Shadow Government

Could Shooting Down Two More Planes Change the Game in Ukraine?

How many game changers will it take to change the game? That was my reaction to the news that the Putin-backed rebels have apparently shot down more planes, this time two Ukrainian fighter jets.

The shoot-down of MH17 was a potential game-changer, but so far President Obama has responded with an abundance of caution, and our European allies have been even more restrained. Indeed, so far the game looks very much like what was playing hitherto: 

  1. Tough talk from Obama national security principals undercut by softer rhetoric from the president, and softer-still action from the administration as a whole; 
  2. a cacophony of conflicting rhetoric from the Europeans;
  3. the drawing of a new line in the sand with the promise that if further provocative action is taken by Putin and his proxies, then perhaps Europe will respond with tougher sanctions;
  4. new provocative action taken by Putin and his proxies;
  5. repeat.

The dominant feature of this game is that the United States leads it from behind, by which I mean that the upper bound of the response is set by the most cautious of the major European allies, either separately (as in the case of France, which wants to keep its arms deals with Russia, or Germany, which wants to keep its gas deals with Russia) or collectively, in the form of a least-common-denominator European response.  The U.S. response may be a bit more vigorous, but not by much and always tethered to the European response.  

There is a good reason for this: Multilateral sanctions will be far more effective than unilateral sanctions, and if the United States gets too far out in front it may create opportunities for Putin to divide the alliance.  But there may also be a bad reason for this: The Obama administration may simply be unable to lead the alliance towards a tougher response.  And there may even be a worse reason: Perhaps the President himself prefers not to change the game.

While it is likely Russia is feeling more pressure today than it felt a month ago, it is also true that Ukraine is in a much more perilous position today than it was a month ago.  So it is not clear how long the game can continue in this way.

My former boss, Steve Hadley, has proposed a sensible action plan for getting out of the hole we are now in.  The chief problem with his plan is that it requires President Obama to lead in a game-changing way.  

Based on the latest reporting, it is not clear the White House thinks they are mismanaging the various crises confronting them.  When the White House foreign policy spokesman dismisses criticisms with boasts about the "the longer run plays that we're running," and when the White House spokesperson touts how the administration's policies have "improved the tranquility of the global community," then it may be that the Obama team thinks it is winning. And so long as they think they are winning, why would they change anything?

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Shadow Government

'Where There Is No Hope, There Is Hamas'

President Obama's call for an immediate cease-fire in the latest conflict between Hamas and Israel was as noteworthy for what he said as for what he did not say. Obama made it clear that he understood that Israel needed to defend itself against rocket attacks, and that it could not tolerate Hamas building tunnels into the Jewish state in order to kidnap soldiers and civilians. But he said nothing about the need to bring an end to the rocket attacks and kidnap attempts once and for all. He said nothing about getting Hamas to accept prior agreements that the Palestinians had reached with Israel. Or that Hamas come to terms with the existence of the Jewish state. Or that Hamas cease its incitement to kill all Jews, anywhere, which has inspired the spate of attacks on European Jews, most notably the pogrom-like riots targeting a Paris synagogue. Nor, for that matter, did Mr. Obama say a word about the FAA's restrictions on flights to Israel.

Without an arrangement that results in a different relationship between Hamas and Israel, the cycle of violence that results in biannual warfare will continue. Hamas will fire rockets at Israel's border towns and will try to reach its major cities. Knowing that it cannot destroy Israel, its objective will be, as it has been, to terrorize Israel's civilians, and to kill as many of them as it can. It will fire those rockets, as it has done before, from schools, hospitals, and mosques.

For its part, Israel will not tolerate incessant rocket attacks and, after a pause, once again will pummel Gaza. It will destroy the tunnels and the rocket launchers and, in the process, hit their unwitting human shields. And once again, it will be masses who are crammed into that unfortunate strip of land, rather than the leaders of Hamas, who will suffer the most.

The president's call for an immediate cease-fire, seemingly with no conditions attached, does nothing to address these fundamental causes of the conflict. Reflecting a pattern that has marked the administration's policies from the outset, the president is long on exhortation and woefully short on implementation. Without an arrangement that results in a fundamentally different relationship between Israel and Hamas, there will be no cease-fire for some time, and even if one is achieved, it will not last.

Hamas has thus far shown no interest in ceasing its attacks. Because its very existence is predicated on the destruction of Israel, it has no interest in a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. Somehow, those seeking a cease-fire must account for this reality. Perhaps the only way to defeat Hamas is for the people of Gaza to depose it, much as Egyptians deposed the Morsi government. In order for that to happen, however, Gazans must have an incentive to do so. Thus far they have none. Despite the fact that Ramallah is booming, Israel's continuing occupation of the West Bank, its ongoing construction of new settlements that with time become towns and small cities ("settlements" is a misnomer for many of the Israeli cities on the West Bank) offers little hope for West Bank residents who want a country of their own, and none for Gazans. And where there is no hope, there is Hamas.

Those in the West, especially in Europe, who support Hamas, support the destruction of Israel. That is not American policy. But if American efforts to bring a halt to the violence in Gaza are to succeed, they must include a change of Hamas policy, notably a total cessation of rocket attacks and kidnappings, and its acceptance of previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Israel would have to alter its policies as well, specifically lifting the blockade of Gaza's ports, and, importantly, halting its settlement construction. And there must be a renewed and serious commitment on all sides to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state of Israel. Nothing less will end Gaza's troubles, in either the near term or the long run.

It is probably hoping for too much to expect Secretary of State John Kerry to accomplish all of this in his latest round of Middle East negotiations. These goals seem Pollyannaish: Both sides are far too locked into their respective positions. But unless he and the president make it clear that American policy calls for nothing less, when the cease-fire comes, as it inevitably will, nothing will have changed, Washington's efforts will get nowhere, and the misery will continue.

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images