What Would the Soviets Say About Michael Brown?

From Birmingham to Ferguson, a brief history of how racial tensions at home have undermined America abroad.

Americans are not the only ones who have been riveted by the news out of Ferguson, Missouri, over the past two weeks. The images of tear gas-filled streets and camouflaged police pointing semiautomatic guns at unarmed demonstrators in the U.S. heartland have attracted laughable hypocrisy from around the world. Iran's grand ayatollah decried the "brutal treatment" of African-Americans in the United States. The major news organ in China pointed to Ferguson, where a police officer killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, as indicative of America's "human rights flaw." News broadcasts in Russia noted dryly, "Cases of racism are still not rare in the nation of exemplary democracy." And Egypt, which has come under heavy U.S. diplomatic fire for massacring protesters during the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood a year ago, threw right back at President Barack Obama his words urging "restraint and respect for the right of assembly and peaceful expression of opinion."

But for all of the recent schadenfreude on display, this diplomatic game isn't new. In fact, it has been around at least since the Cold War. The worst part of this posturing isn't its speciousness. It is the willingness to use the harassment and persecution of America's most vulnerable citizens as foreign-policy fodder, cynically casting human rights as just another diplomatic battleground rather than as a framework to bring about real equality, justice, and peace.

During the Cold War, the Soviets eagerly depicted every lynching or Klan-beaten Freedom Rider in Birmingham, Alabama, as a warning to the world that the United States was fundamentally unable to deal with non-whites on the basis of equality. The implications were clear: If the U.S. government could treat its own citizens with such disdain and viciousness, peoples in the Third World were in mortal danger if they aligned with the West. In 1951, Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk acknowledged that, "The greatest burden we Americans have to bear in working out satisfactory relations with the peoples of Asia is our minority problems in the United States."

The Soviets were determined to make relations with Africa a problem as well. When Watts, Detroit, and Newark exploded in riots in the mid- to late 1960s, the KGB seized the opportunity to turn the anger, frustration, and rage of black Americans into a foreign-policy coup. As America's inner cities burned, Soviet agents sent, to African diplomats at the United Nations, forged letters full of "racially insulting" incitement from supposed U.S. white supremacists. That successfully fueled distrust of the United States in Africa. One Soviet agent later remarked, "I lost no sleep over such dirty tricks, figuring they were just another weapon in the Cold War."

From Truman through Nixon, Washington was keenly aware of how the United States' racial tensions played out abroad. It became especially hard to ignore when diplomats from India, the Caribbean, and Africa became ensnared in the discriminatory net of Jim Crow and were tossed out of a theater or denied hotel accommodations. But, despite the cost to its international objectives, the U.S. government was unwilling to attack the problem of racism at its roots. Instead, successive administrations used several strategies to counter Jim Crow's deleterious effects on U.S. foreign policy. One was to place token blacks, such as journalist Carl Rowan and singer Marian Anderson, on international delegations to give the illusion of equality. Another was to point to the riots, court cases, and demonstrations happening around the country during the civil rights movement as proof that the American system could tackle the "unfinished business of democracy." The primary strategy, however, was to go on the attack by highlighting widespread human rights violations in the Soviet bloc.

But just as the dismantling of the Jim Crow laws over the course of the 1960s failed to put an end to racial discrimination in the United States, neither did the end of the Cold War in the 1980s put an end to how racial discrimination at home affects America's image abroad.

In 2005, just two years into the war in Iraq that was cast as Operation Iraqi Freedom, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast, inundating New Orleans. Thousands of Americans, the overwhelming majority of them poor and black, were trapped in a drowning city. The soaring rhetoric about democracy that had cloaked the war in Iraq quickly fell to earth -- in part due to the spectacle at the Superdome in New Orleans. Even the conservative-leaning Daily Mail in Britain, recognized that: "Here is a country that is able to overthrow a dictator if it chooses, but is so immersed in the outcome of a war that it is incapable of reacting accordingly to the problems of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens effected [sic] by a natural disaster." El Mundo, Spain's leading newspaper, emphasized that the disaster in New Orleans "highlights the weaknesses of a country so preoccupied by its imperialist adventures that it is neglecting its most valuable asset -- the well-being of its people." France's Libération further explained, "Katrina has revealed America's weaknesses: its racial divisions, the poverty of those left behind by its society, and especially its president's lack of leadership." Hamburg-based Die Welt was even more succinct: "America is ashamed."

Fast-forward three years and Obama's election seemed to signal to the world that the United States had overcome its sordid past. It marked a chance, as one Iranian reporter said, for America to "fix its image in the world."

But since that electrifying November night in 2008, a strange paradox has occurred. While a black man has occupied the White House, conditions for African-Americans have at best stagnated and in many cases worsened. A 2013 report by researchers at Brandeis University calculated that "half the collective wealth of African-American families was stripped away during the Great Recession." A rash of voter-suppression laws targeted -- much like the old grandfather clauses -- at African-Americans and supported by the Supreme Court's ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, threatens to disfranchise millions of black voters. The economic and political onslaught is punctuated by the number of unarmed black Americans shot and killed by "stand your ground" vigilantes or increasingly militarized police forces, with no assurances whatsoever that justice will occur. These grievances converged in Ferguson, Missouri, and came to light for the world to see.

The United States has been grappling with its relatively diminishing economic global power since the 1970s by turning instead to what was supposed to be the nation's strength. A favorite trope for presidents and secretaries of state attempting to project power abroad has been to talk of America as the land of opportunity, a bastion of human rights. But murdered teenagers and tear gas in Ferguson don't reflect the image of the "shining city on the hill" that politicians in Washington want the world to see. The ongoing inability to make the promises of democracy real for 44.5 million African-Americans will continue to vex U.S. foreign policy now, just as it has in the past. And, fair or not, America's enemies will continue to use this discomfiting reality to poke, embarrass, and shame the superpower.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images


Mowing the Grass and Taking Out the Trash

Israel doesn't want to wipe out Hamas, and putting it in a corner will only backfire.

Nobody seems able to stop the Gaza war. The conflict kicked off in earnest again last week with continued Hamas rocket attacks and Israeli strikes on Hamas commanders. Perhaps more troubling, even if negotiators reach a cease-fire, both sides think another round is inevitable -- there will, it appears, be more death and destruction in the months and years to come.

Although the conflict is often portrayed in existential terms, in reality the goals of both parties are far more limited. Israel has no desire to reoccupy Gaza: Doing so would be a diplomatic disaster, require Israel to care for and govern Gaza's residents, and force Israel to fight a grinding counterinsurgency campaign against Hamas and other militant groups. Instead, Israel simply seeks quiet on its border. Hamas's calculations are more complex. On the one hand, it considers itself a "resistance" organization dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state, and points to Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and 2011 swap of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for captured Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier Gilad Shalit as proof that only force compels Israel to make concessions.

Yet Hamas also sees itself as -- and in reality is -- the government of Gaza. As such, it wants to prove that it can exercise power effectively: In other words, it aims to ensure law and order, pick up the garbage, educate its young, and enable citizens to prosper. Governing also helps Hamas fulfill its ideology, as it believes it is advancing God's will by running a government in accord with Islamic law. Politically, Hamas tries to offer itself to Palestinians as a more competent organization than its more moderate rival, Fatah -- and indeed triumphed over Fatah in 2005 legislative elections in large part because Palestinians saw it as better at providing services and less corrupt. Running Gaza well will help Hamas cement its power and enable it to rival Fatah for leadership of the Palestinian people.

Making this even more complex, Hamas is divided. Some leaders have accepted the necessity of working with moderate Palestinians, and thus grudgingly accepting the reality of Israel's existence. Others, particularly among its military wing, believe that any cease-fire is simply a period to rearm and reload for the next round of violence.

Israel has often tried to use deterrence to win quiet in the Gaza Strip -- but due to the nature of both Hamas and the Israeli leadership and society, this has proved easier said than done. For deterrence to work, Israel must convince Hamas that launching rockets, kidnapping Israelis, or other violence will be met with a response so tough that Hamas will be in a far worse position after the dust clears. However, although Israel seeks to deter Hamas, its policy is predicated on the assumption that any deterrence successes will not endure. Israelis describe their counterterrorism policy as "mowing the grass" -- the idea is that Hamas's leadership and military facilities must regularly be hit in order to keep them weak. Broader destruction of Gaza's infrastructure also reminds Hamas leaders that they and their people will pay a high price for attacking Israel.

Yet if we look at the latest round of fighting, as well as Israel's two prior wars with Hamas since the group took over Gaza, the problems with Israel's approach become clear. Deterrence has a strategic logic -- but in this conflict, both sides are driven more by domestic politics than strategy. Israeli leaders compete to maintain their security credentials: While most democratic leaders struggle to convince their people to use force when necessary, Israeli leaders must struggle to explain that force can often backfire. Then-Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, part of the hawkish wing of Netanyahu's Likud party, was just one of the figures who threatened to turn the war into a political liability for Netanyahu in its early days -- he was a vocal advocate for an extensive ground campaign in Gaza and publicly criticized the decision to temporarily accept a cease-fire, leading the prime minister to fire him.

On the Hamas side, the domestic politics are cloudier but probably even more significant. Hamas is struggling to unite a movement that has branches in Gaza and the West Bank, a headquarters in Qatar, and a large presence in the Palestinian diaspora. These factions regularly debate such hot-button issues as the degree of reconciliation with Fatah, how much to prioritize rule in Gaza over the group's needs elsewhere, and of course whether and when to confront Israel. And rival groups are constantly baying at Hamas's heels: Palestinian Islamic Jihad and militants in Gaza with an ideology closer to al Qaeda than Hamas criticize any break in the fighting as a sign that Hamas has given up on freeing Palestine. At times, rival groups have launched attacks on Israel in spite of Hamas's orders, and at other times Hamas has looked the other way while they acted.

There is one ironic danger of Israel's war against Hamas -- for deterrence to work, you don't want your enemy to become too weak. A weaker Hamas makes rogue attacks more likely, and disarming Hamas, which Israeli leaders have at times called for, would risk Gaza being controlled by even more extreme groups.

Deterrence also failed to stop Hamas this time around because of the dismal position the Palestinian group was in prior to the war. Hamas was squeezed from every direction: Israel and the international community deliberately sought to isolate Hamas and keep Gaza's economy in a wretched state, past promises to partially lift the blockade never materialized, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government engaged in an unprecedented crackdown on cross-border smuggling into Gaza. In such circumstances, Hamas had little to lose -- and potentially much to gain -- by restarting the conflict. It might just work: After the latest destructive round of violence, Gaza is back on the world agenda, and moderate Palestinians are embracing Hamas's position on ending the blockade.

Violence also helps Hamas politically in its struggles with Palestinian rivals. When Israel attacks -- particularly when the attacks kill appalling numbers of civilians, as happened in the 2008-2009 war and in the current conflict -- it makes moderates like Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas look at best like fools and at worst like collaborators with the Israelis. It also makes peace negotiations impossible, denying Abbas his most important tool for delivering on a Palestinian state. Hamas is particularly likely to gain influence in the West Bank, where Palestinians applaud striking Israel but do not suffer the brunt of Israel's response.

Israel also faces many limits when trying to deter Hamas. The Jewish state won't escalate indefinitely -- it has no desire to reoccupy Gaza, and Hamas knows this. In addition, Israel is highly casualty-sensitive: If Hamas kills 10 Israelis and Israel kills 100 Gazans, then Hamas claims victory -- and Israelis agree. This means that a lucky Hamas rocket hit or a successful Hamas operation against Israeli troops can dramatically transform the political equation, making Hamas a "winner" and Israel a "loser" overnight. Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system has helped Israel reduce this risk, but it remains real, particularly as the range of Hamas's rockets steadily increases, enabling the group to terrorize Israelis throughout the country.

If Hamas cannot be fully defeated, and if isolating it politically and economically makes it more likely to lash out, then the Israeli goal should be to use deterrence as part of a broader strategy to transform Hamas. Because Hamas cares about governing Gaza as well as defeating Israel, it should be given a stark choice: If it ends its own violence and launches a full crackdown on other militant groups in Gaza, the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza will be eased. Palestinian moderates, working with the international community and Israel's neighbors, would control crossings to prevent the smuggling of arms. If not, the blockade will remain, and Israel will strike Hamas leaders and at times conduct more massive military campaigns: In other words, the suffering will continue.

Under such a deal, Hamas will be given a true chance to govern -- but the price of that legitimacy is an end to violence. With this approach, Israel and its backers should change their policy toward Hamas's feud with Fatah. They should want Hamas to be tied to more moderate elements, and thus be part of a technocratic Palestinian unity government. Indeed, if Hamas is implicitly part of such a government, it strengthens Hamas's acceptance of peace and helps the Palestinian Authority regain its influence in Gaza. It also strengthens Palestinian moderates, showing that a peaceful path can lead to progress.

The good news is that negotiations underway in Cairo have all the elements of such a broader deal -- but politics on both sides stands in the way. Israel doesn't want to reward Hamas for the latest round of violence and, in general, is skeptical that Hamas will ever transform into a more peaceful movement. Hamas, for its part, wants to retain the legitimacy it gains from the occasional use of violence, and believes that only the threat of force will move Israel. The result, unfortunately, is that both parties are only thinking of a short-term stopgap measure. Mediators need to describe what a sustainable solution would look like, laying out specifics about Hamas's responsibilities to stop the violence and the extent and nature of the easing of the blockade of Gaza.

Such an offer will lead to a crisis in Hamas from which Israel can only benefit. If Hamas rejects such terms, it will anger Gazans who want an end to violence, alienate any international support for the group, and legitimize a strong Israeli response. If Hamas accepts the offer, however, then it is implicitly accepting Israel's right to live in peace and moving away from violence. It would also compel the group to crack down on more violent groups in Gaza.

The transformation of Hamas will not occur overnight, and Israel may have to mow the grass again. But the stark choice should remain, allowing both Israelis and Palestinians a real chance for peace.