Misunderstanding Clausewitz

Gabriel Scheinmann Visiting Fellow, Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs
Font Size:

Carl von Clausewitz, the renowned Prussian military theorist, famously wrote that war is merely a continuation of politics by other means. If so, then the Obama administration has disastrously misunderstood the Clausewitzian dictum when it comes to Israeli security. By misconstruing the relationship between policy and security, the administration has undermined rather than bolstered Israeli security.

Repeating a line he first test-drove last June, President Obama has been touting that his “administration has done more in terms of the security of the State of Israel than any previous administration.” The Obama campaign even released a seven-minute video detailing the unprecedented nature of the president’s policies. At the State of the Union, the president declared that “Our ironclad commitment — and I mean ironclad — to Israel’s security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history.” Obama campaign surrogate and former Congressman Robert Wexler, after cataloguing all that the president has done for Israeli security, caustically asked, “But for President Obama joining the IDF, what more could he possibly do?”

The administration certainly deserves credit for some of its policies. It has been an ardent supporter of Israel’s multi-layered missile defense systems, providing generous funding for Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and the Arrow Systems outside of traditional U.S. military aid. The administration also released a preapproved sale of “bunker-buster” bombs to Israel in 2009, sold Israel F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, and, despite its recent postponement, will hold the largest missile defense exercise ever in Israel later this year. However, the Obama administration’s major policies have undermined rather than strengthened Israeli security.

First, President Obama has seemingly ghost-written the Palestinian negotiating position, paralyzing the peace process. While the administration praised the 10-month Israeli settlement moratorium as “unprecedented” and vetoed a condemnatory U.N. Security Council resolution last February, a total settlement freeze — including Jerusalem — was an Obama demand, leading to a Palestinian boycott of negotiations until Israel had done so. Similarly, the Obama administration derailed the Palestinian U.N. statehood bid last fall, but it was the president himself who declared before the U.N. in September 2010 that “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations, an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.” Moreover, Palestinian negotiators have refused to discuss security issues with their Israeli counterparts until Israel accepts the 1949 armistice lines as the basis of border negotiations, a policy the president set in his major policy speech last May. By effectively undercutting the Israeli position on three fronts, the president has not only weakened Israel’s ability to ensure its security needs, but has also set back the possibility of true peace.

Second, the Obama administration’s Iran policy has been discordant, leaving Tehran to believe that Washington is not serious about stopping its nuclear ambitions. While the Obama administration has enacted punitive economic sanctions against Iran, its fumbling rhetoric has cast doubt on its willingness to take military action if necessary. It insists that “all options remain on the table,” yet it has fired public broadsides against a potential Israeli strike, signaling to Tehran that the administration and the Israeli government are working off different playbooks. Moreover, the announced withdrawals of American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan have fed the Iranian regime’s confidence.

Finally, the administration has caved to the global criticism of Israel’s nuclear deterrent. In 2010, although the president stated the he would “strongly oppose efforts to single out Israel and will oppose actions that jeopardize Israel’s national security,” the administration endorsed the decree of the NPT Review Conference that did just that, explicitly calling for a nuclear-free Middle East and singling out Israel for not having signed the NPT, without even mentioning Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu canceled plans to attend the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit because the Obama administration was unwilling to stop Egyptian and Turkish efforts to isolate Israel. Rather than champion the Israeli nuclear deterrent as the greatest guarantor of Israeli security, the Obama administration instead succumbed to foreign pressure, legitimizing the view that Israel’s nuclear program is of greater concern than Iran’s.

On three separate fronts, West Bank security needs, the Iranian nuclear program, and Israel’s own nuclear deterrent, the Obama administration has pursued policies that restrict Israel’s ability to defend itself. It has mistakenly believed that security and policy exist in two distinct realms, hampering its direct support of the IDF with policies that constrict and corner Israel. Instead of engaging in self-flattery, the president would do well to reread his Clausewitz.

Gabriel M. Scheinmann is a Visiting Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).