Frank Rich on the National Circus: Yes, Kerry Can Help End the Gaza War

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A man with a plan? Photo: AP/Corbis

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Why John Kerry can still help end the Gaza war; President Obama's Malaysia Flight 17 response and its critics; and Rick Perry deploys the National Guard to the border. 

We learned this morning that Secretary of State John Kerry has undertaken a surprise mission to the Middle East to try to broker a Gaza Strip cease-fire. As detailed in a piece in The New Republic, Kerry had been very active in trying to broker a peace deal between Israel and Palestine, but the accord fell apart and now looks even more unlikely. Is there a role for the U.S. in this current conflict?
There is always a role for the U.S., and Kerry will be far more helpful than, say, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who, in a showboating gesture, announced yesterday he would take an en El Al flight to Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport “to show solidarity with the Israeli people.” (Flying commercial is the ultimate sacrifice, surely.) But whatever the U.S. or U.N. does, the reality is that Israel will determine when this Gaza war ends. 

Hamas is a terrorist organization without a conscience. Israel is a democracy with a conscience but a hemorrhaging public-relations catastrophe in America. And so we can argue all day about whether Israel’s response to Hamas’s provocation is disproportionate, but on American television, from the evening news to The Daily Show, the disproportionate casualties among Palestinians in Gaza, especially but not exclusively children, is taking a huge toll. Vacationing Americans can’t escape the images, and Israel has not effectively explained itself to the citizens of its most important ally. There was a lot of huffing over the weekend about Kerry being caught on a hot-mike at Fox News Sunday implicitly bemoaning the carnage of Israel’s ostensible “pinpoint” military operation in Gaza. But the more telling on-camera remark — that same day, on CNN — was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s to Wolf Blitzer that Hamas uses “telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.“ Even if you think Netanyahu has a point, he was advertising a callousness that completely undercuts Israel’s moral high ground. When Israeli officials fanned out yesterday to argue against the decision of airlines like Delta and United to temporarily suspend flights to Ben-Gurion after a Hamas missile landed roughly a mile from it, they came across as valuing tourist commerce over safety. One can understand Israel wanting to keep fighting until every Hamas tunnel is destroyed — and certainly it can win that war — but the price is huge in every way, from civilian casualties to undermining support among the American public.

There is in any case no military solution to this conflagration. Kerry pulled off something of a diplomatic miracle in negotiating a way out (for now, anyway) of the Afghanistan election impasse. While his effort to broker an Israel-Palestinian peace accord came to naught, we have to hope he is effective in helping to stanch the current bloodshed. But he can do nothing without Netanyahu as a serious partner.

President Obama’s measured response to the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over the Ukraine has been faulted as "cowardly" by his leading non-Cheney foreign policy critic, Senator John McCain, because the United States failed to thoroughly arm the current Ukrainian government. (McCain has made similar remarks about the Free Syrian Army.) Is there anything Obama can do here? And what do you make of McCain's increasing role as America's ultrahawk?
The answer to the McCain question is easy: From his “joking” wish that America “bomb bomb bomb Iran” in 2007 through today, he has proposed that America go to war at almost every turn in international events. He was also, of course, a major proponent of the Iraq invasion, which he predicted would be a fast and successful exercise. So why should anyone take him seriously? Only television bookers do: He is permanently suited up to peddle his nonsense on Sunday mornings. Back in the real world beyond televised bloviation, he is now being challenged even within his own party, as Rand Paul increases his standing among Republicans who have turned on the neocon reign of McCain, Cheney, et al. 

For his part, Obama has done the right thing by strengthening sanctions against Russia and speaking out in no uncertain terms about Russia’s culpability for this slaughter in the skies. But the action here is — or must be — in Europe, whose support of tough sanctions would inflict true economic pain on Putin, Russia’s oligarchs, and the Russian economy. But European governments, enslaved to their own trade and energy dependence on Russia, are dragging their feet — even the Netherlands, despite the fact that the majority of those killed on the Malaysian Airlines flight were Dutch. To get allies like France and Germany to enlist will take Obama’s every last wile and stick. Meanwhile, two Ukrainian fighter jets were reported downed this morning; this crisis isn’t going to recede on its own.

Texas Governor Rick Perry announced on Monday that he will be sending 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to help deter the surge of immigration from Central American families and children. The National Guard isn't legally permitted to arrest anyone for immigration violations, so will serve only as a "visual deterrent.” Perry's presidential run in 2012 was derailed by his not-entirely-draconian stance on immigrant rights and, of course, "Oops!" How much of his reaction to the border crisis do you think has to do with his hopes for 2016?
How about all of it? I would guess that sending 1,000 National Guard troops to the border will be about as effective at ameliorating this crisis as Perry’s decision to start wearing eyeglasses has been successful in convincing the public that he is a closet intellectual. Perry calls these unarmed superfluous troops a “force multiplier.” Given that the children flocking to the border from Central America are largely turning themselves in to any uniformed American they see, it’s possible that the additional troops will instead be a refugee multiplier — a magnet for an even greater surge of potential young immigrants seeking a safe haven at the border. Perry’s move is pure politics, and what’s more he has the gall to suggest that Washington should pony up for the $12 million his publicity stunt will cost.

As a public service message, let me add that those who want to know what is happening on the ground at the border should read my interlocutor Eric Benson’s series of first-hand reports now up on the Texas Monthly site.