After President Obama's reelection, foreign policy watchers wondered aloud whether the White House – free of electoral concerns – would become a more engaged, more balanced player in (among other arenas) Middle East peace efforts.
This week, that question became immediate as Israel launched its expanding "Pillar of Defense" military campaign against Gaza. And the answer came quickly.
With rockets raining on Israel and missiles pummeling Gaza, the Obama administration's first responses indicated that, just as before, the U.S. would back Israel at the Palestinians' expense, forgoing even the appearance of a balanced approach. For initial statements showed full support for Israel's right to defend itself, and placed full culpability on Hamas to end the violence.
In fact, with Israeli tanks amassing along the border and reservists being called up for a possible ground campaign, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes appeared to publicly green-light any Israeli military response when he said:
The Israelis are going to make decisions about their own military tactics and operations. What we want is the same thing the Israelis want, which is an end to the rocket fire coming out of Gaza.However, President Obama yesterday seemed to hedge a bit on giving carte blanche to an Israeli ground invasion:
Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory...If that can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that's preferable.The "ramping up" of which Obama spoke was an Israeli ground campaign, and while his words were publicly mild, reports are that the White House expressed more forcefull concerns behind closed doors.
So why would Obama and the White House express that Israel has the freedom to choose how it will respond to Hamas militarily when a full-scale bombing campaign was underway, but hedge now that a ground invasion appears possible?
Obviously, it has much to do with a fear of destabilization in a region that can ill-afford more. However, the Gaza bombing campaign itself, disproportionate being condemned both by regional and international players, has already created a regionally destabilizing force.
So why has Obama been unwilling to critique Israel's bombing campaign, which has inflicted untold civilian casualties in Gaza, particularly when President George W. Bush was quick to use harsh words in a similar situation in 2002 (in a post-9/11 America no less)?
One answer is America's drone program. While the Obama administration cannot be happy with developments between Israel and Gaza, it has also been unwilling to critique Israel's bombing campaign. Why? With America's drone program engaging in targeted assassinations in Pakistan and elsewhere, breaching the sovereign airspace of other nations to do so, the U.S. is in no place to critique Israel on its own bombing campaigns.
And this puts America in a bind, at least publicly.
Now, one might argue that Hamas, as a listed terror organization, is reason enough for America to hold off on critiquing Israel's bombing of Gaza. But if such were the case, there would be little reason to resist a ground campaign as well.
With civilian casualties mounting in both Gaza and Israel as the rockets and missiles continue to fall, Obama has held his tongue, because he must.
If Israel launches a ground offensive, however, this may change.