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Last week, in a Time magazine article titled "Why the Pentagon is happy about the NIE," Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was among the US military heads cited as being relieved that the release of the National Intelligence Estimate declaring that Teheran is not now developing nuclear weapons had seemingly taken the military option off the table.
The reason is simple: With close to 190,000 American troops now in Iraq and Afghanistan, US military manpower is being stretched to the limit. A third front in Iran - or even a deterioration of the current situation in Iraq or Afghanistan, a mischief that Teheran is well capable of - would probably stretch those limits beyond the breaking point.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Mullen chose this time to make a quick visit to Israel, a relatively rare occurrence by an acting head of US military. To reassure us that whatever his specific position on the Iranian nuclear threat, the admiral has our best interests at heart. His handlers cited to local reporters remarks he made two weeks ago at the Army War College in Pennsylvania: "I've been to Israel more than once, and I understand to some degreeâ€¦ physically where you live and certainly the concerns that exist from the Israeli perspective about your neighborhood.
"So I think how Israel thinks and views the world is a very important consideration for us in the United States. And certainly from my perspective as military leader in the United States of America."
Nice words, and perhaps an encouraging sign for the various Israeli officials he met with who wish to convince him that Iran is indeed trying to develop a nuclear capability that will enable it to fulfill Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's dream of seeing Israel wiped off the map.
Then again, maybe it would have been better to save our breath - not because Mullen doesn't care about Israel's well-being (presumably he does), but because right now he's got bigger concerns on his plate.
Just how big is clear after reading the full transcript of Mullen's remarks at the Army War College (available on the Joint Chiefs' Web site), of which his remarks on Israel constitute just a very small part. Most of his address, and the following Q&A session with the officers in the audience, focus on related manpower issues caused by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is particularly severe, as Mullen notes more than once, in the Marine Corps, which as the US military's expeditionary force has borne the brunt of the burden in Iraq.
Right after making his remarks about Israel, Mullen is asked to clarify an earlier comment that his "greatest concern on the strategic landscape" is challenges faced by the Army. Interestingly, the admiral responds not by citing Iraq, Afghanistan or even Iran, but a part of the world we don't really think about much here: the Balkans, in particular the situation in Kosovo.
That might be less surprising when considering Mullen's previous posting was commander of the NATO Joint Force Command in Naples, which gave him operational authority during some of the worst fighting in the former Yugoslavia. In Kosovo, he notes, the situation is "contentious and the outcome is not yet determined."
It sure isn't. Over the weekend, talks on Kosovo finally achieving independence from Serbia broke down, and the Kosovar leadership began discussing a unilateral declaration of statehood, possibly with EU backing. Serbia (and the Serbians in Kosovo) has warned it won't take this lying down.
More ominously, Belgrade's backers in Moscow have made similar rumblings: "This will cause a chain reaction in the Balkans and other areas of the world, and those making such plans must think very carefully about the consequences," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
No wonder old Balkan hand Mullen is concerned. The US today has only a couple of thousand of troops in the former Yugoslavia, but that may have to change suddenly if the Kosovo situation flares up. Even if the US were not to again send more troops to the region, such a conflict in Europe's heartland would undoubtedly have the potential to draw the NATO troops of other nations away from Afghanistan, where the US military badly needs them.
Too many fronts - and from Mullen's perspective, the last thing he needs right now is a new one with Iran. Sanctions and diplomacy, yes, but military action, no - even if Israel acts on its own, since Iran would likely respond elsewhere in the region where American troops are in combat.
And without American consent and cooperation, it is very unlikely Israel would be able to carry out any effective attack, certainly from the air, on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Israel may have to act for its survival, is the message Mullen received Monday. One wonders though, that even as he sat there politely listening to our concerns, what he really wanted to say in response was: Tell it to the Marines.
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