Israel's unwitting role in US global detachment

Joe Biden  credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
Joe Biden credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

The Biden administration's disillusion with Israel must be seen in the context of wider foreign policy goals.

To know how Israel stands in US eyes, or at least in the eyes of the Biden administration, there was no need to study the president’s statement yesterday or to listen to his secretary of state. Their responses to the killing of seven aid workers in the Gaza Strip on Monday night were marked by impatience and lack of confidence. The president said that he was "outraged and heartbroken", demanded accountability from Israel, and described the war in the Gaza Strip as "one of the worst in recent memory in terms of how many aid workers have been killed."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken read from a prepared statement. "These people are heroes," he said of the aid workers. "They run into the fire, not away from it," he said, and called them "the best of what humanity has to offer." "We shouldn't have a situation where people who are simply trying to help their fellow human beings are themselves at grave risk," Blinken added.

If I had to characterize the mood of the president and secretary of state, I would say that they’re close to becoming fed up with Israel’s conduct, but that they aren’t quite there yet.

This is a tragic moment. We are witnessing a historic low in relations between Israel and the US. It’s doubtful whether a US secretary of state has spoken so severely about Israel since the great crises of the late 1980s (James Baker in the administration of the elder George Bush) or the early 1950s (John Foster Dulles in the Eisenhower administration, but who remembers?).

The routine explanation in Israel is internal US politics. Journalist Raviv Drucker joked on Channel 13 that Biden’s "two states" formula wasn’t about Israel and Palestine but about Michigan and Nevada, two US states that are critical to the president’s hopes of victory in the election in November. There is of course an element of truth to this, but it’s too narrow an interpretation.

The Red Sea - or the South China Sea?

President Biden’s foreign policy has one main goal: to prevent deterioration in international relations. Yesterday, he spent almost two hours on the telephone with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Relations between the two superpowers have been mired in a deep crisis for several years, and misunderstandings on diplomatic, military, economic, and technological matters have deepened the fear of a confrontation.

It would appear that the conversation of the two leaders yesterday was riddled with disagreements, but they spoke. That in itself is perhaps a reason to assume that neither of them wants things to get worse. Russia and Iran would actually like to see nuclear-powered US aircraft carriers sailing in the South China Sea instead of in the Arabian Sea, the Mediterranean, or the Baltic.

The long talk with Xi Jinping comes against a background of worrying reports from the South China Sea. China claims almost exclusive ownership of it, and the US says no way. In the past few days, the military tension in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines has risen. The latter has had a defense pact with the US for over 70 years. The president of the Philippines, Bonbong Marcos, complained last week of dangerous and incessant attacks by the Chinese navy. "The Philippines will not surrender," he declared.

On March 23, the US Department of State said in a press statement: "The United States stands with its ally the Philippines and condemns the dangerous actions by the People’s Republic of China." There is a clear if indirect connection between the South China Sea and the Middle East. Biden doesn’t want another war involving a superpower. He also doesn’t want to give China cause to become even closer to Russia.

Iran emboldened

Foreign policy plays a small part in internal US politics, but more than Biden wants to secure the votes of Arab-Americans in Michigan, he wants to dispel any suspicion that he belongs to the previous political generation in which devotees of military intervention overseas set the tone in the two major parties.

Donald Trump makes massive use of this theme. He may describe all his critics within his party as "Republicans in name only," but, from a historical point of view, he’s the one who is Republican in name only. He completely renounces the party’s foreign policy in the seventy years before he came on the scene. He accuses the activist conservatives of the presidency of George Bush junior of wanting "perpetual war", which indeed they ignited in Iraq, and to some extent in Afghanistan.

Although he is the person who ordered the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, he didn’t want war with Iran. He repeatedly spoke of his wish to reach a deal with it. One forgotten time, he called off a retaliatory operation against Iran at the last minute, because "too many Iranians" would be killed. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced veiled criticism of Trump. "Iran’s boldness in the region is rising, and in the absence of a response will rise further, but Israel will not turn the other cheek," he said.

Of course, Trump is no pacifist. He rules out an active hawkish foreign policy for the same reason that almost all US presidents in the first 150 years of the republic ruled it out: because the outside world’s disputes are of no interest to America.

George Washington’s wisdom

Biden does not belong to that school. From his earliest days in politics, he has been on the hawkish wing of his party, and supported aid to allies, from the period of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, to the wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq, to Ukraine. But he absolutely meant what he said when he warned Israel early on not to repeat the mistakes of the US in dealing with crisis situations. America, he implied, deployed too much force, and harmed too many civilians.

Over the years, Biden has become more and more skeptical about the nature of the US role in defeating terrorism. Although he supported the Iraq war in 2002, in the following years he became one its fiercest critics, and as a senator he openly mocked the Bush administration’s pretensions of approaching "final victory".

When he became Barack Obama’s vice president, he was the only senior figure in the administration who consistently opposed the attempt at "nation building" in Afghanistan, at a cost of billions of dollars. He proposed sufficing with small, defined operations against terrorists. He brought upon himself unprecedented public criticism by the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. Obama immediately relieved McChrystal of his command, even though Defense Secretary Robert Gates described him as "perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat I ever met." Biden’s views on Afghanistan didn’t change. In 2021, he decided to let Afghanistan fall back into the hands of the Taliban, with disastrous results for the Afghans. Most Americans breathed a sigh of relief.

A large majority of Americans prefers to avoid involvement in foreign matters, particularly when they become tangled and prolonged. A clear expression of this tendency is the growing indifference, even hostility, towards Ukraine.

Historians like to quote the first president, George Washington, who advised his people not to form permanent alliances overseas. Over the years, the US has had no sentimental commitments to anyone. Many Americans will exonerate themselves from any pangs of conscience if Washington’s wisdom is re-adopted in our time. That is the logic of "America First" from the school of Trump.

Israel, against its will and without meaning to, is now fulfilling an important, and highly ironic, role in normalizing US relations with the outside world. If it’s possible to forego the "special relationship" with Israel, then its possible to forego almost any special relationship.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on April 3, 2024.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.

Joe Biden  credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
Joe Biden credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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