17 July is the kind of day when events come together in ways that cause international order (what’s left of it) to spiral out of control.
Around 1:00 PM Eastern Time a relatively quiet news day was shattered by reports that Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH-17) had apparently been brought down (later confirmed by Vice President Biden) by a missile while transporting 295 souls across the Ukraine enroute to Kula Lumpur from Amsterdam. My mind immediately ratcheted back to 1 September 1983 when I was the Pacific Fleet’s Indications and Warning Watch Officer and all the confusion and conflicting reporting associated with what turned out to be the Soviet fighter aircraft shoot down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 (KAL 007) flying from New York to Seoul. Four hours after MH-17 was shot down, Israeli tanks rolled in to Gaza to wipe out the tunnels and nests being used by Palestinian Hamas to fire rockets into Israel. When a Palestinian Spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, said “we warn Netanyahu of the dreadful consequences of such a foolish act” I found myself hoping that Hamas or ISIS is not thinking of shooting down an airliner.
Unless some type of safe passage can be arranged for international aviation accident inspectors to get to the crash site of MH-17 located in eastern Ukraine, where initial reports are that Russian backed separatist are preventing Ukrainian law enforcement and rescue personnel from entering the area, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) is likely to have the best information and insights about how this airliner was brought down and by whom – - – - with “why” being considerably more difficult to ascertain. Presumably this IC-generated knowledge can be used productively by the United States to get the Ukrainians, the separatists, and the Russians to do the right thing so that remains can be returned to families, and the cause and motive determined as well as reparations offered. In the meantime all the parties involved can be expected to continue to trade accusations that could lead to more armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. The IC’s ability to “fact check” these accusations is an opportunity for the community to begin regaining the trust and confidence of the American people by being seen as force for good by preventing further armed violence and keeping the US out of conflict it does not want to be sucked into.
In Gaza there is not much any nation’s intelligence service can do to broker some kind of meaningful ceasefire that will allow Israel and the Palestinians to come to some type of sustainable accommodation. What the US IC can do, however, is use its powers of surveillance to warn US leaders, and by extension others with regional influence, when either Israeli military actions are doing more harm than good in terms of reaction in the “Arab Street” that will put moderate Middle Eastern governments at risk or when outsiders such as Iran or ISIS are preparing to deliver “sympathetic terrorism” on behalf of their besieged Muslim Brothers in Gaza. I would argue now is the time for the US to quietly but publicly flex its Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) muscles to impress our friends and intimidate our adversaries, even at the expense of some sources and methods in order to contain if not restrain the violence in Gaza.
As optimistic as I am about the power of the IC to help the US control the events of July 17th, I also have enough experience to understand that the real power of intelligence is in “observation” not with taking “action.” How events unfold going forward from July 17 can be informed and even shaped by the power of the IC, but in the end what will determine whether history from the summer of 1914 repeats itself in some new fashion peculiar to 2014 will be determined by how well diplomats, generals, and statesmen use the observations the IC makes available to them in concert with their own experience, judgment, and capabilities. No matter how events play out in the Ukraine and Gaza going forward from July 17th, it clear this day will be viewed at least in immediate terms as an inflection point which changes how the parties involved view these conflicts and what the international community is willing to do about them.
Days like July 17, 2014 test and strain the US IC, but they also demonstrate its unique power to inform and guide the actions of the United States.
That’s what I think! What do you think?