A Blank Check for Israel?

Our stance on the conflict in Gaza might undermine our attempts to rein in India over November’s Mumbai attacks.

President George W. Bush's spokesman in Crawford said, in response to a query about the U.S. reaction to the ongoing fighting in Gaza, "Let's just take this one day at a time." But with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert now saying that the air attacks against Hamas are but the "first of several stages," it is clear this problem is not going to go away quietly or quickly.

We've already seen a whole host of news reports that point out all of the negative ramifications for U.S. policy objectives elsewhere in the greater Middle East, which have arisen out of a perception that, as in 2006 during the Lebanon war, Washington has not only given Israel a blank check but is also unprepared to take any concrete steps to become involved in the crisis.

So far, much of the American response has followed the lead and tone of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi-in her statement, she concluded by saying, "When Israel is attacked, the United States must continue to stand strongly with its friend and democratic ally."

The problem is not U.S. support for Israel but that it is being marketed as unconditional. And what concerns me is assessing the possible impact on American efforts to get other U.S. friends and partners around the world to act with restraint when they face similar situations-because, usually, Washington's default response is to encourage restraint and to press the injured party not to unsheathe the sword, but to try diplomatic action. This is especially true when it comes to India, still trying to cope in the aftermath of the November 26 attack in Mumbai.

It is not accidental, then, that a report carried by India's NDTV is headlined "Gaza strikes: India walks the tight rope." Some politicians within India, citing the Israeli military action against Hamas in Gaza, are using this as a precedent to urge that a stronger line be taken Pakistan. New Delhi has issued two statements about the Gaza situation in recent days, acknowledging the provocation of cross-border rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel, but expressing India's disappointment "that the use of disproportionate force is resulting in a large number of civilian casualties on the one hand and the escalating violence on the other." India has called upon Israel to exercise the "utmost restraint" in dealing with the problem of terror attacks emanating from Gaza.

So here we have another democracy, which has its own terrorism problems and that has engaged in closer security cooperation with Israel in recent years, still offering criticism of Israel's actions, even when sympathizing with Israel's predicament. Yet it is hard for the United States to criticize the Indian position, because the constant mantra of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to India since the terrorist attacks in Mumbai has been for India to exercise "restraint" and not to threaten military action against Pakistan or terrorist elements operating on Pakistani soil. So far, India has continued to use diplomacy-in recent days appealing not only to the United States, but also to China and Saudi Arabia, two more of Pakistan's close partners-to use their influence to pressure Pakistan to turn over terrorism suspects and dismantle the jihadist infrastructure within Pakistan. But the message coming from India is also quite clear: the country's patience is not infinite.

So what would happen if the Indian air force and the Indian special services launched attacks in Pakistan against jihadi camps or offices? Is this the type of escalation Washington wants to see occur? Certainly not-but when you have Israel's actions seemingly endorsed by the United States, others draw their own conclusions. The president of the opposition BJP party in India, Rajnath Singh, says that India should exhaust other options first but that the military card must remain on the table: "War is the last option," he says-in the context of Israel's ongoing operations. And would India then expect the same level of U.S. support?

We are lucky that the current government in India, despite the provocations it has faced, is willing to work through diplomacy to ameliorate the threats it faces. But we shouldn't turn a blind eye to the fact that what we say about Israel and Gaza reverberates in other capitals. We are trying to keep a fragile peace in South Asia from deteriorating-and what is happening two thousand miles to the west does have an impact on that process. Greater nuance in the U.S. position might help to avert bigger problems down the road.

 

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.