Exit Strategies

"Israel's Strategic Genius"

... Stephen Walt suggests we rethink the notion:

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.  [Read more here]