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 is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.