Progressives making friends with the Pentagon? It has happened before. The top military brass have often shared progressives' preference for avoiding war. They were quite skeptical, for example, about the invasions of Iraq launched by both presidents named Bush.
But this week brought an unexpected new link between these strange bedfellows. For the first time, perhaps, the Pentagon's upper echelon is pushing a president not merely to abstain from war, but to use diplomatic channels actively to pursue peace - peace between Israel and Palestine.
In a widely-circulated story, journalist Mark Perry reported that Gen. "King David" Petraeus sent a briefing team to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) back in January to give them the results of conversations US military leaders had with officials throughout the Arab world. The consensus: Because of the administration's failure to stand up to the Israelis, "America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding."
When Petraeus briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee this week, he laid out the case in some detail. At the top of his list of "issues that serve as major drivers of instability," he placed "insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace."
"The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [CENTCOM Area of Responsibility, which includes most of the Greater Middle East, from Egypt to Afghanistan, but excludes Israel and Palestine]," Petraeus said. "The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas."
According to Perry, JCS chief Adm. Mike Mullen has already endorsed Petraeus' view and sent it on to the White House. Hence the unexpected pressure on Israel from the White House in the past few days. According to some reports, Washington has sent Netanyahu a list of "specific actions" he must take to show he is "committed" to the US-Israel relationship and to the peace process itself. The New York Times' man in Israel, Ethan Bronner, reported that "a crucial American demand is that Israel neither promote nor permit "provocative" acts ... That would include new building projects." Barak Ravid of Haaretz added that the list includes "goodwill gestures toward the Palestinians and a public declaration by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of his willingness to discuss the conflict's core issues in the framework of peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority."
But will Obama follow through? Or will he back down, as he did through most of 2009?
The common wisdom has it that Obama backed off his demand for a total halt to settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank because he feared a backlash in Congress. He was far more concerned with getting his health reform bill passed than with getting the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table. He feared that pressure on Israel might cost him the votes of some of the most vocal right-wing, "pro-Israel" members of Congress.
If that's true, then with the health care vote coming down to the wire, the president finds himself caught now between a Pentagon rock and a Congressional hard place. If he has decided that he finally has to get serious with Netanyahu to please the generals and admirals, he may be waiting until the crucial vote in Congress is past, hoping that it's just a matter of days.
Of course, his political enemies aren't waiting. A Jewish-American political consultant, clearly sympathetic to the Israeli right, sketched out the strategy in a major Israeli newspaper:
Many [ in the US ] who oppose the Administration see an opportunity to make their own point about a myopic Obama foreign policy that coddles terrorists at home, bows to the Saudi king abroad, offers public apologies to Islam, and twists the arm of its allies. The president is vulnerable. The opposition intends to cause damage. Real damage. Political damage. The kind they pay attention to.
This is Obama's political Achilles' heel. In the latest AP poll, his disapproval numbers on the crucial economic issues are much higher than on Iraq, Afghanistan and "terrorism." If his numbers turn bad on those war and security issues, too, he has nothing to fall back on to keep his popularity up. For the Democrats, already facing an uphill struggle in the midterm elections, an unpopular president might be the final nail in their coffin.
So the Republicans, whether they really give a fig about Israel or not, will use any sign of Obama "arm-twisting" Israel as a hammer with which to beat him. And some Congressional Democrats, locked in the AIPAC grip, will join the chorus of criticism, no matter how destructive that might be for their party's future.
Obama's political advisers know all this perfectly well. No doubt, they are scanning the political horizon constantly, trying to determine just how heavy a price the president and his party will pay for acceding to the Pentagon's push for a harder line toward Israel.
That's why the Pentagon finds itself unexpectedly in need of support from progressives. If the forces of peace and justice can make a strong enough showing on this issue - if they can blunt the conservative counterattack enough to give Obama political cover - he can persist in the tougher stance that he has just begun to take, apparently at the bidding of the Pentagon.
The military wants to put more pressure on Israel in the interests of US national security. Progressives want to see that pressure in the interests of peace and justice for the long-suffering Palestinians. But political alliances are typically forged by groups joining together to pursue a common goal for quite different reasons. That's the name of the game. So, progressives concerned about Middle East peace should not hesitate to grasp the hand of their new friend, the Pentagon.
Most importantly, progressives should let their representatives in Congress know about this new friendship. Most Congressional offices, preoccupied as they are with health care, may not even have heard the news of the Pentagon's push for peace. To hear it from progressives might come as a surprise.
To learn that, for once, the interests of national security and of peace and justice coincide might come as a bigger surprise. But that combination should be hard for legislators to resist, especially Democrats. If enough Democrats rally around the president and the Pentagon, they can create a powerful counterweight to the Republican-AIPAC alliance.
As strange as it may seem, progressives should be rushing to the phone to call their senators and representatives and say, "I support my friend, the Pentagon."