Austin Returns to Israel With a Tougher Message and Lessons Learned

After three years as President Biden’s quiet man at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III stepped off his plane at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv on Monday and into the limelight.

It was his second visit to the region since Israel launched a war in Gaza in retaliation for the Hamas-led terrorist attack on Oct. 7. During meetings and conversations with Israeli officials, Mr. Austin has stressed both the Biden administration’s support for Israel and concerns about the rising Palestinian death toll.

But his message has become more blunt: Israel, Mr. Austin recently predicted, could face “strategic defeat” that would leave the country less secure if it does not do more to protect civilians.

The warning is one that Mr. Austin is well equipped to deliver. The retired four-star general brings a wealth of military experience in combat, including urban warfare. Early U.S. efforts to target the Taliban and insurgents in Afghanistan in 2004. The troop “surge” in Iraq in 2007. The planning to pry Mosul, Iraq, from the hands of the Islamic State in 2016. Mr. Austin was involved in all of that.

As the Biden administration navigates the Gaza crisis, the intensely private Mr. Austin is taking a prominent role and also revealing more of himself.

During his first trip to Israel six days after the Hamas attack, Mr. Austin said the Israelis needed to establish humanitarian corridors and a defined set of rules to protect Palestinian civilians.Credit…Lolita Baldor/Associated Press, via Associated Press

“You know, I learned a thing or two about urban warfare from my time fighting in Iraq and leading the campaign to defeat ISIS,” he said in a speech at the Reagan National Defense Forum earlier this month. “The lesson is not that you can win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. The lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians.”

Republicans criticized the defense secretary for not sounding supportive enough of Israel. The day after the speech, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, told CNN’s “State of the Union” that Mr. Austin was “naïve,” adding “I’ve just lost all confidence in this guy.”

But critics of Israel’s bombing campaign say the message is long overdue, as the death toll in Gaza nears 20,000, according to health officials there.

“This level of civilian killing and destruction, and the rage it generates, guarantees militant recruitment and support for resistance among future generations, both in Palestine and beyond,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who is now the president of the U.S./Middle East Project. “That’s a problem for both Israel and the U.S.”

Criticism of how Israel is conducting the war has grown in recent days after its military said that soldiers on Friday accidentally killed three Israeli hostages held in Gaza. The men were holding a makeshift white flag when they were shot, the military said.

During his earlier trip to Israel, six days after the Hamas attack, Mr. Austin warned his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, and the country’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, that the large number of troops they had assembled at the border of Gaza, combined with the air campaign, was excessive.

Israel needed to establish humanitarian corridors and a defined set of rules to protect Palestinian civilians, he told them. The Israel Defense Forces, he said, should carry out a targeted precision air campaign, with limited numbers of special operations troops on the ground to act quickly on intelligence leads about the location of senior Hamas leaders.

One day later, on Oct. 14, he took his warning public. In a Pentagon statement describing his phone call with Mr. Gallant, and in other statements about their calls since then, Mr. Austin raised the issue of civilian casualties.

Mr. Austin’s advice comes from both successes and failures of the U.S. military, including the thousands of civilian deaths in American bombing campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Last year, Mr. Austin ordered the U.S. military to strengthen its efforts to prevent civilian deaths in combat operations.

He has also urged Israeli leaders to prioritize efforts to recover hostages taken by the group and others on Oct. 7, sending scores of U.S. Special Operations forces to advise Israeli planners and dispatching MQ-9 Reaper surveillance drones to fly over Gaza to search for clues about the captives’ locations.

Since the war in Gaza began, Israel has insisted that it is trying to limit civilian casualties in a battle against a terrorist group that embeds itself among the population.

Israeli military officials scaled back their ground campaign somewhat. But they did not follow Mr. Austin’s guidance on using mostly precision munitions accompanied by targeted special operations raids, instead continuing to bombard Gaza with unguided “dumb bombs.”

On Dec. 2, Mr. Austin turned up the pressure.

“In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population,” he said at the defense forum. “And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”

Nearly half of the air-to-ground munitions that Israel has used in Gaza have been unguided, according to a U.S. intelligence assessment, which Pentagon officials say may help explain the high civilian death toll. Even the precision-guided munitions that the United States military has favored in its campaigns in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan produced high civilian casualties. Unguided munitions pose an even greater threat to civilians, analysts say.

The United States and Britain used dumb bombs over Dresden, Germany in 1945, killing about 25,000 people. But “military doctrine has evolved since World War II days, and today, the preferred doctrine in highly dense urban areas is to do intelligence-led precision strikes with precision munitions, and special operations forces,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview.

“You have to go slower, with greater precision, and it’s going to take longer and it’s harder, but you have to do that — that’s what Austin is trying to get at,” General Milley said. “He is a soldier. He has experience in combat operations. He understands the military instrument and how you should use it.”

Pentagon officials said the warning would dominate the defense secretary’s meetings in Tel Aviv. Mr. Austin was expected to tell Mr. Gallant that Israel must transition to a new phase in the conflict.

In June, Mr. Austin offered advice that went unheeded in Ukraine’s war with Russia. He and other senior Pentagon officials urged their Ukrainian counterparts to concentrate forces in their counteroffensive in one main effort to punch through Russian lines. While Ukraine could lose many troops, Mr. Austin said, Ukrainian forces would stand a better chance of reaching the sea and breaking Russian defenses.

But instead, Ukraine split up its troops, sending some to the east, and some to other fronts, including in the south. The counteroffensive failed, and now U.S. and Ukrainian officials are searching for a new strategy to revive Kyiv’s fortunes.

Mr. Austin “clearly was right, from my perspective,” Adm. Mike Mullen, who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the George W. Bush and the Obama administrations, said in an interview.

Mr. Austin outside Baghdad in 2007. He has been involved in many of the United States’ major operations over the past two decades, including the troop “surge” in Iraq.Credit…Spc. Nicholas A. Hernandez U.S. Army

During his time as defense secretary, Mr. Austin, 70, has kept a low-key profile.

It has been more than a year since he appeared at the lectern at the Pentagon briefing room to address the news media, and he has been known to sometimes avoid reporters who travel with him overseas.

On those trips, he prefers to dine alone in his hotel room when he does not have an engagement with a foreign counterpart.

For most of his tenure, he was overshadowed by the voluble General Milley, whose term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff expired on Oct. 1. Now Mr. Austin is teamed with Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., who one senior official joked may be the only person at the Pentagon more restrained than Mr. Austin.

Mr. Austin’s term has been characterized by his ability to absorb a series of national security crises (the coronavirus pandemic, the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, Russia and Ukraine, a hold by Senator Tommy Tuberville on hundreds of military nominations). As the first Black man to run the Pentagon, Mr. Austin has also faced a stream of criticism from pro-Trump Republicans that the Pentagon he leads has become too “woke.”

He rarely defends himself against political critics, and in fact, left it to General Milley to respond when a Republican congressman complained that the Defense Department was teaching critical race theory.

Instead, behind the scenes, Mr. Austin pushed on.

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, he put in place a policy providing paid leave and travel reimbursement to service members needing to travel for reproductive health care, including abortions. He made history for the Marine Corps, which had never before had a Black four-star general, when he recommended that Mr. Biden promote Gen. Michael E. Langley to be the head of Africa Command, a four-star position.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, he quickly put together a contact group of defense chiefs from more than 40 countries who meet every month to figure out military aid and support for Kyiv.

And when the Biden administration sought to woo the Philippines back from China’s embrace, it was Mr. Austin who delivered something that President Rodrigo Duterte desperately wanted — Covid vaccines — in July 2021.

Mr. Austin walked into a meeting with Mr. Duterte and started chatting about how his father had served in the Philippines during World War II, aides said. By the end of the meeting, Mr. Duterte said he would restore a crucial pact governing the presence of American troops in the Southeast Asian nation.

Now, with the Gaza crisis, Mr. Austin is trying to bring Israel back from what the Pentagon views as the edge.

At the beginning of the conflict, a senior Defense Department official said, the Israelis were talking about annihilating Hamas in a way that Pentagon officials worried would result in high civilian casualties. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak publicly.

Mr. Austin was expected to tell his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, that Israel must transition to a new phase in the conflict.Credit…Atef Safadi/EPA, via Shutterstock

During his trip to Israel in October, Mr. Austin urged military officials to slow down. “This is a time for resolve and not revenge,” Mr. Austin said at a news conference with Mr. Gallant, the Israeli defense minister, at his side.

Mr. Austin talked about the battle to liberate Mosul and his experiences fighting in a complex urban environment, the official said, adding that the defense secretary spoke of Israeli forces fighting the “right way.”

More important, Mr. Austin is concerned that Israel’s bombing campaign is driving more Palestinians toward extremism.

In delivering that message to Israeli officials this week, Mr. Austin “is talking to them not on a moral level, but on a very practical level,” Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who heads the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. “He’s saying, ‘If you want to just lash out, well, that will buy you some time, but it won’t buy you victory.’ ”

Gen. Joseph L. Votel, who succeeded Mr. Austin at Central Command during the Islamic State campaign, said that Mr. Austin learned the importance of minimizing civilian casualties the hard way.

“President Karzai called us on the carpet time after time, and ultimately we had to completely change the way we were operating,” General Votel said, referring to the former Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai. “Ultimately we went from trying to go straight into people’s houses to going in and just surrounding them, and calling people out.”

Mr. Austin, General Votel said, knows that for the I.D.F., it is “never ever too late to change.”

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