Since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, President Biden has presented himself as a statesman humbled and enlightened by his own country’s missteps after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “While you feel that rage,” he advised Israelis, “don’t be consumed by it.”
Mr. Biden meant to offer more than therapy. White House officials soon revealed they were deeply concerned by Israeli plans to invade the Gaza Strip. They feared the operation would fail to root out Hamas, wantonly kill and injure Palestinian civilians and potentially set off a wider war. But these officials said so anonymously. In public, Mr. Biden professed staunch support for Israeli military action, while urging Israel to comply with the laws of war. Bear-hugging America’s ally, he apparently figured, was the surest way to restrain it — or the only way he was willing to try.
Yet that gambit has failed. Israel has gone ahead with a ground offensive: Its forces have reached Gaza City amid continued aerial bombardment and blockade of the enclave. So much for Mr. Biden’s restraining embrace. Israeli leaders, reeling from a heinous assault, should hardly have been expected to heed mere words from Washington. After Sept. 11, would the United States have changed its conduct in deference to the kindly advice of an outside power?
It’s Mr. Biden who has not learned from America’s mistakes, rushing headlong into the latest war. By backing Israel unconditionally, and failing to champion Palestinians’ rights as well, he made the United States complicit in whatever Israel did next. The costs, in American prestige and power, have already proved substantial. And they could get much worse.
In the days after Oct. 7, Mr. Biden had the opportunity to shape Israel’s response by publicly defining what kind of actions the United States would, and would not, support. While expressing solidarity with Israel and revulsion at Hamas, he might have withheld assistance for a military campaign until Israel formulated a plan that the White House deemed effective and just and that treated Palestinian civilians acceptably. Instead, Mr. Biden announced, “We’re with Israel,” pledging to provide for its defense “today, tomorrow and always.” Even as he privately pressed Israeli leaders to think twice about a ground invasion, he publicly requested $14.3 billion in emergency military aid, no strings attached.
There was no need to be so cavalier. A carrot-and-stick approach could have either improved Israel’s actions or distanced the United States from a costly failure. Yet the administration seemed to barely try; it preferred to commit itself first and then find out for what. Now the United States finds itself following Israel’s lead in a brutal war “of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences,” as Barack Obama, then a senator, described the invasion of Iraq before it began. U.S. officials are increasingly signaling their displeasure at Israeli military operations in Gaza and mounting settler violence in the West Bank, but they will have little leverage to make Israel change course unless they specify an “or else.”
Mr. Biden has been no better in identifying a long-term solution. Sidestepping the obvious reality that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land lies at the core of the conflict, Mr. Biden has mainly described Palestinians either as evil terrorists or as innocent civilians deserving of humanitarian protection. But Palestinians most importantly are political agents who seek self-determination and refuse to be ignored. Mr. Biden’s deflective, ideological language — “Terrorists will not win. Freedom will win.” — ignores that Palestinian terrorism and Israeli occupation are reinforcing injustices, both of which stand in the way of peace.
Perhaps Mr. Biden’s bear hug will give him political cover to reinvigorate the pursuit of a two-state solution, last attempted by U.S. diplomats in the Obama administration. Mr. Biden recently said “there’s no going back” to the prewar status quo. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called for the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank, to govern Gaza after Israeli forces withdraw. That assumes Israel would sooner pull out than pay the price the Palestinian Authority would demand: serious progress toward a Palestinian state. To have any odds of success, the United States will have to threaten to reduce military assistance and political support and act accordingly. Otherwise Israel will conclude that U.S. talk is just that.
Don’t count on Mr. Biden to change. If he was unwilling to impose conditions on Israeli conduct at the outset, when it mattered most, he is unlikely to risk a breach with Israel, a popular cause in American politics, as next year’s presidential election nears. But he should — because the alternative is worse.
Mr. Biden’s one-sided stance detracts and distracts from every other foreign policy priority. The United States was already struggling to arm Ukraine and Taiwan before the Israel-Hamas war, which is likely to divert U.S. artillery shells, air defense systems and more. The trade-offs will be intensified if the conflict widens into a regional war. The United States could even be drawn in directly, a danger underscored by increased attacks on American bases in Iraq and Syria.
Meanwhile, Washington is hemorrhaging influence around the world. Having implored countries outside the West to oppose Russia for occupying territory and targeting civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, the United States appears nakedly unprincipled for standing in lock step with Israel as it occupies Palestinian land and shuts off food, water and power in Gaza. Displeasure is not confined to Arab states. In the U.N. General Assembly, 120 countries supported a resolution calling for a humanitarian truce. Just 12 countries joined the United States and Israel in voting no. That left America only slightly less isolated than Russia when the General Assembly, by a vote of 141-to-7, last called on it to withdraw from Ukraine.
At home, too, the repercussions could be fateful. Young voters and Arab and Muslim Americans, constituencies key to Mr. Biden’s election victory in 2020, are aghast at his handling of the war. They may not turn out for him next November. Such a culling of Mr. Biden’s coalition is just what the Republicans, buoyed by polls showing Donald Trump leading in key states, need to put their unpopular candidate over the line.
“American leadership is what holds the world together,” Mr. Biden says. To him, American leadership seems to mean backing U.S. allies to the hilt and inheriting their conflicts as our own, costs and risks be damned. A “with us or against us” attitude proved destructive two decades ago. Today, it’s a recipe for dividing the world and losing control.
Stephen Wertheim (@stephenwertheim) is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of “Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy.”
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