Paul Pillar

Busting More Than Just Bunkers

The story that the Obama administration secretly delivered GBU-28 Hard Target Penetrators, commonly known as bunker-buster bombs, to Israel in 2009 is disturbing as well as complex. Any comment on this subject needs to begin with the caveat that anyone who is not privy, as I certainly am not, to details of U.S.-Israeli discussions, much less to the details of the Israeli Defense Forces' military plans, cannot pretend to know all possible facets of the issue. One should also note that provision of munitions to another state has long been used as a legitimate tool not just to bolster someone's military capabilities but also to try to buy influence with the other state. The United States has used this tool in a big way in the past in the Middle East, especially in bestowing major military aid on Egypt, in addition to the even more generous and perennial gifts to Israel, as a way of buying the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Of course, in using aid in this way one always has to consider what return one is getting on the investment. Robert Gates was pointing out the obvious in noting behind closed doors that Israel has been a remarkably ungrateful “ally,” giving Washington little but trouble in return for the extraordinarily generous assistance the United States has bestowed on Israel through the years. With regard to transfers of materiel that incorporate advanced military technology, Israel also has shown little regard for U.S. interests when striking its own deals that have exposed U.S. technology to the likes of China.

The even bigger worry about the bunker busters concerns what they would be used for. The one possible use that looms above any others one could conceive of is an attack on Iran and specifically its nuclear facilities. Providing the bunker busters was a mistake insofar as it increases Israel's ability to initiate a war with Iran in this way. Even more serious (because Israel probably could develop the bunker-busting technology on its own, albeit at greater expense), is that providing the bombs could be interpreted as a green light to go to war. Even more serious than that (because Israel, notwithstanding all that aid, does not wait for green lights from the United States anyway), is that the use of U.S.-made bombs to initiate war with Iran would accentuate the already-existing association of the United States with any Israeli action and intensify the resulting damage to U.S. political, economic, and security interests.

Providing the bombs was a bad decision by the Obama administration. One can imagine some of the thinking behind it. The administration was attempting to save a possible negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by trying to get the Israeli government to stop what was slowing killing that possibility—viz., the continued construction of settlements on occupied and disputed land. So the bombs were one more way to attempt to buy this kind of influence (an unsuccessful attempt, as with so many similar attempts toward the Israelis). There is also Obama's related political need to show that he really is a friend of Israel. Helping to fill this need may have been the motivation of whoever inside the administration leaked the story (which the Israelis had wanted to keep secret). The Bush administration had promised Israel that it eventually would get the bombs but, to that administration's credit, held up delivery because of Israel's transfer of advanced military technology to China.

The unwise transfer of the bunker busters is another reflection of the tendency to think of support to Israel in only one dimension. In fact, the core of Israeli security and well-being is usually quite apart from the topics that become matters of public discussion or controversy, be they penetrating bombs or West Bank settlements. It is consistent with U.S. interests to maintain a relationship with Israel that helps provide for the defense of Israel and its citizens. This is why, as I have argued before, the United States ought to be most generous with help on measures, such as the Iron Dome anti-missile system, that are most defensive and have the least chance for damaging side-effects.

We need to get away from the pseudo-reasoning, which is currently appearing as red meat in the Republican presidential campaign, that Israel is an ally, that this ally ought to be supported, and that support means doing whatever the Israeli government says it wants us to do, regardless of what this means for U.S. interests or even for Israel's own interests. This pseudo-reasoning promotes diplomatic mistakes such as what we have been seeing with the current unpleasantness at the United Nations. It also promotes military mistakes, including the provision of bombs that might become literally the first shots in another war highly damaging to the United States.