When conflicts and crises erupt around the world, President Barack Obama picks up the phone.
"This morning I spoke with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu of Israel about the situation in Gaza," Obama said today at a press briefing at the White House. "We discussed Israel's military operation in Gaza, including its efforts to stop the threat of terrorist infiltration through tunnels into Israel."
On Thursday in what Netanyahu called "a significant expansion," Israel's army began a ground operation to destroy rocket launch sites and tunnels used by Hamas and end the rain of rockets on Israel from militants in Gaza.
"I reaffirmed my strong support for Israel's right to defend itself. No nation should accept rockets being fired into its borders or terrorists tunneling into its territory. In fact, while I was having the conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu, sirens went off in Tel Aviv," the president said.
Obama added that he hoped Israel would minimize the risk to civilians, saying, "I also made clear that the United States and our friends and allies are deeply concerned about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life."
What makes this such a challenge for him is that he must honor the United States' long-standing support of Israel while recognizing that the conflict is not fought on equal terms.
Gaza and its nearly 2 million residents have endured almost two weeks of airstrikes by Israeli military forces who say they try to avoid civilians. Still, as of July 18, at least 275 Palestinians have been killed.
The thousands of Hamas mortars and rockets fired from Gaza have brought fear and sent Israelis running for cover but have killed just two Israelis.
Obama has asked for restraint from Israel and hopes that soon fighting will end and the parties will return to a U.S.-brokered peace process.
But the primary focus of his end of the week news address was the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, in which 298 people died.
Obama said that it's too early to know who was responsible but that what happened was not possible without sophisticated equipment and training from Russia.
The U.S. has pressured Russian President Vladimir Putin for months over Ukraine through targeted sanctions. Obama said the downed jetliner should be a wake-up call for more action from Europe and the rest of the world.
So with sanctions against Russia yielding little impact and the call for a cease-fire in Gaza even more urgent, the efficacy of the president's foreign policy power is under the microscope.
Should the U.S. intervene in international affairs more zealously?
How are some foreign policies shaped by the nature of the relationship between nations?
In these cases, should Obama hold the course or start a new diplomatic strategy?
We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.
Inside Story: What could Obama have done to prevent the escalation that led to the downing of the plane?
Tom Rogan: What we should have seen far earlier on is much tougher sanctions. The sanctions put in place so far have been relatively weak in terms of targeting areas of the Russian economy. In the past few weeks, when it became clear that Russia was continuing to back rebels, we should have targeted key sectors, such as energy and banking. Our business might have taken a hit, but we should have said it is worth it to prevent domination of Eastern Europe. At this point, Russia feels it can do whatever it wants, and you saw that in Putin’s reaction to the Malaysian plane crash, blaming it on the Ukrainian government.
The way you get the Europeans involved is for the U.S. to make the first step. You can pressure the Europeans by saying that if they are doing business with Russia, then you cannot do certain kinds of business with the U.S. President Obama should be speaking against European complacency on this.
Another thing the U.S. can do is expand natural gas export to Europe. That would make Europe less dependent on Russian gas. That in turn would make them more willing to challenge Russia politically.
You can pressure the Europeans by saying that if they are doing business with Russia, then you cannot do certain kinds of business with the U.S. President Obama should be speaking against European complacency on this.
columnist, The National Review
What should Obama be doing vis-a-vis the Gaza-Israel situation?
I think there was a lack of clarity in Obama’s statement today — Obama saying they support Israel’s right to defend itself and concern about Palestinian civilian casualties. There needs to be pressure on Hamas to drop demands on border crossings and no-strings-attached cease-fire and then go back to the table.
The role the United States can play is to rally the Arab League and create an international coalition for a durable cease-fire. Unless Hamas is serious about making a cease-fire compromise and actually agree to the terms, then the Israelis will continue. Israeli security strategy now signals their loss of patience.
I really don’t understand why Kerry is not in Israel until this gets resolved. I think they are concerned in an election year about Democrats seeming too tough on Israel.
There was only one U.S. citizen killed on Flight 17, and yet Obama’s response appears to be setting the tone globally. Is this a sign that the U.S., for all the doubts about its power, is still the unrivaled global hegemon?
Thomas Schwartz: Well, yes. Despite whatever changes that have taken place and the reduced role of the U.S. in the world, you do not have any other figure that commands the type of authority that the American president does. There is no comparable European leader, from the EU for example, who commands the same authority. Certainly Angela Merkel and David Cameron have presence, but it is not quite the same as that of President Obama. So certainly he sets the tone.
How has presidential power in foreign policy changed in recent decades? Obama may have the world’s ear, but does he have the same impact as another president in a different time might have had?
I think it is different. During the Cold War when the American president spoke in a crisis, there was an idea that this was someone who had his finger on the nuclear button and we were dealing with something that could be fateful for the whole world. This is not the case anymore. The Cold War is gone. The authority is there, but it is just not quite the same.
This president in particular has chosen to reduce the American profile abroad and to make alliances and work through multilateral organizations like the EU and so forth. It is a different format than the Cold War crisis period would have given us.
During the Cold War when the American president spoke in a crisis, there was an idea that this was someone who had his finger on the nuclear button and we were dealing with something that could be fateful for the whole world. This is not the case anymore.
professor of history, Vanderbilt University
Speaking of the Cold War, could we see a return to that mode of U.S. power because of the actions of Russia?
The administration came into office hoping to reset relations with Russia and improve them. These are some of the worst relations we have had since the end of the Cold War. We are not moving toward a new Cold War because politics are different, particularly in Europe. But it could escalate into something much more hostile between the U.S. and Russia, especially if Putin decides to double down on his bet for instability in Ukraine.
What about Obama’s options regarding Israel and the Palestinian territories? Have other American presidents been more willing to pressure Israel?
Yes, we certainly have, though usually not during Israel's direct confrontations with adversaries. Although when Israel invaded Lebanon in the 80s, Ronald Reagan took a very tough stand against the bombing of Beirut and shelling of civilians there. He ended up sending American troops there, and that ended tragically. We have also pressured Israel on settlements and to negotiate peace.
The president here decided that Israel had a right to defend itself. Hamas does not enjoy favor or credibility in the U.S. There does not seem to be the same desire to restrain Israel that past presidents had.
The above panel was assembled for the broadcast of “Inside Story” to discuss.
For future thoughtful conversations and probing interviews, find Al Jazeera America on your TV.