes after it in Iraq, in Syria, and in the other locations where we are focusing on IS affiliates.
“A second pattern is that we often struggle and stumble – whether in Vietnam or in the current crises across the Middle East – when the problem we are facing requires neither a purely military or diplomatic approach, but a strategy that closely integrates elements of both (and of other elements as well). That is part of what I think we got right during the Surge of 2007-2008 – when my great civilian wingman, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and I made the conscious decision to establish a fully integrated civil-military campaign plan and sought to achieve unity of effort in all that we did. Unfortunately, such an approach is more often the exception than the rule. In part, this is because our national security institutions are simply not designed to function that way, and thus, in the absence of very strong leadership from the very top, and/or unconventional personalities at the working level, such integration often doesn’t materialize.”
Next in the Oval Office
As you view the 2016 presidential election and the trends in American politics and demography, how much does it really matter to a foreign country such as Israel whether the next occupant of the Oval Office is a Democrat or a Republican? Is there not a basic continuity in U.S. national security and international relations, which after the campaign rhetoric calms down reverts to the center?
“Let me stipulate up front that I consider myself non-partisan: I am neither in the Democratic nor the Republican camp. Both parties have produced leaders I admire, and, in my view, leaders of both parties have also committed their share of blunders. I am also a declared ‘non-combatant’ in the presidential race: I am happy to talk to responsible, internationalist candidates from both sides of the aisle, and I think a number of the contenders would be very capable commanders-in-chief.
“I agree with you that there is often a basic continuity in U.S. national security policy; that is true to a greater extent than either party is eager to admit. That said, it is my strongly held belief – based on both my study of history and my personal experiences – that individuals matter a great deal in history. Particularly on the toughest national security decisions we face, as with the Surge in Iraq under President Bush or the nuclear negotiations with Iran under President Obama, the importance of the president – and his or her convictions, personality, and worldview – should not be underestimated. In short, leaders do matter. And that is particularly true of the leader of the United States.
“Our next president is likely to inherit an unprecedented number of competing national security crises – from Europe to Asia to the Middle East – the solutions to which are anything but obvious. For that reason, this year’s election will have far-reaching consequences not just for America, but for the world. Given that, in one form or another, I think change is coming to our national security policy in January 2017.”
As a professional what is your view of the Israeli intelligence and special operations community? Specifically as an army general-turned-director of Central Intelligence, what were the distinctive features of the Mossad? Is it better for such an agency to be headed by a senior military officer, such as retired Maj. Gen. Meir Dagan, whose term of duty ended just prior to your assuming your position at CIA, or a career Mossad official like Tamir Pardo, your counterpart?
“There is deep, well-deserved respect for Israeli national security institutions, their leaders, and their members – and these institutions include Mossad, Shin Bet and of course the IDF. I am among those who have enormous respect for those institutions – and, in my case, that respect is founded on years of partnership with key leaders of these extraordinary organizations. In that regard, both Meir Dagan and Tamir Pardo were exceptional leaders of Mossad and great partners for their American counterparts – and I’m thus agnostic as to the proper path to the head of such an important organization.
“I recognize that, over the last few years, some differences and disagreements between the leaders of Israel and the U.S. have been in the spotlight. And I am keenly aware of voices in both countries that have argued that our two countries are pulling farther apart. In my view, at a time when civilization itself is under siege from forces that wish to tear down the world we have helped to build, we would be wise to take a step back and focus on the big picture. The simple reality is that Israel and the United States are long-standing friends and allies in an increasingly dangerous world – and we ought to treat each other as such.
“From an American perspective, Israel has proven itself to be an exceptionally capable, resourceful and valuable ally to the United States in a very important and treacherous region. We share many fundamental interests, and we face enemies that wish to do both countries harm.
“Just as importantly, we share core values and we therefore wrestle with many of the same questions – about how to keep our people safe from the forces of terrorism that seek our destruction while preserving our respective democratic freedoms, rule of law, and respect for fundamental and eternal human rights, which define who we are.”
With the rise of cyber-warfare and the spread of digital data emanating from countless sources, is HUMINT [human intelligence] as important a discipline as it used to be? How do you practice tradecraft against tough nuts such as Islamic State?
“The explosive growth of the digital realm has changed the practice of intelligence in countless ways, not only with respect to cybersecurity, tradecraft and surveillance issues, but also with the increase in prominence of so-called big data and open-source intelligence. Some of the best analytic products, for instance, now derive from information collected on publicly available social media platforms, rather than through clandestine means.
“That said, just as the rise of satellite technology and fixed-line telephones in an earlier era didn’t eliminate the need for HUMINT, I don’t think the current changes in technology will either. To the contrary, I would caution strongly against those who think technology can reduce the importance of the human element in intelligence or national security more broadly. If anything, I think the human factor carries even more importance today, in the face of challenges like the Islamic State and Russian unconventional warfare, than it did in the days when the most pressing and sensitive task was to count Soviet nuclear warheads or tanks. So HUMINT will rightly still be regarded as extraordinarily important by those seeking insights into the thinking and intentions of those who wish us ill.”
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