- By Paul BonicelliPaul J. Bonicelli is Professor of Government at Regent University, and served as the Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean of the United States Agency for International Development.
As Israel seeks to end Hamas’s latest war against it, the Obama administration flounders. In fact, the response of the president and his secretary of state has made the situation positively worse with regard to every relationship we have in the region. Opponents of terrorism and supporters of Israel struggle to understand the administration’s approach. Is it incompetence, or a continuation of this president’s determination always to be above the fray — as though the United States’ only legitimate role is to midwife peace at any price rather than pursue policies that benefit it and its allies while defeating our enemies? A brief look at the actions in this conflict clarifies the question, even if it doesn’t answer it.
Start with the facts: Whatever one thinks about Israel’s overall actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians over the decades, Hamas has chosen to launch yet another illegal war by attacking Israeli citizens. No credible case in international law can be made for Hamas’s rocket attacks on Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities. Hamas is in the position it is in now because, unlike the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank under Mahmoud Abbas, it remains a terrorist organization supported by Iran. Having gained some political power via the ballot box in 2006, it then launched a coup in 2007 to get all of the power in Gaza and keep it forever. Its refusal to recognize Israel and lay down its weapons (at the insistence of every legitimate actor in the world) makes it a pariah, an enemy of the peace. In short, it is an outlaw regime and organization.
Israel, on the other hand, is a democratic nation-state, a member of the United Nations (for all the good that does Israel), and a willing participant in countless efforts to establish peace. It not only has acceded to the Abbas government’s political authority over the West Bank but it has even aided and supported it. In short, it is a member of the community of democratic states and a highly successful economic power even though it has to fight every day for its existence, surrounded as it is by hostile states and groups who would eliminate it from the map.
It should not be difficult for any U.S. administration to tell the good guys from the bad guys, nor to understand who our allies are and where our interests lie.
In fact, it is so clear to others that the Egyptian, Saudi, and Jordanian governments are in a de facto alliance with Israel in this current conflict, working to oppose Hamas and its supporter, Iran, even if they are not thrilled to be in this position. On the other side are Iran, Turkey, and the Qatari regime that has actively aided Hamas for years.
But tragically, the Obama administration’s actions and assertions reveal it does not understand where U.S. interests lie or how to achieve them. Secretary Kerry and the president have repeated ad nauseam a non sequitur that amounts to the following: "Israel’s civilians are being attacked by Hamas and Israel has a right to defend itself; therefore, both sides should show restraint and agree to a cease fire so that civilian lives can be saved." Some form of this mantra is repeated so often that we tend to overlook how meaningless it is because the assumptions that underlie the first clause make the last clause absurd.
We know from the context of this assertion that the administration, in its desire to end the killing, is acknowledging that Israel did not start the fight and that Hamas’s actions are war crimes (no proper casus belli, targeting Israeli civilians and using Gazan civilians as shields). But by the end of the assertion the administration is treating both combatants as equally to blame for the war generally and for the deaths of civilians specifically, as though they each have to stop doing a bad thing and start doing a good thing so that the right state of affairs can be produced. But the right state of affairs the United States should seek is not for Hamas yet again to get away with an attack on Israeli civilians and to create conditions for Palestinian civilians to be killed. The right state of affairs is that Hamas is punished to the point of being militarily neutered, Israeli civilians are no longer threatened by tunnels and rockets, and Palestinian civilians are no longer human shields for Hamas. And that state of affairs is not achieved by the administration’s call for a ceasefire, which is simply a punt. And we’ve had too many of those over the decades.
Last weekend, the illogical position fell to pieces when Hamas broke the fifth ceasefire by using tunnels and rockets to continue attacking Israel before the ceasefire was even two hours old. It was cringe-inducing to watch Dan Shapiro, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, tell Wolf Blitzer on Sunday that the U.S. call for a ceasefire had been a way stop the tunnel and rocket attacks. Even if one accepts the U.S. position that the terms of the U.S.-backed ceasefire meant Israel could continue to destroy the tunnels, it does not follow that Hamas’s rocket caches were no longer an issue; rocket caches do not disappear at the declaration of a ceasefire. That was made clear when Hamas used them 90 minutes into last weekend’s truce. At that point, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Obama administration "not to ever second-guess me again" on Hamas, having had all the illogical diplomacy he could stomach.
Why does the administration do this? To remain in favor with polite opinion in Europe and at the U.N.? To desperately reach an accord and be the hero? To prove that the United States’ proper role is mediator and diplomatic grandee? Or is the administration in thrall to some misguided notion that to save its negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program the United States can’t help deliver a deathblow to Iran’s proxy in Gaza? It certainly does not follow its chosen path if it is trying to support our allies and defeat our enemies. Maybe it thinks that U.S. interests are found in reprising the British role of "perfidious Albion," but the world doesn’t work that way anymore. The Obama administration is wrong; the world needs a leader who pursues peace by supporting the good guys and defeating, or at least vexing, the bad guys. It does not need policies and diplomacy that amount to a boon for Iran and other U.S. enemies while discouraging friends and harming our alliances.
Even the Washington Post, loathe to criticize the president, sees blundering in the administration’s efforts. And in the U.S. government, only the Congress is getting it right, in bipartisan fashion. It has chosen sides clearly. Thank heaven it can achieve unity and pursue U.S. interests in this, even if it can’t on other issues.