Little Baghdad

When, at the end of World War II, George Marshall received word that Germany had surrendered, he put! on his best uniform and visited Harry Truman. "Mr. President," he said. "I am pleased to announce that we’ve defeated Germany." Truman smiled: "I’m happy to hear that, General," he responded, "because for a while there I thought we were fighting the British."

The British and Americans worked well together in World War II, but even the best alliance is not seamless: Marshall’s protege General Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell referred to the British as "f-cking pigs", Douglas MacArthur refused to cooperate with them during the Pacific War ("they just want their colonies back"), and Eisenhower’s friendship with Winston Churchill earned him the enmity of George Patton: "Ike’s the best general the limeys have," he said.

Franklin Roosevelt was only marginally less critical. He had two goals in the war: to defeat the Axis powers–and to end the British Empire. Roosevelt blamed the British for the war, describing British colonialism as one of its primary causes. Churchill was uncomfortably aware of this, but he knew the facts: the UK needed America not only to defeat Germany, but to survive. So it was with a sense of relief that Churchill welcomed December 7, 1941: it meant that his country was saved. But he was careful: thousands of dead at Pearl Harbor were not cause for celebration.

Sadly, some of Israel’s most ardent American friends have failed to follow Churchill’s example. In the aftermath of 9/11, the New Republic’s Martin Peretz ("Israel, The United States, and Evil") was nearly gleeful. Finally, America could "grasp Israel’s human losses"; finally the Israeli-American alliance was "bonded in blood"; finally "we Americans no longer need any instructions in how it feels to be an Israeli." Put another way, 9/11 might have been bad for America, but it was good for Israel.

Really? The brain-dead view of our history holds that we defeat our enemies and come home with our views intact. The reality is quite different: we defeat our enemies (or not, as the case may be) and then we marry them. Or set them up in business. There’s a neighborhood called "Little Saigon" blocks from where I live. Then too, fighting people is a subversive experience: we learn about them. Once upon a time it was acceptable to refer to people as "dirty Japs," or "filthy Huns" or "gooks"–or, more recently, "Hajis". Not anymore. They’re now our neighbors.

It’s useful to keep all of this in mind when reflecting on what General David Petraeus said about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict several weeks ago: that the conflict "foments anti-American sentiment, due to a US perception of favoritism toward Israel." Petraeus’ public words went further: the problems caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict head the list of challenges faced by the US in the region.

The outpouring of rage among the pro-Israel advocates was interesting: that Petraeus never said what he said, that he said it but didn’t mean it, or that he said it but it only showed his ignorance. This last view–repeated by columnist Andrew McCarthy in the National Review ("Petraeus’ Israel Problem")–holds that "Petraeus is echoing the narrative peddled incessantly by leftists in the government he serves and by Islamists in the countries where he works." What Petraeus really needs, McCarthy says, is a better understanding of the "totalitarian, iniquitous, misogynistic, homophobic, virulently anti-western and anti-Semitic culture that dominates Muslim countries."

Those who believe Petraeus, meanwhile, are "leftists," "terrorist groupies" or "Hizballah flunkies".

My God, man, I don’t even hear this tripe in Israel. Rarely, if ever, do you hear anyone articulate Petraeus’ real message: that if the United States wants to win the war on terror we have to address the region’s most fundamental issues.

Of course, my country’s senior military officers aren’t delusional; they know that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict won’t end the war on terror. But they’re convinced that it will remove an arrow from the quiver of our enemies. And even if it doesn’t, isn’t it worth doing anyway? And there’s another message. There’s not only a deep strain of anti-colonialism in the American military, there’s a strong sense that not only does America come first, no one comes second. We’re willing to fight with our friends as a part of a coalition (in fact, that’s our preference), but we’ll only do so if we’re the ones in charge. We’re even willing to shed our blood with our allies, but only for our interests, not theirs. The message was clear for Churchill and it is just as clear for Binyamin Netanyahu: we don’t need to prove that we’re committed to Israel’s security, they need to prove that they’re committed to ours. Israelis can do that by working to resolve their conflict with th! e Palestinians. If they do, they’ll remain a strategic asset and an ally. If they don’t, they won’t. It’s just that simple.

Unfortunately, the Petraeus controversy has failed to spark a useful debate about US-Israel relations. The language surrounding the controversy has been divisive and polarizing. It’ll only get worse, especially if Israel attacks Iran. If that happens, Americans will die. At which point, I’m quite sure, we’ll hear Andrew McCarthy extol the virtues of killing Iranians: they’re a bunch of "misogynistic", "homophobic" "anti-Semites" anyway so what the hell. And (I’m also quite sure) that even as the bodies of our dead arrive at Dover Air Force Base, we’ll hear Martin Peretz tell us that while all those dead young men and women are bad for America, they’re actually good for Israel. Because the lives lost will reinforce our "bond of blood" with our Israeli allies.

But don’t try to peddle that garbage in the Pentagon.