The Perils of an Itchy Twitter Finger

Trying to cram a nuanced view on the tragedy in Ukraine into 140 characters was a mistake. Taking a closer look at the West's role is not.

I had a valuable learning experience last week, prompted by a hasty tweet I sent out on the subject of Ukraine.

When I heard the news about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, my first thought was that this was another case where our failure to understand the risks of the situation and to move swiftly to resolve a simmering crisis had contributed to a tragic outcome. The people who shot down the plane were responsible for what happened, of course, but the tragedy might never have occurred had the EU and the United States been less eager to pull Ukraine into the Western orbit and less reluctant to cut a deal with Moscow that would have guaranteed Ukrainian neutrality. So I took to my Twitter feed and tried to make this point, writing, "Airliner tragedy in #Ukraine shows US & EU erred by not pushing to keep Ukr. as neutral buffer state, not potential EU/NATO member."

It provoked a firestorm of outraged comments, some of them quite vehement, even by the fiery standards of the Internet. A number of critics suggested Harvard ought to fire me, and one commenter suggested it was unfortunate that I was not one of the passengers on the plane.

I've been criticized before -- it comes with the territory if you write about controversial topics -- but the level of venom in this case was especially impressive. I asked myself: What explains the (many) angry responses, and was I wrong to have said what I did?

With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear my original tweet was insensitive, which I regret. Mea culpa. My point was not to excuse the act itself or to defend the responsible parties (e.g., the Ukrainian separatists and possibly the Russian government). Rather, my aim was to remind people that the United States and the European Union had helped cause the broader crisis in the first place, mostly by failing to recognize that their policies toward Ukraine were threatening Russia's vital interests and that a harsh Russian response was to be expected. Furthermore, because the West had done little to resolve the increasingly volatile crisis, an event like the downing of the plane was more and more likely.

But even if this point was correct, it was surely not the most important thing to highlight right after we received the shocking news. Thus, I don't blame readers for reacting as harshly as they did. My error reminded me that Twitter and other forms of social media are not good platforms for trying to make a subtle, nuanced, and contrarian point, especially when emotions are running high. These platforms are terrific for sharing links, offering wry or witty comments on events, and even posting the occasional bit of acerbic snark. But unless you can link to a larger exposition of your position, it's not a good place to try to present a layered view of any subject, and certainly not a controversial one.

Second, this experience also reminded me how hard it is to keep a cool head when tragic mistakes or evil acts occur. When innocent people die pointless deaths, our natural instinct is to seek out the perpetrators and hold them accountable. I suspect the people who brought down the plane did not realize they were targeting a civilian airliner -- because killing innocent civilians could only harm their cause -- but we still want to punish whoever pulled the trigger and maybe whoever gave them the weapons.

That's appropriate, I think, provided that we don't stop there, and provided that we are willing to ask ourselves what might have been done earlier to avoid this tragic event.

We need to ask such questions because the situation in Ukraine remains unresolved, and we cannot rule out additional calamities until a settlement is reached.

And here I still find most commentary on Ukraine to be unsophisticated and wrong-headed. Instead of trying to understand Russia's actions over the past five months, Western officials and numerous pundits have from the start blamed the entire mess on Russian "aggression" and accused Putin of wanting to recreate the old Soviet empire. In particular, we seem unable to recognize that Putin might be reacting to what he sees as a genuine threat to Russia's vital interests, and that he might be willing to play hardball to defend his position.

Trying to understand what Russia or its separatist allies in Ukraine are doing does not require us to agree with their views or approve of their conduct, especially not now. But unless we make some effort to understand how Russia's leaders see the situation, and what their real motivations are, we are unlikely to formulate an effective policy to address the present crisis.

Moreover, understanding Russia's motives should not be so difficult. No great power is indifferent to potential threats in its immediate neighborhood, and all the more so when it has valid historical reasons to be concerned about particular areas. Furthermore, great powers are usually willing to do pretty nasty things when vital interests are at stake. Consider what the United States has done to prevent rivals from gaining a significant foothold in the Western hemisphere. Among other things, Washington imposed a 50-year embargo on Cuba, which still stands, and tried to overthrow or assassinate Fidel Castro more than once. It supported brutal dictatorships in Guatemala and El Salvador, turned a blind eye to right-wing death squads in several other countries, and backed the contras in the Nicaraguan civil war, at a cost of more than 30,000 dead.

Were these actions -- undertaken by both Republicans and Democrats -- all that different from what Putin is doing today?

Which brings us back to the complex issue of culpability. In all likelihood it was Ukrainian separatists who brought down the plane -- possibly with Russian assistance -- and blame rests first and foremost with them. But the United States and the EU are not blameless. Not because they deliberately sought to foment instability in Ukraine, but because they have pursued idealistic goals in a naïve and unrealistic manner. U.S. policy may have been inspired by a sincere desire to help pro-Western Ukrainians achieve greater prosperity and more effective government, but noble aims count for little when pursuing them does more harm than good.

U.S. officials should keep another lesson in mind as well. They can be cavalier about trying to spread democratic values because the negative fallout from these efforts tends to happen to other people far, far away. The United States did lose 4,500 soldiers and several trillion dollars in Iraq, but Iraqis suffered hundreds of thousands killed and wounded and face an increasingly bleak future today. If the crisis in Ukraine continues to drag on -- or, God forbid, gets worse -- it is Ukrainians who will suffer the most, along with innocent victims like the passengers on MH17.

I want to emphasize that I am not trying to absolve those who fired the missile of responsibility for the 298 lost lives. Nor am I attempting to absolve Russia for providing them the weaponry, if that proves to be the case. The blood of the victims is on their hands. But the harsh reality is this: States play hardball when perceived vital interests are at stake, and the United States is no exception in this regard. Any country that threatens a great power's core strategic interests should not be surprised when it reacts in ways that run counter to the Marquis of Queensbury rules. We don't have to like such behavior -- indeed, there are good reasons to condemn it -- but there's no excuse for failing to anticipate it.

If Americans want to minimize such risks in the future, we should try to do more to prevent conflicts before they start, and to shut them down quickly when they do occur. And we should not forget that when our diplomats dally or miscalculate, others are likely to suffer, and sometimes greatly. As for those of us who write about such matters, thinking first and tweeting later is a good idea, too.



Suspended Animation in the Strip

For Gaza’s young and ambitious, the ongoing war is just another one of life’s many challenges.

Amal Ashour has big dreams, which extend beyond the 139-square-mile territory she calls home. One of the most promising students in the Gaza Strip, the 20-year-old Ashour wants to get her master's degree in English literature and become a "serious" college professor. She spent her senior year of high school studying in Minnesota through a U.S.-government funded program -- a rare opportunity for bright students in Gaza, which has been choked by an Israeli blockade since Hamas seized power seven years ago. 

She had planned to spend the summer studying and reading poetry. John Keats and William Wordsworth are her favorite poets: "My professors joke I'm too romantic," she says. "I love spiritual poetry."

Instead, Amal finds herself in the middle of a war. Her classes have been cancelled indefinitely due to the recent escalation in fighting, which has seen Israeli ground forces enter Gaza for the first time since 2008. Her days are now spent making sure all her friends and relatives are still alive. 

"You feel like death is knocking on your door daily," she says, waking up early in Gaza City to check in on her Facebook friends. "[My family] all sleep in the same room now, nine of us, because we don't want something to happen to one of us. If we all die, we die together."

While there have been sporadic attempts to negotiate an end to the conflict, the violence has only gotten worse -- and so far, there seems to be no end in sight. On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had ordered Israel's military to prepare for "a substantive broadening" of its ground offensive in Gaza, citing the threat posed by tunnels dug by Hamas to infiltrate Israel. The death toll in Gaza has now passed 300 people, with more than 2,000 injured since fighting started on July 8. The United Nations estimated that at least 74 percent of those deaths are civilians. To date, more than 40,000 Gazans have been displaced and are seeking shelter in U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools. 

Such futile, lethal conflicts have been the backdrop of Amal's life. And it's bright youths like her who stand to lose the most. 

When I was introduced to Amal in 2012, she was planning to study English literature that fall at a university in the West Bank through another U.S.-sponsored program. But just a month before school started, she was informed the scholarship was no longer available. Under Israeli pressure, U.S. officials had canceled the program for students in the Gaza Strip, doing away with one of the few American outreach programs in the territory.

She is now enrolled at Gaza's Islamic University, "happy enough" with her studies, but weighed down by the cold reality that she may never become the person she wants to be.   

"We continue to be pawns ... just objects in politics," she said. "There's nothing you can do. You have to be strong and keep hoping that one day you can have a normal life."

A normal life, however, is nearly impossible in Gaza. It is one of the most densely populated areas in the world -- home to about 1.3 million Palestinians, roughly one-third of whom live in U.N.-funded refugee camps. The territory is riddled with poverty, its local economy completely stifled by the blockade. According to UNRWA, about 80 percent of the population receives aid. Official Palestinian statistics put Gaza's unemployment rate at nearly 40 percent, while youth unemployment hovers around 57 percent.

"We have a whole generation who have grown up under occupation," says Dr. Mona El-Farra, health chair of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. "We have a whole society traumatized, living with extensive psychological damage."

More than half of Gaza's population is under the age of 18. They have grown up intimately familiar with war: This is the third Israeli bombardment Gaza has faced in just the past five years. 

"Even if the fighting ends tomorrow," Farra says, "The poverty won't end. All of us, especially the youth, will still be trapped."

For the few who do manage to find a way out, juggling newfound opportunity with a sense of guilt is a precarious balancing act.

When I met 25-year-old Mohammed al-Majdalawi in Gaza almost three years ago, he was desperately looking for an opportunity to study abroad. A talented young filmmaker, endlessly charismatic and eager for adventure, he felt trapped living in Jabalia Refugee Camp, the largest of Gaza's eight such camps.

"Technology and the Internet is the only window youth [in Gaza] have to experience the world, to experience life," he says. "From a young age, I've dreamed of more." 

In 2012, he received a scholarship to study filmmaking at Lund University in Sweden, where he's been living since. But watching the recent fighting from a safe perch thousands of miles away has been "impossible," he says. He tries to talk daily to his mother and siblings who still live in the camp, but electricity and phone lines are frequently down. Jabalia is located in northern Gaza, where Israeli forces have warned residents to evacuate due to the intensity of their bombardment.

"What if something happens to my family? How would I even be able to get back in? I will not forgive myself if they die while I am away," he says.

For people like Mohammed, another cease-fire is not enough -- he believes that the status quo must fundamentally change, with more education exchange and development programs for Gazan youth.

For Mariam Abultewi, 24, a talented computer engineering graduate, that glimmer of opportunity came through Gaza Sky Geeks -- Gaza's first and only start-up accelerator. While studying at the University of Gaza, where 60 percent of the IT program is made up of women, she founded Wasselni, a social carpooling network for transportation in Gaza. She is the first female start-up founder in Gaza to receive investment through Gaza Sky Geeks, and hopes to scale the idea across the region.

When I met Mariam last May, she was attending a Yahoo conference on women and technology in the Middle East. Bright-eyed and enthusiastic, Mariam was on her first trip outside Gaza. Unlike many, she doesn't fear that she won't succeed -- she says her guiding mantra is "fail hard."

She only fears she will never be given the opportunity to fail. Since the conflict erupted, both Gaza Sky Geeks and her university have been shuttered.

"We want to show the world what we can do, but we have so little opportunity to show them," she said. "We want to be more than the conflict ... but we need more space to grow."

It's not only Mariam whose world is getting smaller. In another part of Gaza City, Amal prepares for another uncertain night. For the past week, she says she's dreamt of her time studying abroad in the United States, where she could move freely and life seemed to be full of unlimited possibilities.

"Everyone -- Hamas, Israel, the world -- is controlling us, but so many of us have nothing to do with these politics," she says. "We are just a generation waiting to be normal. We are just a generation waiting to live."