When asked by Martin Scorsese to tone down his mobster character in The Departed, Jack Nicholson is said to have told the director, "I don't do subtle." The same could be said for Israel and Russia, which both find themselves in the familiar position of being accused of bullying their smaller neighbors. The parallels actually go further. Israel's actions in Gaza are aimed at preventing future attacks but also at making life difficult to turn the Palestinians against Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel. Similarly, Russia's shutoff of gas supplies to Ukraine is aimed at charging higher prices but also at shaping Kiev's elections next year toward its liking. By shutting off the Ukrainians' heat, they may vote out the pro-Western president in favor of someone more pro-Kremlin.
But the trouble with Israel and Russia is not that their efforts will backfire, it's that they will likely achieve the exact opposite of their goals -- while both governments come off looking like unhinged bullies in the process. Sending troops into Gaza only solidifies popular support for Hamas, whose popularity among Palestinians had started to slide prior to the Israel's invasion. When Russia turns off Ukraine's gas supply, President Viktor Yushchenko, whose popularity has waned in recent months, can more easily make the case that Ukraine should orient itself toward Europe, not Russia.
To be fair, Israel and Russia both have legitimate grievances--Hamas lobs missiles into Israeli population centers; Ukraine siphons off gas supplies and owes back payments to Gazprom -- but the heavy-handed response of both governments has turned world opinion against them, and rightfully so. What confuses most people is the way in which Russia and Israel conduct their foreign policies -- with nary a thought of how they are perceived by their peers. It's not enough for Russians to explore and lay claim to a ridge beneath the North Pole -- they have to brazenly plant a Russian flag there. It's not enough for Israel to negotiate the release of its soldiers taken hostage by Hezbollah -- it has to invade and rain cluster bombs over southern Lebanon.
Both countries have taken great pains to improve their PR -- Russia has hired Ketchum, a U.S. communications firm; Israel has blanketed Western airwaves with dapper English-speaking officials to explain their case -- but no amount of spin can whitewash the damage done to their reputations abroad. The problem, like Nicholson's character from The Departed, is they don't do subtle.