How to end the blockade of Gaza

Back in May 1967, the Egyptian government led by Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered a blockade of the Straits of Tiran, cutting off Israeli shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba. This action crossed a "red line" for Israel, and was a major escalatory step in the crisis that led to the Six Day War. President Lyndon Johnson considered sending U.S. warships or some sort of international flotilla to challenge the blockade and defuse the crisis. But even though the United States had previously given Israel certain assurances about protecting freedom of navigation in the straits, Johnson ultimately declined to take decisive action to defend Israel's navigation rights. The United States was already bogged down in Vietnam and Johnson feared getting trapped in another volatile conflict. So he dithered, and Israel ultimately chose to go to war instead.

Had Johnson used U.S. naval forces to challenge the blockade, the Six Day War might not have occurred. Egypt would not have dared to challenge U.S. warships, of course, and sending a U.S. fleet to break the blockade would have given Nasser a way to back down but save face (i.e., he would have been backing down to a superpower, and not to Israel). And had the Six Day War been averted, many of the problems we are wrestling with now -- including the disastrous occupation of the West Bank -- might never have arisen.

Remembering this previous failure got me thinking: why doesn't the United States use its considerable power to lift the blockade of Gaza unilaterally? It's clear that the blockade of Gaza is causing enormous human suffering and making both the United States and Israel look terrible in the eyes of the rest of the world. It has also failed to achieve any positive political purpose, like defeating Hamas. So why doesn't the United States take the bull by the horns and organize a relief flotilla of its own, and use the U.S. Navy to escort the ships into Gaza? I'll bet we could easily get a few NATO allies to help too, and if money's the issue, we can get some EU members or Scandinavians to help pay for the relief supplies. And somehow I don't think the IDF would try to stop us, or board any of the vessels.

The advantages of this course of action seem obvious. The United States has been looking both ineffective and hypocritical ever since the Cairo speech a year ago, and many people in the Arab and Islamic world are beginning to see Barack Obama as just a smooth-talking version of George W. Bush. By taking concrete steps to relieve Palestinian suffering, Obama would be showing the world that the United States was not in thrall to Israel or its hard-core lobbyists here in the United States. What better way to discredit the fulminations of anti-American terrorists like Osama bin Laden, who constantly accuse us of being indifferent to Muslim suffering? The photo ops of U.S. personnel unloading tons of relief supplies would go a long way to repairing our tarnished image in that part of the world. Remember the Berlin airlift, or our relief operations in Indonesia following the Asian tsunami? Doing good for others can win a lot of good will.

Second, having the U.S. and NATO take charge of a relief operation would alleviate Israel's security concerns. The Israeli government claims the blockade is necessary to prevent weapons from being smuggled into Gaza. That is surely a legitimate concern, but if the United States and its allies are bringing relief aid in, then we can determine what goes on the ships and we obviously won't bring in weaponry.

But wait a minute: wouldn't bringing relief aid to Gaza end up strengthening Hamas? Not if we arrange for the relief aid to be distributed through the United Nations or other independent relief agencies. Some of it might end up in Hamas's hands indirectly but most of it won't, and reducing the level of deprivation and suffering would undercut the influence Hamas gains as a provider of social services.

It's true that a relief operation of this sort will probably require some U.S. officials to have some minimal dealings with Hamas, but this would actually be a good thing. If the United States is really serious about a genuine two-state solution, it is going to have to bring Hamas into the political process sooner or later and this is a pretty low-key, non-committal way to start. And while we're at it, we can tell them to get busy fixing that Charter of theirs and take a humanitarian gesture or two of their own, such as releasing captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

In short, using American power to end the blockade of Gaza could be a win-win-win for everyone. The United States (and Obama himself) would demonstrate that we really did seek a "new beginning" in the Middle East, and correct the impression that the Cairo speech was just a lot of elegant hooey. Israel's security concerns would be addressed, it would look flexible and reasonable, and we would be providing Netanyahu with an easy way to extricate himself from a position that is increasingly untenable. (It's one thing for him to lift the blockade himself, but quite another to do it at Washington's behest). And of course the long-suffering population of Gaza would be much better off, which should make us all feel better.

The more that I think about it, the more attractive this approach looks. All it takes is an administration that is willing to take bold action to correct a situation that is both a humanitarian outrage and a simmering threat to regional peace. That probably means that it has zero chance of being adopted. And of course you all know why.

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Stephen M. Walt

'Events, dear boy, events'

When asked what sort of thing was most likely to blow governments off course, British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan famously replied, "Events, dear boy, events." I thought of that line as I was reflecting on the series of bad bounces that the Obama administration has experienced in recent weeks, most notably in the case of the BP blow-out and oil leak down in the Gulf of Mexico. I think there's a broader lesson there, however, so permit me to briefly ascend one of my familiar soap-boxes.

One of the many reasons I think the United States should adopt a more restrained grand strategy is the fact that our current level of (over)-commitment leaves us with little latitude for dealing with surprises. Presidents think they can set an ambitious foreign and domestic agenda and then just proceed to implement it. They know they will face various obstacles along the way, but they forget that they will also have to spend enormous amounts of time on problems that  just come out of nowhere. But if you're already trying to do too much, then there's no time to handle anything else and either the new problems get bungled or your original goals have to be sacrificed.

Lord knows I have a certain sympathy for the Obama team, insofar as they inherited a very tough situation. But from the start they've acted as if they could do everything at once, didn't need to set priorities, and didn't really need to have a clear and well-articulated strategy for achieving their various lofty goals. As I noted last week, their new National Security Strategy devotes a lot of lip-service to relying more on partnerships, institutions, etc., but it still sees the United States deeply engaged virtually everywhere and it anticipates Washington retaining the lead role on most if not all major issues. It is decidely not a document that anticipates our doing less.

The obvious danger with an overcrowded agenda is that there's no slack in the system when the inevitable surprises occur. Nobody expected an oil well to blow in the Gulf of Mexico, but that unforeseen event is going to consume a lot of Obama's time and energy and limit his ability to act in other areas. (He's already canceled a trip to Indonesia for the second time). Meanwhile, the U.S. military is stretched to the max in Iraq and Afghanistan (in part because Obama foolishly decided to double down in the latter), and Secretary of Defense Gates is now telling the Pentagon to start cutting costs in order to keep those wars going. North Korea has raised the temperature in East Asia, the Prime Minister of Japan has just resigned, relations with Turkey ain't so hot, and the administration's tepid response to the Gaza flotilla debacle is putting the last nail in the coffin of Obama's "New Beginning" with the Arab and Islamic world.    

I'm sure the Obama team feels like they can't catch a break right now, but unpleasant surprises happen all the time and they should have planned for that reality even if they didn't know exactly what the nature of  the surprise would be. One good reason to plan on doing a bit less is so that we have the capacity to handle the stuff that just happens.

P.S. I don't have much to add to my earlier comments on the Gaza Flotilla, but I did want to alert readers to a very clear-eyed and unsentimental analysis of the incident by M.J. Rosenberg of Media Matters for America. It's about the most sensible thing I've read yet, and is well worth your attention. Plus, Glenn Beck attacked it on his show last night, which virtually guarantees that M.J. is right.

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