By Clayton Swisher
So much for helping our coverage of the Netanyahu visit. I arrived in Washington, DC, last week thinking that would be my mission. Instead I found myself - like the rest of Washington - reacting to the Flotilla crisis.
As I reported, the vast majority of Americans would have seen a highly skewed presentation of those events as reported by the dominant cable news channels. TV is the preferred way most Americans get their news each day. And the effects that has on US foreign policy is telling. MJ Rosenberg at Media Matters Action Network summed it up best. "The one sided cable coverage of the whole flotilla incident," he said, "leads people out there to basically say Israel is right, Israel has always been right, and leads them not to put any pressure on Congress or the President to do anything about this."
Fortunately for President Obama, crisis can bring opportunity. Virtually nothing has distinguished Obama's policy toward Gaza from that of the George W Bush administration, other than eloquent speeches.
A year has passed on this day since Obama went to Cairo to strike a new US beginning with the Arab and Muslim world. Many felt Obama said all the right things in that speech without shying away from the Palestinian cause. He even noted how "the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security".
Some follow-up seemed to be at play back in 2009. Secretary Clinton pledged the US government would send $900 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority, with 300 million of that earmarked for Gaza. I've yet to get any clear answer from the US state department on whether any of that money has actually made its way to Gaza. (When I raised it at the daily press conference on Tuesday, Spokesman PJ Crowley simply remarked that he would "take that question" back with him. Still no word.)
If anything, the Flotilla crisis has proven to the Obama administration that the plight of the people in Gaza can no longer be ignored. A cancelled Netanyahu visit was the least of their worries. The US military is also growing leary of the Arab-Israeli status quo, as some in Central Command (or "CENTCOM") may be seeing linkages between US support for the Netanyahu government and dead Americans. CENTCOM has obvious concerns in the region given the deployment of more than 215,000 troops waging a counterinsurgency between Iraq and Afghanistan. Its objectives elsewhere - including Yemen, Somalia, and on the Iranian nuclear issue - also depend in large part on whether populations there and in allied countries see America as potential friend or hostile actor. No doubt from the street protests we saw this week in various Arab and Muslim capitals, many are blaming America for its unyielding support for Israel's latest action. Diplomatic overtures be damned.
That unqualified backing was on raw, tragic display in the Obama administration's response to revealations on Thursday that at least one of those killed included 19-year-old US citizen Furkan Dorgan.
Dorgan was allegedly shot five times, including four times in the head. Forget the Jason Bourne flicks. Such shot groupings under stress are almost impossible to make except at a close, premeditated range (certainly not from a moving helicopter). It may be that the White House and state department, who have so far resisted sending US investigators, may be in a situation where they just don't want to learn the answer.
Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, and PJ Crowley, the state department spokesman, both reiterated their confidence that Israel can do the detective work themselves, perhaps even with some "international participation".
But already there are signs that a credible investigation can no longer take place. Writing on Furkan Dorgan's shooting death in the Washington Post, Israeli officials remarked how "they did not make the identification and did not examine the bodies before turning them over to Turkish officials". So much for a timely autopsy. And once the decks of the still-seized ships have been washed, the brass shell casings collected, virtually all physical evidence will be gone.
There remains an obvious opportunity, one that would overshadow this crisis and even change the global dialogue about the Obama administration and the Palestinian issue.
Obama could dispatch an American flotilla to Gaza, comprised of the USNS Comfort and humanitarian cargo ships. That would certainly be in keeping with other humanitarian missions the US military has volunteered for around the world. It would be a big leap from the kinds of baby step initiative White House staffers like to brag about (they almost always "remind" me of how the Obama team offered H1NI vaccinations for pilgrims attending Hajj in 2009).
Suffice it to say an American flotilla to Gaza would have more the redemptive effect they might be seeking. In this report, I asked Robert Malley, who served the Clinton administration on Arab-Israeli affairs (and a former Obama classmate at Harvard) about that very prospect. Malley told me it was indeed not too far-fetched to envision.
A lot of imagination will be needed to help extract the US from the current Gaza crisis. But for a president who is himself a former activist and community organizer, the potential he has shown for self creation could still be applied through the policies he now sets.
That is, of course, unless the Obama administration prefers letting the Turkish government set the global foreign policy agenda (as it did with Brazil in Iran and now Gaza). If that's the trend, perhaps Washington should ask Ankara what advice they have on the ongoing BP oil spill disaster.
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