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Pro-Israel org reels in big fish: A former CENTCOM commander

Pro-Israel org reels in big fish: A former CENTCOM commander

Recently retired Gen. Frank McKenzie will give credibility to JINSA's Likud-aligned positions on the Middle East

Reporting | Washington Politics

Despite serious concerns about possible Israeli war crimes and even “plausible” allegations of genocidal acts in its war in the Gaza Strip, the former chief of U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, has accepted a fellowship from one of Washington’s most hawkish pro-Israel organizations.

The Jewish Institute for National Security of America, or JINSA, announced last week that Gen. Frank McKenzie, who led CENTCOM from 2019 to April 2022, would become the Hertog Distinguished Fellow at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy.

JINSA, which was a major promoter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq 21 years ago (when its name was the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs), has also long championed more confrontational military policies toward Iran, including providing Israel with the means to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and supporting it if it chooses to do so.

“We are thrilled and honored to have Gen [sic] McKenzie join JINSA,” said Michael Makovsky, the group’s president and CEO. “As a former CENTCOM commander and J-5, he will be an invaluable source and contributor to JINSA’s work on U.S. strategic challenges and opportunities in the Mideast, and how to bolster the U.S.-Israel security relationship.”

JINSA’s press release also highlighted McKenzie’s oversight as CENTCOM commander of the “killing of Iran’s Quds Force commander General Qassem Soleimani” in January 2020.

Aside from promoting pro-Israel policy positions, JINSA’s main work has consisted of conducting educational programs and exchanges between U.S. and Israeli military officers since its founding nearly 50 years ago. “JINSA believes that Israel is the most capable and critical U.S. security partner in the 21st century and that a strong America is the best guarantor of Western civilization,” according to its current mission statement.

During the current Gaza war, JINSA has produced a steady stream of webinars featuring, among others, senior Israeli retired military officers, and near-daily email updates on “Operation Swords of Iron,” virtually all of which echo the Israeli government’s version of its campaign. JINSA also defend Israel against growing charges by international human rights groups and U.N. experts that its armed forces are guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide evidence for which was deemed “plausible” in January by the International Court of Justice.

McKenzie is the first former CENTCOM commander to associate himself formally with JINSA, although the group’s roster of “experts,” includes several other former regional commanders, including Adm. James Stavridis who served as commanders of both SOUTHCOM and EUCOM, and the former AFRICOM commander, Gen. David Rodriguez. Among other experts are former deputy EUCOM commander Air Force Gen. Charles “Chuck” Wald, who has published a number of op-eds in prominent newspapers over the past dozen years urging U.S. air strikes against Iran’s nuclear program.

Aside from retired senior military officers, JINSA’s experts feature well-known neoconservatives, a number of whom served in various capacities in the George W. Bush administration and played important roles in promoting the 2003 Iraq invasion and subsequent occupation. They include Elliott Abrams, who oversaw U.S. policy in the Middle East on the National Security Council, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who served as former Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security adviser until his indictment for perjury, John Hannah, who succeeded Libby in Cheney’s office, Eric Edelman, who served as Cheney’s deputy national security adviser and then as under secretary of defense policy under then-Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, and Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

Makovsky, JINSA’s director, moved to Israel as a young man and subsequently worked on Iraq in the Pentagon under Rumsfeld before becoming foreign policy director at the Bipartisan Policy Center where he headed a task force that produced a series of extraordinarily hawkish reports on Iran beginning in 2008. He moved most of the BPC task force staff and advisers to JINSA when he took it over in 2013.

For JINSA, McKenzie’s acceptance of a fellowship amounts to a real catch, given his recent service as chief of CENTCOM, whose domain stretches from Egypt to Pakistan and Central Asia. Under his command, Israel, which had come under EUCOM’s jurisdiction for decades (due to the hostility of most of the region’s Arab states), was integrated into CENTCOM — a major priority for both Israel and JINSA and one made possible by the 2020 Abraham Accords under which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel. As one JINSA report put it, Israel’s inclusion “will enable strategic and operational coordination among the United States, Israel and our Arab partners throughout the region against Iran and other serious shared threats.”

As noted in Makovsky’s announcement, McKenzie also oversaw the assassination of Soleimani, a particularly effective organizer and coordinator of Shi’a militias in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, in an operation reportedly aided by Israeli intelligence. And, of course, McKenzie’s direct work with the IDF and the military brass of “our Arab partners,” authoritarian regimes of the kind long favored by Israel, can only serve to enhance JINSA’s work and that of its Israeli Distinguished Fellows, such as Major Gen. Amikam Norkin, a former commander of the Israeli Air Force and member of the IDF General Staff, and Major Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, a 36-year IDF veteran who also served as Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser and who is regularly featured on JINSA’s webinars as a commentator on the IDF’s Gaza war.

While McKenzie was always careful not to publicly question or contradict U.S. policy while CENTCOM commander, he has been more vocal during retirement. Between the outset of Israel’s Gaza war and early February, he was particularly critical of what he described as the Biden administration’s “mush” response to attacks on U.S. outposts by pro-Iranian militias in Syria and Iraq and by Houthi rebels in Yemen on shipping in the Red Sea. Recalling what he characterized as Iran’s “back[ing] down” after Soleimani’s assassination — others would question that characterization — McKenzie argued in the ultra-hawkish opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal that “[t]o reset deterrence, we must apply violence that Tehran understands. …Iranians understand steel.”

While that no doubt sounds like music to the ears of JINSA’s neoconservative funders and experts, McKenzie has also sung somewhat more dissonant notes. On CBS News’ “Face the Nation” last month, he clarified that he was “not advocating for striking Iran,” but rather not to entirely rule that out that possibility. Even more discordant with JINSA’s approach to the Gaza war, he implicitly criticized Israel’s ongoing campaign — not, notably because of the appalling civilian toll and destruction it has created — but rather for its leaders’ failure to conceive a “vision of an end-state when you begin a military campaign.”

“And I would argue that needs to be something like a two-state solution. You’re going to need help from the Arab nations in the region to go in there and …do something in Gaza. I think Israeli occupation would be the least desirable of all outcomes,” he said.

Conversely, JINSA and Abrams’ similarly hawkish Vandenberg Coalition have been hyping their recent joint plan for an “end-state.” While they agreed that Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, should indeed oversee (and fund) Gaza’s relief, reconstruction, and “deradicalization,” security, in their opinion, should be provided by “capable national forces from outside the Middle East and/or private security contractors” in close coordination with Israel which, however, would retain its “freedom of military action throughout the Strip.” Or occupation by another name.

As for a two-state solution, the report agrees that endorsement of a “long-term political horizon for two states” should be recognized by all concerned. But “rushing ahead with glossy and cosmetic quick fixes, high-level diplomatic gambits, elections, and reunification of the West Bank and Gaza will almost certainly backfire across the board,” according to the report, which envisions “an arduous and lengthy process” even before “a revived peace process.”

Meanwhile, whatever “coalition of the willing” that can be cobbled together to oversee Gaza should focus even more importantly on “strengthening shared U.S.-Israel-Arab interests in resisting Iran-led hegemony,” according to the report, an approach that clearly plays to McKenzie’s CENTCOM strengths.

210505-N-KZ419-1186 NAVAL SUPPORT ACTIVITY BAHRAIN (May 5, 2021) Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, center, and Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, incoming commander U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) listens to remarks during a change of command ceremony onboard Naval Support Activity Bahrain, May 5. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dawson Roth)

Reporting | Washington Politics
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