I Wish I Knew How to Quit You

The world is addicted to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But are never-ending negotiations only delaying a day of reckoning?

In an extraordinary editorial last week, the New York Times all but called for the United States to stop wasting its time on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and to just move on. In another world, such advice might be not only emotionally satisfying but quite practical too. Process works better than peace does for both Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas; both sides get stuff without having to make real commitments. And John Kerry is the security blanket that makes that possible.

So why not take the blanket away?

From Kerry's perspective, I sort of get why he doesn't want to do that. You can't get to a conflict-ending agreement now -- a judgment I've been making since 2003, to the dismay of many who cannot abide my negative analysis. But through process, you can avoid violence and keep hope alive.

There is yet another reason for the survival of almighty process: America and the world are constitutionally incapable of walking away from it. That was the case in the more than two decades I put into working on Middle East peace, and it's truer now than ever before. There are several reasons why.

Sometimes I get the feeling that the entire world regards the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians as the fulcrum of modern civilization. It's an extraordinary testament to the durability of this issue that, with Egypt in a chronic mess, Syria melting down, Libya in a modified state of failure, Vladimir Putin threatening to gobble up more of Ukraine, and Asia beckoning for more attention too, the peace process continues to exert the pull that it does.

This is, thanks in no small part, due to the veritable peace-process industry that keeps the drums beating. This industry comprises defenders and detractors of the Jewish state, who are intent on keeping the issue relevant for years to come; religious leaders and believers, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian alike; and diplomats from around the world who make their living on the subject (I speak from personal experience). And of course, there is the media, which sees this as a constant source of news -- a story that keeps on giving.

All these actors combined together provide a potent force for a perennial peace process. Even if outcomes never come about, the peace lobby will keep the fire burning.

Kerry is a key member of this lobby. In short, he is addicted to the peace process. I know the feeling. He truly believes that it's in the U.S. national interest not just to keep this thing alive but also to make it work. He believes that this really is the last chance for peace, and he believes that he has the trust of the parties and the will and skill to pull it off. Plus, he believes that an agreement is his ticket into the Secretary of State Hall of Fame.

You cannot just walk away when you believe such things. Kerry couldn't fake being OK with quitting. He just cares too much. And so he is doing everything he can to buy time, hoping that something will happen to rescue the process: for instance, a U.S.-Iran deal on the nuclear issue, or Bibi magically disappearing (the former only a bit more likely than the impossibility of the latter).

To be sure, America has threatened to walk away before. The iconic moment most often cited is James Baker giving the Israelis the White House phone number during congressional testimony in June 1990, saying, "When you are serious about peace, call us."

But today's circumstances are fundamentally different than they were back then. In June 1990, there really wasn't any kind of process from which to walk away. Nor did the Arabs and Israelis have 20 years of negotiating under their belts. In any event, Baker's comments didn't have a notable impact. It wasn't until 18 months later that, in the wake of the Bush administration's victory over Saddam Hussein, the Madrid process got serious. Then, Baker used the threat to walk away again -- and much more effectively. He had something to lose, and so did the parties. They knew it, and he scared them.

Kerry isn't Baker, however; he is too invested to throw up his hands -- which, while certainly risking the entire process, might send something of a wake-up call to the parties that he isn't going to protect them anymore. And the president, I suspect, will not order the secretary of state to do so. The collapse of the process probably scares them both more than it does Bibi and Abbas, which is not a good thing.

It is more than likely, then, that the process will truck on. In the immediate term, either Kerry will try to get an agreement on extending some version of the original deal, or the parties, for their own purposes, will come up with a face-saver to get past the so-called April 29 deadline by which some kind of framework for a permanent status is supposed to be reached.

But even if neither of those things happens and the process does break down, it still would not be dead. The peace lobby is too strong for the process not to live on in some form -- and the Israelis' and Palestinians' lives and futures are too inextricably linked.

If anything could force the two sides to finally bring this conflict to a conclusion, it very well might be the dangers inherent to their proximity to one another. As morally unacceptable and politically incorrect as it is to admit, our efforts to keep the peace process alive, while intended to avert violence, may only be delaying a day of reckoning.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


Putin Laughs at Your Sanctions

The United States needs to re-up its Cold War strategy if it wants to deter Russia in Ukraine.

Widely believed to be acting at the behest of Moscow, pro-Russian activists have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and prompted Kiev to carry out a limited set of military operations in the region. So far, the Ukrainian military has had little success dislodging pro-Russian forces, which for the most part appear unfazed. To bolster the Ukrainian government, the United States has unveiled a package of financial and economic sanctions directed at the Russian military and political establishment. Despite Moscow's vulnerabilities on this front, the threat of further economic retaliation has proven insufficient in deterring Moscow's aggression, as evidenced by the continued destabilization of eastern Ukraine. At the urging of the United States, the Ukrainian military has cautiously probed the positions of pro-Russian militants, while Washington has attempted to strike back at Moscow with financial sanctions. So far, that tactic has failed.

The Obama administration's decision to retaliate against Russia with financial and economic sanctions reflects a broader paradigm shift in U.S. deterrence strategy. Financial warfare is supplanting deterrence based on conventional military capabilities. However, events in Ukraine have exposed the risks of relying too heavily on financial instruments of power. Deterrence requires the United States to make clear that it will support Ukrainian military resistance to any further Russian intervention.

The administration's penchant for economic sanctions is understandable. Success in disrupting terrorist financing networks and in weakening rogue regimes has demonstrated the far-reaching toll that enhanced and fine-tuned sanctions can inflict in an interconnected global economy. At the same time, budget deficits at home and the costs of land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have prompted policymakers to embrace more deployable, economical instruments. Recent progress with Iran has reinforced Washington's growing preference for financial warfare. Tehran claims that it came to the negotiating table in exchange for U.S. recognition of its right to enrich uranium, but the Obama administration credits crippling sanctions for the breakthrough.

Russia also seems like a good target for economic warfare: It's a sophisticated economic and energy power that depends on access to global financial markets and international financial institutions to advance its geopolitical ambitions. Moreover, U.S. diplomatic efforts since 9/11 aimed at enlisting Russia's cooperation in enforcing international financial sanctions have sensitized President Vladimir Putin, as well as the corrupt elites in his inner circle, to the devastating impact that these policies can have against target regimes. Today, the ruble is in decline, the Russian Micex Index is down more than 10 percent since the beginning of the year, and the World Bank is projecting a contraction in the Russian economy of up to 1.8 percent in 2014 due to geopolitical instability. Yet none of these realities is stopping the Kremlin from fomenting instability and threatening further incursions into Ukraine. 

The shortcomings of economic sanctions don't by themselves suggest a need to downplay financial warfare in U.S. doctrine -- or even to enhance conventional capabilities. But they do demand that the United States calibrate its goals so that they match the capabilities it is realistically willing to deploy. The exact mix of financial and conventional military deterrence that must be brought to bear in any situation depends on what is at stake for the United States in the target country, and what is needed to secure important interests. 

In the context of the Ukrainian crisis, the extent to which the Obama administration is relying on financial instruments relative to conventional military deterrence is creating an alarming gap between Washington's stated goals and the capabilities it is willing to employ to achieve them. Given Ukraine's proximity to Russia, sizable populations of ethnic Russians, and importance in Moscow's strategic priorities -- not to mention Russia's overwhelming military superiority over its neighbors -- deterring further Russian aggression against non-allied but important states in the post-Soviet space will require more than targeted sanctions. 

Repeated assertions by President Barack Obama and other senior administration officials that a new Cold War is not on the horizon, while true at a global level, downplay the degree to which the renewed U.S.-Russian rivalry will resemble U.S.-Soviet competition on a regional scale. Throughout the Cold War, Moscow exerted enormous pressure on states on its periphery, as well as on states in the third world that fell outside the orbit of formal U.S. alliances. The West's victory in the Cold War stemmed, in large part, from Washington's success in deterring Soviet aggression against front-line states without deploying U.S. forces into combat. The United States convinced Stalin to back down in Iran in 1946, freed Austria from partial Soviet occupation in 1955, strengthened Israel's defenses against Soviet-aligned Arab states, and shielded Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

The Cold War formula for defending front-line states involved a mix of political engagement, military sales and cooperation, and economic support through trade agreements and foreign aid. Even with the benefit of new sanctions capabilities, a similar playbook is necessary to prevent further Russian moves against Ukraine and other front-line states such as Georgia, as well as against U.S. partners in the Caucuses and Central Asia.

The greatest political challenge the United States faces in Ukraine is unifying the country's diverse communities. Important elements of the Party of Regions, the party led by ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, and Ukraine's Russian-speaking communities oppose the annexation of Crimea and Putin's heavy-handed intervention in Ukrainian affairs. U.S. and European engagement with these elements could help facilitate political inclusion under a decentralized system of government. A parallel process to integrate Ukraine into Western institutions such as the EU would incentivize cooperation of between the country's various factions.

On the military side, the Obama administration's decision to reject Kiev's initial requests for anti-tank and other weapons was a mistake. Instead, the United States should supply Ukraine with the materiel and training it needs to resist a Russian military intervention, and should persuade its allies to do the same. The White House, however, has calculated that the infusion of arms into Ukraine could escalate the crisis and undermine the prospects of a settlement with Russia. In fact, Moscow is more likely to negotiate if Putin recognizes the costs of pressing Russian claims militarily. 

Despite legitimate concerns over its readiness, the Ukrainian military, even in its current state, can make use of more weapons. As Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has assessed, the Ukrainian military needs infantry rifles, a training regimen, and anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. To determine the precise size of a multi-year package of arms sales and assistance, the Obama administration should send a team to assess the capabilities Ukraine would need to wage a successful insurgency against an invading Russian army.

Finally, Ukraine cannot realize its economic potential without long-term assistance. The initial package of International Monetary Fund and bilateral assistance will allow Ukraine to weather the immediate crisis. A medium- and long-term effort to diversify the country's energy sources, establish a credible economic reform program, and facilitate Ukrainian exports to Western markets, will require sustained Western cooperation with Kiev. Western influence in Ukraine will be contingent on the United States' willingness to compete with Russia's extensive economic influence in the country.

Without this kind of front-line state strategy, non-NATO member states could become victims of Putin's drive for Russian imperial restoration. But if Washington reawakens to the spirit of the Cold War strategy of deterrence, it could set the conditions for a new regional stability. Hardening the new government in Kiev against Russian destabilization, over time, would allow Ukraine to shoulder more of the burden of deterring Russia. And Moscow, in turn, would be more likely to conclude that further aggression against its neighbors is too risky a gamble.