Sunday, December 28, 2008

Gaza killings raise the question of "change" in Obama administration foreign policy

Now that over 287 Palestinians have been killed and over 700 wounded in the latest round of Israeli rocket attacks on Gaza, world reactions are starting to pour in:

Russia was one of the first to respond, with a foreign ministry spokesman calling for an immediate halt to attacks by both forces. The European Union likewise called for a return to the cease-fire, saying there was “no military solution in Gaza” and urging Israel to allow the resumption of humanitarian aid.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said it was “an unimaginable and unacceptable act,” while the Jordanian government is pressuring the Arab League to unite in favor of an immediate end to the attacks. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is reportedly in talks with the King of Saudi Arabia about the situation as well. As Gaza’s hospitals filled with dead and wounded, Egypt has opened the Rafah border crossing to allow ambulances to bring in the wounded.

Virtually alone in refusing to criticize the killings was the United States, who instead blamed Hamas for the entire situation and simply urged Israel to keep the number of civilians it kills in the new war to a minimum.

You have to wonder who's going to be driving US foreign policy vis a vis Israel and the Palestinians.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi seems to be staking her claim:

Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi issued a statement concerning the Israeli operation in Gaza in which she wrote that "When Israel is attacked, the United States must continue to stand strongly with its friend and democratic ally."

According to Pelosi, "Peace between Israelis and Palestinians cannot result from daily barrages of rocket and mortar fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza. Hamas and its supporters must understand that Gaza cannot and will not be allowed to be a sanctuary for attacks on Israel."

President-elect Barack Obama, however, has been conspicuous by his absence in recent days, first declining any comment on the Israeli rocket attacks, and then allowing an aide to issue a statement that he's following the situation closely. (This is, of course, not inconsistent with previous statements of Senator Obama, who approved of any number of Israeli incursions into Lebanon.)

There are those, of course, who will take the approach that, as President-elect, Barack Obama should not be issuing statements that might be at odds with foreign policy pronouncements coming out of the White House. Certainly, however, such numbers won' include my liberal/progressive friends at Delawareliberal, one of whom recently proclaimed:

I am no longer calling him President-elect. In the heart and minds of 82% of the American people, he is already our President.

You have to wonder: for my liberal/progressive friends in Delaware, all issues of foreign policy seem to have disappeared from their radar (or at least their writing), along with any significant reservations about inviting an anti-science homophobe to deliver the invocation for the Inauguration.

Instead, they are focusing on the Republican National Committee chair's race...?

Certainly, President-elect Obama (just label me as one of the 18% who actually want to follow the Constitution here) could follow the example of his idol--Abraham Lincoln--who did absolutely nothing for several months after his election to provide anyone any idea of what he would do about the larger crises of his day....

...unlike Israeli protesters, who have taken to the streets and risked arrest to denounce the current assault on Gaza.

Hopefully, I'm wrong, and we'll very quickly discover the steel in his spine that VP-elect Joe Biden apparently saw when following his boss through an airport metal detector.

But there will have to an awful lot of it, as Aziz Huq points out in The Nation, writing about the temptations to maintain many of the unconstitutional powers that Dubya asserted over the past eight years:

No matter how decent, any new president is tempted by the tools and trappings of executive authority. However tainted the Oval Office is now, Obama's perspective will change dramatically on entering the White House. He is already reading more daily security briefs than Bush and beginning each day with a barrage of fearful intelligence, hinting at dangers that largely never materialize. Submersion in that flow of intelligence will wrenchingly change his sense of the world's risks.

So Obama will be tempted to maintain Bush's innovations in executive power. While the terror threat remains substantial, as the Mumbai attack shows, the Bush administration has left counterterrorism policy in tatters. We have no rational strategy for terrorist interdiction and prevention. Obama's nominations of Robert Gates as defense secretary and Gen. James Jones as national security adviser suggest he is acutely aware of these deficits and of the Democrats' perceived vulnerability on national security. Nor are terrorists the only threat that might lead Obama to reach for emergency powers: credit crunches and fiscal meltdowns can also prompt unilateral executive action, with consequences as sweeping as any national security initiative.
Internal pressure for changing the White House position on executive power will thus wane as the new administration settles in.

And pressure from the other two branches is unlikely to swell. The Obama White House will at first face a friendly Congress eager to show results on the economy and healthcare. Unlike the recently oppositional Congress, legislators in the majority have little incentive to make constitutional waves (expect some stalwarts, such as Senator Russ Feingold, to buck this trend). Matters are not helped by the turn from the feckless to the competent. Legislators and the public care most about the constitutional restraints on executive power when the occupant of the White House raises concerns about abuses of power. A more capable leader's entrance saps immediate pressure for reform, even when openings for such limits can be glimpsed....

I am thus not optimistic that the Obama administration will of its own volition restore the constitutional balance, even if it gives up some of Bush/Cheney's most extravagant and offensive policies.

Huq points out that if neither administration insiders, Congressional allies, or Dubya's new cadre of right-wing judges can be trusted to rein in temptations to hang onto Bush policies and prerogaties, somebody else will have to do the job:

President-elect Obama's first appointments to the Justice, State and Defense Departments mark no radical change. Rather, they return to a centrist consensus familiar from the Clinton years. But pragmatic incrementalism and studied bipartisanship will do little to undo the centerpiece of the Bush/Cheney era's legacy. At its heart, that regime was intent on forcing the Constitution into a new mold of executive dominance.

Obama enters the White House in a slipstream of forces that will hinder attempts to abandon this constitutional vision. He may be a careful constitutional scholar, but we can't rely on Obama alone to reorient the constitutional order. It will be up to progressives to insist on fundamental repudiation of the Bush/Cheney era.

To Huq's progressives I would add libertarians as well.

Here is the disquieting picture thus presented as we head toward the inauguration: continuing signs that the Obama administration will pursue foreign and military policies different only in degree but not in kind than that of its much-maligned predecessor, while there is also a strong case to be made that the constitutional usurpations of the past eight years won't be rolled back too quickly, either.

After all: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”


Hube said...

Sorry Steve, but it wasn't until the Israelis responded that the Europeans and others began to "protest." Why no protest about the daily barrage of rockets launched from Gaza against nearby Israelis towns? More importantly, why did the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza lead to increased Palestinian violence rather than less? Only one notable Israeli politician warned of this, and that's why he's leading in the polls: Benjamin Netanyahu.

Lastly, what is it you'd have Obama "change" about our stance on Israeli/Palestinian relations?

Steven H. Newton said...

Hube, that "daily barrage" into Israel has been singularly ineffective:

Over the last seven years only 17 Israeli citizens have been killed by Palestinian rocket fire, which makes it extremely difficult for Israeli politicians, who are in the midst of an election, to argue that their response has been proportionate or defensible in any way.

Doesn't look like a proportional response to me.

Look at it this way: had Al Qaeda succeeded in killing only 17 Americans on 9/11, would that have justified the bombardment and then invasion of Afghanistan?

Steven H. Newton said...

Oops, sorry--sick yesterday and forgot to answer the rest of your question.

What I'd change about Obama stance?

1) How about insisting on some kind of proportionality in response

2) How about releasing humanitarian aid into Gaza

3) How about legitimately criticizing Israel when it over-reacts rather than writing a blank check

Hube said...

Oh, I see Steve. The fact that Hamas "only" has killed 17 Israelis with their daily barrage of rockets and mortars justifies an Israeli "proportionate response." The fact that these rockets and mortars cause widespread TERROR b/c no one knows when or where they'll land means ... what? Nothing? On a daily basis?

Your analogy of 9/11 is flawed. The right one would be if al Qaeda continually bombarded a section of the US continually -- daily -- with rocket and mortar fire. Would the US be unjustified in trying to snuff out the assholes who keep doing it? Maybe you'd want Obama or whoever to use a "proportionate response;" I, however, like the majority of Israelis, would want the crap stopped -- period.

As for humanitarian aid into Gaza, you might wanna check out some other sources outside of

Hube said...

Ultimately, however Steve, discussing the Israeli/Palestinian question is much like debating abortionm I've found. No one will change anyone else's mind no matter how hard they try. I've gotten into so many drag-'em-out donneybrooks on this topic I've lost count, and it's cost me some friendships, some temporarily, some permanently.

So, feel free to respond to my last comment, but I'll just say we'll have to disagree on this and leave it be. :-)

Steven H. Newton said...

I can honestly say that I never worry that having completely different political opinions from you (or would that be, from me) will cause us any problems.

Your analogy to abortion is correct there.

Leaving the Israeli-Gaza thing aside, the one major point I am interested in making in this whole series of posts is that Barack Obama is already showing his lack of foreign policy expertise across the board, and is thus unlikely--either in Israel, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Georgia, or Korea--or anywhere else--to make any substantive policy changes toward non-interventionism or even shifting away from the Cold War model of global military basing and the use of miltary power as a common tool of diplomacy.

Hube said...

Thank you, Steve, for your last comment.

I agree with you about Obama, natch.

John Famularo said...

The problem with trying to "fix" foreign policy problems is that you can't just react to the most recent manifestation of the problem. You have to go back to the antecedents, which in the case of the Palestine problem goes back to the Balfour declaration and the Sykes-Picot treaty. Why is this a U.S. problem? Why is it not a British-French problem or a UN problem?

Of course the answer is electoral politics. The large Jewish and evangelical Christian community will not let any sane U.S. politician to really "fix" the problem. They can only pretend to fix the problem ny encouraging "peace talks" and "moderation".

If there is a practical "libertarian" solution to the problem, I haven't heard one.