Life Inside the Iron Dome

Why President Obama shouldn't accept Israel's policy of defensiveness and despair.

As I write, the ceasefire in Gaza has held for going on two days. Every day is likely to bring a new provocation which will test the willingness of both sides to keep their arms sheathed; the most recent is the killing of a Gazan protestor by Israeli soldiers at a border crossing. For the moment, though, we can be thankful that Israel's security cabinet agreed, by what appears to be a hairsbreadth, to accept the ceasefire terms fashioned in Cairo and pressed on them very hard by President Barack Obama.

Usually the act of contemplating the might-have-been requires a leap of speculation -- but not in this case. Part of the horror of watching the drama of the last week was the sense of an almost mechanical, and thus helpless, re-playing of past events. As in Operation Cast Lead in 2009, Israel would follow up an extensive air assault with a ground operation designed to destroy Hamas's fighting capacity as well as the infrastructure of the state and the economy. Many innocent civilians would die, though of course the definition of "innocent" and "civilian" would be hotly disputed. Israel would be condemned for wanton destruction, and further isolated in world opinion. The United States would stand by its ally, and earn the further hatred of Arab peoples.

Actually it could have been worse this time. In 2009, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) refused to allow journalists access to Gaza until after the fighting ended. The consequence was that when investigators for the so-called Goldstone Report sought to investigate claims that Israel had committed war crimes, they had to depend on accounts from the Palestinian victims, which Israel and its supporters naturally viewed as unreliable. This time, however, the IDF allowed journalists to cover the battlefield. I'm not sure why; maybe they thought they could win the propaganda war through Twitter. It's safe to say that they didn't succeed. The appalling imagery of bulldozers pulling masonry off of the corpses of Palestinian children killed by an Israeli airstrike inevitably overwhelmed Israel's arguments about its own security.

But that was just the air campaign. This time, as last time, a ground assault would have caused far more casualties and far more intimate destruction. In this case the world's media would have been watching, and the inevitable targeting mistakes and excesses would have been documented in real time. What's more, the parallels between Israel's assault on Gaza and Bashar al-Assad's assault on the Syrian opposition would have been unavoidable: Israel decimates al-Shifa Hospital; Assad's forces obliterate the main hospital of Aleppo. That's bad company for Israel to be in.

Does it matter? Liberal American Jews like me may writhe over the Goldstone Report, but the Israeli leadership, and many Israelis, view the periodic denunciations as the cost of doing business. Hamas "wins" by further undermining Israel in world opinion and bringing new Arab allies to its side; but Israel doesn't actually lose, at least so long as it can count on Washington to supply it with arms and funds, and to stand by its side at moments of crisis. Israel now lives in an Iron Dome world: incoming missiles clang off its miracle shield, while America stands ready to repel any assaults on its legitimacy at the United Nations or elsewhere.

This is not a recipe for long-term security; but Israelis seem to feel that they can no longer afford to think long-term. Every few years they have to "cut the grass," with at F-16 as their scythe. As a metaphor it sounds grotesquely cynical, though what it really reflects is a policy founded on despair. There is no political solution, and neither is there a lasting military solution. The real goal of policy is to lengthen as much possible the period of time between these acts of lethal maintenance. In this respect, the ceasefire agreement may turn out to be a failure, because Hamas will be able to regroup faster than it had after Operation Cast Lead in 2009. And even if Hamas concludes -- as Hezbollah has since the 2006 Lebanon war -- that its interests are best served by husbanding its resources, one of the more radical factions in Gaza, like Islamic Jihad, maybe be delighted to invite another round of Israeli grass-cutting. 

Is there any way out of this trap? The maneuvering around the ceasefire has, of course, created some tantalizing realignments. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood government now has the capacity to serve as an interlocutor between Hamas and the West, as it did not before. President Barack Obama has established a relationship of trust with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsy. Obama has also earned credibility with the Israeli public and with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Everybody is good with everybody else -- except, of course, Israel and Hamas. Obama can probably use the good will he has earned to prevent Israel from over-reacting to the latest provocation from Gaza, and Morsy may be able to similarly keep Hamas in line. But even assuming such good fortune offers no hope for a long-term solution.

And this raises a fundamental question for U.S. policy: Should Obama try to cash in his credibility by pressing Israel to re-start negotiations with the Palestinians -- not with Hamas, of course, but with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority? Even before the war, Obama's supporters hoped that he would put Middle East peace on his to-do list for the second term. Isn't the case all the stronger now? Of course the president would have to wait until after Israel's elections, now scheduled for next January, but that still leaves plenty of time.

The problem is that the Israelis are going to re-elect Benjamin Netanyahu. Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu's predecessor, has talked about running as a pro-peace candidate, but the Israeli public is not interested. A recent poll found that 63 percent of Israelis had no wish to see the former prime minister make a comeback. Other candidates who share Olmert's view, like former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, have gained no more traction. Polls show that Israelis strongly favor a two-state solution; they just don't believe it's possible anytime soon.

Worse still, the sudden centrality of Hamas has weakened an already weak President Abbas. And Israel has made Abbas look weaker still by batting away his occasional olive branch. When the Palestinian leader risked the wrath of his own followers by suggesting several weeks ago that he would not insist on the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland in Israel, Israeli president Shimon Peres embraced his "brave and important public declaration," but Netanyahu waved off the remarks as unimportant.

The prudent course for Obama would thus be to focus on keeping the peace in Gaza and perhaps building up Palestinian institutions in the West Bank, and put off peace-making until a more propitious moment -- presumably when Obama is no longer President (or Netanyahu is no longer prime minister). But what would that mean? The latest war, or almost-war, in Gaza shows just how profoundly unstable the stats quo is. It's obvious that Palestinians in the West Bank will not continue to silently abide their occupied status, even with better police and hospitals. Israel will become more lonely, more embattled, more dependent on the U.S. Life inside the Iron Dome will become ever more precarious. I can't see how a peace initiative could succeed right now. But the consequences of not trying seem much worse than the consequences of trying and failing.


Terms of Engagement

Silent but Deadly

How the State Department tried and failed to force Obama’s drone program into the open.

In the summer of 2011, Cameron Munter, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington and asked her to intercede with the White House to give him greater control over the CIA's use of drones along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, and to let him speak openly to the Pakistani people -- who viewed  drone warfare as a gross violation of national sovereignty -- about the rationale for the strikes.

The stakes, in Munter's mind, were very high. A few months earlier, the White House had dispatched Senator John Kerry to Pakistan in the hopes of cooling the public fury over the killing of two Pakistanis by Raymond Davis, a CIA contract officer. Kerry had succeeded, in part by promising greater coordination on counterterror measures -- and then, soon after his plane left Islamabad, the CIA launched another drone strike. By the time Kerry landed in Doha, Pakistan's political and military leaders were apoplectic, and Munter had a new crisis on his hands. Clinton brought the issue to the White House -- and got beat by the CIA. "The State Department threw him under the bus," says Christine Fair, a South Asia scholar and an expert on counterterror warfare in the region.

Today, Pakistanis know next to nothing about the drone program, and believe the worst about it. The same may be said for many Americans. The debate over the use of drones has grown more acrimonious as the administration of President Barack Obama has increased the number of strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and expanded the program to Yemen and Somalia. Critics have denied the alleged pinpoint accuracy of drone strikes, arguing that hundreds of civilians have been killed as collateral damage. Scholars of constitutional law have asserted that targeted assassinations have no basis in American law. But there are many people -- myself included -- who defend the use of drones but decry the pervasive secrecy around them. There is a real danger that around the world drone warfare will come to be seen as the dark arts of the Obama administration, as torture and "rendition" were for President George W. Bush.

It seems blindingly obvious that the United States is not going to refrain from using unmanned vehicles -- naval as well as aerial-- for attack and surveillance. Any technology that can locate and kill an individual combatant without endangering American forces or bystanders (though there is an important debate over how many civilians have been killed) is not going away. Critics like Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the former Obama official Vali Nasr accuse the White House of falling in love with the short-term fix of drone warfare and ignoring the long-term imperative of nation-building in weak states. But experience in Afghanistan and Somalia, among other places, has taught us that nation-building, if it can work at all, is a generational endeavor. The United States can't wait for the jihadist swamp to be drained.

At the same time, drones are not just another arrow in a battlefield commander's quiver. It is precisely the power of drones, the immense temptation they pose, the certainty that they will become yet more central to American counterterror efforts in the future, which compels a much more open debate than we have had to date. To take only a single example, although the Authorization for Use of Military Force voted by Congress after 9/11 permits the president to use "all necessary and appropriate force," against the nations, organizations, and individuals responsible for the terrorist attacks, the Obama administration has authorized so-called "signature strikes" against targets whose individual identity is unknown but whose pattern of behavior matches that of al Qaeda. Is that authorized? Is it morally acceptable? Maybe; I'm skeptical.

The Obama administration deserves some credit for deciding -- after intense debate -- to speak about the legal and ethical rationale of this highly classified program. In the aftermath of the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born leader of al Qaeda forces in Yemen, Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a speech in which he defended the president's right to target an American citizen for killing; soon thereafter, John Brennan, the president's intelligence advisor, laid out in some detail the extensive review process which begins with the determination that an al Qaeda member poses a threat that warrants "lethal action." And that review process appears to be extraordinarily rigorous.

Of course, the level of disclosure was nothing compared to the exquisite detail which administration officials provided on the killing of Osama bin Laden. And many fundamental questions remain unanswered. Brennan's comments shed no light on the rationale for signature strikes. How are those decided? We don't know. And in Pakistan the CIA is targeting members of the Taliban, not al Qaeda, including jihadists who menace Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. Does that fit with the 2001 authorization of force? Is it a judicious use of this Faustian technology? Hard to say.

Brennan announced that the president had de-classified the drone program in Yemen, thus permitting him to speak. But the far larger program in Pakistan remains covert, and classified. (Many of the strikes in Afghanistan are carried out by the military, and thus are not covert.) Why the continuing secrecy in Pakistan? The White House declined to make anyone available to address this question. The widespread assumption, though, is that since Pakistan's military and civilian leaders -- unlike President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi of Yemen -- publicly oppose the program, CIA officials have deferred to their wishes and maintained the cone of silence. The administration may have concluded that if the program were declassified and openly discussed, Gen. Ashraf Kayani, Pakistan's military chief of staff and de facto leader, would finally make good on his endless threats to shut it down.

The CIA doesn't have to care about public opinion; but diplomats do. That was why Munter made his bid for greater transparency last year. Munter, who has since retired from public service, believes that the drone strikes have been and continue to be effective, but argues that the secrecy has allowed Pakistanis to believe the worst about America. "If we are able to lift the veil on the program and talk more openly about what our goals are and how those goals coincide with those of people of good will in Pakistan," Munter says, "I think it could have a very positive effect."

But what about the danger to the program itself? "The impact of the program," Munter says, "has come to a point where it is time for the American authorities and the Pakistani authorities to have a much more open discussion." That might be healthy. But in any case, the United States can not hold itself hostage to Pakistani politics, which runs on perpetually stoked anti-Americanism. The benefits from the drone strikes, great though they may be, do not trump the imperative of democratic debate.

This post-election, pre-Inaugural period offers a moment for taking stock. In the weeks to come, I will be looking at other aspects of President Obama's foreign policy. But perhaps we could ask the president, as a New Year's resolution, to level with the American people about what it is that drones should and should not do, who they do and do not target, where they should and should not be used. It's not too much to ask.

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