Crowdsourcing Peace

By going over the heads of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Obama is demanding that their people step up.

U.S. President Barack Obama's speech in Jerusalem was without question the strongest ever made by a senior American politician on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was plainly designed to speak directly to the Israeli and Palestinian peoples over the heads of their political leaderships. It was an exercise in public diplomacy par excellence, intended to change the tone and atmosphere, and public perceptions of Obama himself, presumably as an adjunct to actual diplomatic efforts to lay the groundwork for eventually resuming negotiations.

The psychological, communication and political skill that was marshaled to give the speech its maximum impact with public opinion was quite extraordinary, and stands in contrast to some miscalculations Obama made about Israeli and Palestinian perceptions during his first term. By systematically downplaying expectations for his trip, Obama made the power of his speech and the boldness of some of the language and positions he staked out -- particularly regarding the realities Palestinians face under Israeli occupation -- surprising and therefore all the more striking.

Obama made the first day of his trip an extended exercise in telling the Israeli public everything it could possibly want to hear from an American president, ranging from "undying bonds of friendship" to robust reiterations of security commitment and a much yearned-for acknowledgment of the long Jewish history in the land. In retrospect, it's clear that what looked like public outreach bordering on pandering was, in fact, designed to transform Israeli perceptions of Obama himself in order to prepare them for some of the hard truths he was preparing to deliver the next day.

What Obama has done is to reassure and challenge Israelis and Palestinians alike. To Israelis, he reiterated America's undying support and commitment to Israel's security. But he confronted them with the fact that "the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine." He reassured Palestinians that the United States is not walking away from the effort to create an independent Palestinian state. But he told them they must recognize that "Israel will be a Jewish state" and challenged them, and the rest of the Arab world, to begin to normalize their relations with Israel.

From a Palestinian point of view, it was already highly significant that Obama was not just going to Israel but also Ramallah and Bethlehem for significant talks with both President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. This communicated several important messages: that the Palestinians are still an important factor in the equation, and that they have a leadership, including both Abbas and Fayyad, that is to be engaged with seriously. And by specifically and repeatedly citing the Palestinian Authority's institution-building and security measures led by Fayyad, Obama was sending a clear signal that he wants to continue to deal with the present Palestinian prime minister, who has been under considerable political pressure in recent months.

But the speech itself gave the Palestinians a much deeper recognition, and one they've never fully received from American officials in the past. Obama went to enormous lengths to humanize the Palestinians, comparing them to his own daughters and to the young people of Israel. He did not simply reiterate the American commitment to a two-state solution, he spoke of the "Palestinian people's right to ... justice." This can only be seen as a clear, albeit implicit statement that the status quo of occupation is an ongoing injustice. He challenged his Israeli audience to "look at the world through their [Palestinian] eyes," which speaks to the Palestinian need to be acknowledged as fully equal human beings by the Israelis. And Obama admonished Israel that "neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer," directly addressing the two main Palestinian historical traumas and ongoing anxieties.

The effectiveness of Obama's careful political and psychological preparation for these unprecedented statements with his Israeli audience was demonstrated by the sustained, and otherwise unimaginable, applause he received for almost all these remarks. He clearly went a long way in assuaging Israeli skepticism. Palestinians will be harder to win over, as they require more than words given the onerous conditions of the occupation and their repeated disappointment with successive American governments, and in particular with Obama's first term.

There is no question that Obama's extraordinary speech will have a significant impact on how he is perceived by both Israelis and Palestinians, although how long that lasts and what kind of political or diplomatic impact it will have very much remains to be seen.

One of the more remarkable aspects of this outreach was how it stood in stark contrast to his diplomacy with political leaders. He explicitly told the Israeli and Palestinian publics that he was directly addressing them, not only over the heads of their political leaders, but in order to challenge them to confront those leaders. If entrenched politicians have become an obstacle to peace -- and they may indeed have -- why not go around them? "Political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do," he said, adding, "You must create the change that you want to see."

Essentially, Obama was saying, "If you like what you've heard today, you have to help me because your leaders aren't going to cooperate without significant pressure from you. I can't do this alone, as I discovered in my first term. I need your help."

In his first term, Obama essentially tried dealing with the leaderships directly and barely engaging with the Israeli or Palestinian publics. One subliminal message of his speech might be that he discovered this approach is a dead end, and that to get beyond the present impasse requires more robust public engagement. Whether he's done enough to promote or sustain that will have to remain to be seen.

Diplomacy without sufficient outreach may have proven to be a failure in Obama's first term. But this kind of bravura performance of public diplomacy will have to be backed up with significant real diplomacy or it may be remembered as yet another inspiring Obama Middle East speech that ultimately produces more disappointment than tangible achievement. Still, if Obama was primarily trying to change the tone and the atmosphere in the region, and the way he is perceived by ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, it's hard to imagine how he could have been more effective than he has been over the past couple of days.

URIEL SINAI/Getty Images


Who Is "Whois"?

Was North Korea behind the cyberattack on the South?

Another set of cyberattacks against the Republic of Korea and the first to be blamed is the DPRK. Computers at two major television networks stopped working and their websites were taken offline. A cable channel experienced similar problems. Three banks had trouble with ATMs and Internet- and mobile-banking applications. The attacks were targeted specifically at South Korea, and the malware used was programmed to erase data on the bank computers, similar to 2011 attacks on ROK banks that some attribute to North Korea.

We don't know that North Korea is responsible, but it is a likely suspect. Cyber is the perfect weapon for a country that loves provocation, and the North has put money and time into building cyber-weapons. It is good at covert action, slipping agents across the border and engaging in black market activities around the world, such as counterfeiting and smuggling. Hacking is a natural fit for the secretive and belligerent Hermit Kingdom.

But the evidence is murky. Some cyberattacks leave obvious signs of who was responsible. Other times, the attack can be tracked back, particularly if it is "in progress" and the attackers are still connected. In some cases, the United States finds identifying evidence when it takes a close look at other countries' networks. This has not been the case for these latest attacks, leaving us to wonder who did it.

One way to identify the source of an attack is to examine the intersection of capabilities and intent for likely culprits. A sophisticated cyberattack against Iran's nuclear facilities, for example, points to only a few suspects. In this case, however, many state and non-state actors have the necessary attack capability. North Korea is only one of them. It began developing cyber capabilities in the 1990s, and although progress has been slow -- the country is not particularly conducive to the development of a hacker culture -- the North Koreans are dogged and willing to spend scarce resources to gain asymmetric advantages, as shown by their nuclear and missile programs.

Determining who is responsible for an attack often depends on asking "cui bono?" -- who benefits? In attacks on South Korea, the North is always the lead suspect, but the target set for this attack apparently included no South Korean or U.S. government agencies. Most attacks focus on extracting money or valuable information, but that did not happen in this case. Nor did the attacker try to disrupt critical infrastructure and services. What is left is political motivation. Cyberattacks are a new and attractive form of protest and coercion. The Russians used them against Estonia; the Iranians used them against the United States. In such company, North Korea would feel right at home.

But governments are not the only ones to use these new tools. Political groups like Anonymous routinely hack websites or launch denial of service attacks (essentially, flooding the target network with traffic so that it is knocked offline). If North Korea is a suspect, so are political activists, perhaps hacktivists from China or South Korea's thriving Internet community. At the same time, the fact that a new, unknown group calling itself "Whois Team" has claimed credit means little. They could be the authors of the attack, they could be an outside group that is simply taking credit, or they could be a cover for state-sponsored efforts.

The Chinese IP address that has been linked to the attack is hardly conclusive. Many Chinese networks use pirated software, making them inherently vulnerable to outside manipulation. A Chinese hacker group could have attacked South Korean sites as a protest, but such groups usually make bombastic, direct, and nationalistic threats. That was not done here. North Korea could have used China as a jumping off point for an attack, but doing so would have risked its relationship with its most important ally. The North may have been tweaking China because of its recent support for sanctions, or the Chinese may have decided to tolerate action against the South, but there is no evidence or precedent to support either hypothesis. We simply don't know.

We do know North Korea's national television network had threatened KBS and MBC -- the South Korean networks -- a year ago, saying that they "will come under fire in an unimaginable and unusual way." North Korea also charged last week that the United States had hacked into its networks -- a charge that could have been made to justify a "counterattack" on an ally. And the North has often used its cyber skills to spread propaganda in the South. Its agents create false identities on South Korean websites to post comments favorable to the North or critical of the South, and the North also uses social media sites and YouTube to make its case against the West (a recent video used scenes from a video game showing Wall Street in ruins).

The exchange of accusations by North and South over cyber-activities shows increased cyber-activity that could point to the North as the author of the attacks. But it is hardly a smoking gun. And compared to, say, the evidence of China's cyber-spying or Iran's attacks on banks, it is very weak.

Regardless, it is not this specific attack that should concern us -- it is the trajectory of North Korean cyber-activity that is most disturbing. The North is committed to getting cyberattack capabilities. It may already have them. The intent to attack the South by engaging in covert and disruptive action is there. If North Korea was responsible for this incident, with its plans for penetrating networks and erasing data, it may soon have the capability to launch a damaging attack whenever it decides it is in its interest to do so.

The North has committed no shortage of hostile acts, and it does not always take credit for them. It has jammed the GPS guidance systems on hundreds of commercial airliners landing in Seoul, using truck-mounted jamming devices located on the north side of the border. This was probably a test of a military capability the North would use in war -- that the test might have caused hundreds of deaths does not seem to have been a worry.

Its latest action was to issue another round of nuclear threats, this time against U.S. Pacific bases. We need to ask how the cyberattacks fit with these latest threats from the North and the increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula. They may be an inept effort to increase pressure on the South, they may be a coincidence, or they may not be from North Korea at all. The North has a goal in making nuclear threats (probably to show defiance in the face of new sanctions), but it is hard to see how disrupting ATMs and television websites would contribute to that effort.

North Korea might be attracted by the relatively low cost of cyberattacks, by the high dependency of the South on the Internet (which creates numerous targets), by the difficulty of attribution for a quick attack, and by the ability to easily use cyber to make a political point. Strong cyberattack capabilities in either the South or the United States have no deterrent effect. A country that is not shy about using force in limited ways to make a negotiating or political point will be attracted to cyberattack.

From the North's perspective, its decisions are rational, but we should not overestimate Pyongyang's ability to correctly calculate the risks of its actions. The North is clearly willing to take greater risks than most nations, from sinking a South Korean patrol vessel to firing artillery at island villages. A cyberattack may not seem that risky from Pyongyang's perspective. Whether or not North Korea was behind this latest incident, it seems unavoidable that it will develop further cyberattack capabilities and use them the way it uses covert action, limited military assault, and nuclear threats -- as tools to shape the international environment.