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Israel's latest brutal blunder

By now you'll all have heard about the IDF's unwarranted attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, a fleet of six civilian vessels that was attempting to bring humanitarian aid (i.e., medicines, food, and building materials) to Gaza. The population of Gaza has been under a crippling Israeli siege since 2006. Israel imposed the blockade after Gaza's voters had the temerity to prefer Hamas in a free election held at the insistence of the Bush administration, which then refused to recognize the new government because it didn't like the results.

Late Sunday night, IDF naval forces and commandos attacked one of the unarmed ships in international waters, killing at least ten of the peace activists and injuring many more. IDF spokesman claim that the use of force was justified because the passengers resisted Israel's efforts to board and commandeer the ship. Other Israeli officials have sought to portray the activists, whose ranks included citizens from fifty countries, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a former U.S. ambassador, and an elderly Holocaust survivor, as terrorist sympathizers with ties to Hamas and even al Qaeda.

My first question when I heard the news was: "What could Israel's leaders have been thinking?" How could they possibly believe that a deadly assault against a humanitarian mission in international waters would play to their advantage? Israel's government and its hard-line supporters frequently complain about alleged efforts to "delegitimize" the country, but actions like this are the real reason Israel's standing around the world has plummeted to such low levels.  This latest escapade is as bone-headed as the 2006 war in Lebanon (which killed over a thousand Lebanese and caused billions of dollars worth of damage) or the 2008-2009 onslaught that killed some 1300 Gazans, many of them innocent children. None of these actions achieved its strategic objective; indeed, all of them are just more evidence of the steady deterioration in Israel's strategic thinking that we have witnessed since 1967.

My second question is: "Will the Obama administration show some backbone on this issue, and go beyond the usual mealy-mouthed statements that U.S. presidents usually make when Israel acts foolishly and dangerously?" President Obama likes to talk a lot about our wonderful American values, and his shiny new National Security Strategy says "we must always seek to uphold these values not just when it is easy, but when it is hard."  The same document also talks about a "rule-based international order," and says "America's commitment to the rule of law is fundamental to our efforts to build an international order that is capable of confronting the emerging challenges of the 21st century."

Well if that is true, here is an excellent opportunity for Obama to prove that he means what he says. Attacking a humanitarian aid mission certainly isn't consistent with American values -- even when that aid mission is engaged in the provocative act of challenging a blockade -- and doing so in international waters is a direct violation of international law. Of course, it would be politically difficult for the administration to take a principled stand with midterm elections looming, but our values and commitment to the rule of law aren't worth much if a president will sacrifice them just to win votes.

More importantly, this latest act of misguided belligerence poses a broader threat to U.S. national interests. Because the United States provides Israel with so much material aid and diplomatic protection, and because American politicians from the president on down repeatedly refer to the "unbreakable bonds" between the United States and Israel, people all over the world naturally associate us with most, if not all, of Israel's actions. Thus, Israel doesn't just tarnish its own image when it does something outlandish like this; it makes the United States look bad, too. This incident will harm our relations with other Middle Eastern countries, lend additional credence to jihadi narratives about the "Zionist-Crusader alliance," and complicate efforts to deal with Iran. It will also cost us some moral standing with other friends around the world, especially if we downplay it. This is just more evidence, as if we needed any, that the special relationship with Israel has become a net liability.

In short, unless the Obama administration demonstrates just how angry and appalled it is by this foolish act, and unless the U.S. reaction has some real teeth in it, other states will rightly see Washington as irretrievably weak and hypocritical. And Obama's Cairo speech -- which was entitled "A New Beginning" -- will be guaranteed a prominent place in the Hall of Fame of Empty Rhetoric.

How might the United States respond? We could start by denouncing Israel's action in plain English, without prevarication. We could help draft and push through a Security Council resolution condemning Israel's action and calling for an international commission of inquiry to determine what happened. And if American intelligence was monitoring the flotilla -- and it should have been -- we should make any information we collected available to the commission. We could also cancel or suspend elements of our military aid package to Israel. And we could say loudly and clearly that the blockade of Gaza is illegal, inhumane and counterproductive, and openly press Israel and Egypt to lift it immediately.

But even strong measures like these won't solve the underlying problem, which is the conflict itself. I've learned not to expect much from this administration when it comes to pushing the two sides toward a settlement, as Obama talks a good game, but doesn't follow through by putting meaningful pressure on the two sides. This latest incident, however, might convince Obama that he was right to put the Israeli-Palestinian issue on the front burner when he took office, and wrong to cave into Netanyahu when the latter dug in his heels last summer (2009) and again this past spring. The result of those retreats was a waste of precious time, while the situation in the Occupied Territories deteriorated.

Because time is rapidly running out on a two-state solution, Obama should seize this opportunity to explain to the American people why a different approach is needed and why bringing this conflict to an end is a national security priority for the United States. He should also explain why using U.S. leverage on both sides is in Israel's interest as well as America's interest. And he will need to bring some new people on board to help him do this, because the team he's been using has spent more than a year without achieving anything. (If his economic team was this decisive, our economy would still be spiraling into the abyss.) Getting the so-called "proximity talks" restarted doesn't count, because those discussions are a step backwards from earlier face-to-face negotiations and because they are likely to fail. 

A third thought has to do with Israel itself, and especially its present government. How are we supposed to think about a country that has nuclear weapons, a superb army, an increasingly prosperous economy, and great technological sophistication, yet keeps more than a million people under siege in Gaza, denies political rights to millions more on the West Bank, is committed to expanding settlements there, and whose leaders feel little compunction about using deadly force not merely against well-armed enemies, but also against innocent civilians and international peace activists, while at the same time portraying itself as a blameless victim?   Something has gone terribly wrong with the Zionist dream.

Fourth, this incident is a litmus test for the "pro-Israel" community here in the United States.  One of the reasons why Israel keeps doing foolish things like this is that it has been insulated from the consequences of these actions by its hard-line sympathizers in the United States.  AIPAC spokesmen are already bombarding journalists and pundits with emails spinning the assault, and we can confidently expect other apologists to prepare op-eds and blog posts defending Israel's conduct as a principled act of "self-defense." And if the Obama administration tries to proceed in any of the ways I've just suggested, it can count on fierce opposition from the most influential organizations in the Israel lobby. 

In this context Peter Beinart's recent article in the New York Review of Books is even more salient, especially his question:

The heads of AIPAC and the Presidents' Conference should ask themselves what Israel's leaders would have to do or say to make them scream "no."  ... If the line has not yet been crossed, where is the line?"

Over the next few days, keep an eye on how politicians and pundits line up on this issue. Which of them thinks that Israel "crossed a line" and deserves criticism -- and maybe even sanction -- and which of them thinks that what it did was entirely appropriate? Ironically, it is the former who are Israel's friends, because they are trying to save that country before it is too late. It is the latter whose misguided zeal is leading Israel down the road to further international isolation -- and maybe even worse.

Stephen M. Walt

Snoozing through the National Security Strategy

Back in September, I said I wished the Obama administration wasn't required by law to submit a formal statement of its “National Security Strategy.” I said this in part because I think such efforts are mostly a waste of time, but also because I thought it might be better not to be too explicit about the adjustments forced upon Obama by the Bush administration’s errors and the 2008 recession. So I suggested that they try to make the report as boring as possible.

The new National Security Strategy was released yesterday, and the usual parsing of its prose is now underway. (You can find other reactions here, and here, and an inteview with the report's primary author, Ben Rhodes, here.) I doubt Rhodes and his colleagues were trying to take my advice, but they have succeeded in producing a document that could make even the most dedicated foreign policy wonk’s eyes glaze over. I haven’t done a word count compared to the Clinton or Bush versions, but I’d bet this one is substantially longer. It’s certainly duller. None of the earlier reports deserved prizes for clarity, consistency, or rhetorical achievement, but the new version manages to make the drama of world politics positively enervating. Given my earlier recommendation, I guess congratulations are in order.

So having struggled through it, what are my first impressions? Let me start by saying that it's hard for me not to like a report whose first page says "to succeed, we must face the world as it is." It then goes on to say that "we need to be clear-eyed about the strengths and shortcomings of international institutions that were developed to deal with the challenges of an earlier time." I read that and almost thought that somebody had screwed up and let a realist into the drafting room. 

But I kept reading, and soon realized that this was not the case. Although the report reflects certain broad realities, it ignores plenty of others. It offers the usual bromides about NATO’s position as the “cornerstone” of U.S. engagement, for example, but takes no notice of the economic difficulties that will inevitably reduce Europe’s ability to be a substantial partner. It talks about the continued "pursuit" of Middle East peace, but is silent on what the administration has learned after eighteen months of trying. It offers a predictably upbeat view of our strategy in Central Asia without acknowledging the possibility that our efforts won’t succeed. Needless to say, that is not quite "facing the world as it is."

The main novelty in the report is its attempt to acknowledge the limits of American power while continuing to extol the virtues of U.S. primacy and global leadership. The report warns against the dangers of over-commitment and repeatedly emphasizes the need to preserve U.S. economic strength (“the foundation of American leadership”). It calls for more active cooperation with key allies and greater recognition of the ways that power is diffusing in the international system. Its focus is on the future, and it treats a number of contemporary problems as short-to-medium-term distractions that need to dealt with so that we can turn our attention to weightier and longer-term issues.

Unfortunately, this mostly sensible perspective is belied by some of the specifics. With the partial exception of Iraq, it is hard to identify any area of the world or any particular issue-area where the Obama administration intends to do less, or where it stands a good chance of getting others to do much more. On the contrary, in addition to maintaining our traditional alliances, building partnerships with new emerging powers, and continuing to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda," we are also going to create a new nuclear security regime, defeat the Taliban and build an effective government in Afghanistan, and keep the pressure on states that are defying the "international consensus" like Iran and North Korea. Our efforts in Iraq won’t really end either: combat troops may be out of Iraq by the end of 2011 but "U.S. civilian engagement will deepen and broaden" and we "will continue to retain a robust civilian presence commensurate with our strategic interests in the country and the region." (Translation: we’ll be meddling in Iraq for a long time to come, and it won’t be cheap).

But wait, there’s more! The United States is going to be “unwavering” in our pursuit of peace between Israel and its neighbors (never mind that we’ve done nothing but waver since the Cairo speech a year ago). We’re going to deny al Qaeda “safe havens” anywhere, address threats to cyberspace, achieve balanced and sustainable economic growth at home, and “accelerate sustainable development” abroad via increased and better-designed foreign assistance. We’re also going to reform existing international institutions, prepare for global pandemics, strengthen global norms against corruption, prevent genocide, reinforce international legal norms, and keep all our existing alliances intact. (I could go on, but you get the idea).

You might think this could get expensive, but don’t worry, because the report also promises that it will spend taxpayers’ dollars wisely and “put the United States back on a sustainable fiscal path.” But how can you maintain the same level of international activity and at the same time balance the budget, rebuild eroding national infrastructure, improve education, stimulate scientific and technological innovation, and foster robust economic growth? Simple answer: you can’t. 

In short, despite the nods to greater balance in our foreign policy and the need to restore fiscal solvency, the report continues to reflect the “pay any price and bear any burden” mind-set that is characteristic of American liberal internationalism. Not surprisingly, it  defines an acceptable “international order” as one where the United States “underwrites” global security and where existing institutions and policies reflect U.S. values and conform to U.S. interests. In fact, despite its rhetorical concessions to the diffusion of power and the need to adapt to new realities, the report declares that one of our key national interests is “an international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through strong cooperation to meet global challenges” (my emphasis). Or as Secretary of State Clinton put it on Thursday, “the simple fact is that no global problem can be solved without us.” (Take that, President Lula and Prime Minster Erdogan!).

According to the report, the international order we seek will be a “rules-based international system that can advance our own interests by serving mutual interests.” Right, except that the United States will reserve the right to ignore the rules when it suits us. Meanwhile, “adversarial states” (i.e., those who don’t follow our rules) will face a choice: “abide by international norms and achieve the political and economic benefits that come with greater integration with the international community; or refuse to accept this pathway, and bear the consequences of that decision, including greater isolation.” This is no different than Bush’s belief that “you’re either with us, or against us," but it is a lot more long-winded.

As a loyal American, I can understand (and maybe even support) this aspiration, and it’s easy to understand why U.S. presidents speak in such terms. But there are two obvious problems with this conception of international order. First, the report is saying that Washington will continue to define the set of rules and standards by which international behavior will be judged, and if other states don’t accept it, they will face the consequences. In the meantime, however, the United States will continue to violate other states’ sovereignty by sending in Special Forces (with or without permission), or by conducting drone strikes at suspected terrorists (ditto), and woe betide anybody who tries to do the same thing to us.  

This view assumes that having the United States "underwrite" global security is always beneficial, both to the United States but also to others. I think there are circumstances where this has been true (e.g., the United States has helped prevent security competition among the major powers in Europe and Asia for decades), but there are also plenty of places (e.g., the Middle East and Central Asia) where the United States interferences has been much more problematic. Yet the report never tries to distinguish between the areas and activities where the U.S. role is likely to be positive, and those areas or activities where American "engagement" is more likely to make things worse.

Second, the report assumes that other states are going to accept a “rules-based” order that is largely made-in-America. Maybe so, but the track record in recent years isn’t encouraging. The United States is still the world’s most powerful country, but we don’t have anywhere near the clout we had at the end of World War II, when many key global institutions were created. As I noted a few weeks ago, existing global institutions aren’t performing very well these days, mostly because there are a larger number of consequential actors and many of them have different interests than we do. The NSS report devotes some lip-service paragraphs to the diffusion of power and the need to recognize “emerging centers of influence,” but the administration’s recent back-of-the-hand response to Turkey and Brazil’s effort to broker a nuclear deal with Iran suggests that Washington still thinks these “emerging centers” should mostly mind their own business.

One final note: like most such documents (and virtually all presidential speeches), the report is written in a relentlessly exhortative tone. The phrase “we must” and words like “need” or "require” are dotted like flyspecks throughout the prose, along with the repeated declaration that “we will.” The reader is battered relentlessly by phrases like “we must build a stronger foundation for American leadership,” or “we must continue to adapt and rebalance our instruments of statecraft,” normally accompanied by the solemn declaration that we will most definitely do what is necessary to meet those requirements.

Words like these imply urgent necessity: We must do X, Y or Z or something awful will happen. But any sensible person knows that many of these so-called requirements are not essential; they are simply desirable goals that it would be good if we could achieve. But I’d bet that if we re-read this document in five or ten years, we’d discover that a lot of those “musts” and “needs” were never achieved. Not because Obama & Co. didn't try, but rather because some of them were too hard, or misconceived, or because other goals ultimately took priority. But what does it say about our political process if our leaders keep making lots of lofty promises that we ought to know that they won’t keep?

But perhaps I’m carping too much. What matters is not what the administration says in this report (which was only written because they are required to do so by law). What matters is what they actually do in foreign policy, and also what they choose not to do. So if this particular report is a bit of a snoozer and doesn't get all that much attention, maybe that's all for the best. 

Alex Wong/Getty Images