Follow us on social

Washington's Gaza Kabuki

Washington's Gaza Kabuki

Professions of concern about the war’s destruction are unlikely to be translated into real pressure on Israel

Analysis | Middle East

Since Joe Biden described Israel as “starting to lose support” due to “indiscriminate bombing” in Gaza, news media around the world have described the United States as pushing, unsuccessfully, for Israel to change both its tactics in Gaza and its preferred political arrangements for when the fighting ends.

To date, that supposed pressure does not appear to have had much effect, which has led to “tail wags dog” arguments about how the U.S. is either unable, or unwilling, to force a shift in Israeli policy.

Of course, it is impossible to know what, if any, threats are being made behind the scenes by the parade of U.S. officials who have been shuttling to Jerusalem over the past few weeks. However, given the nature of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition, one might imagine that any such threats might have been leaked to the media. Moreover, if one looks at what the two sides are disagreeing over — when precisely the bombing campaign should end, or how, down the road, some hypothetical third party would temporarily administer Gaza — there is, as a practical matter, precious little daylight between the U.S. and Israel.

This is abundantly clear from the various news conferences given in recent days at the White House, the State Department, and the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, notably on the issue of how a Security Council resolution had to be worded to avoid yet another American veto.

But the strongest reason to doubt that very much pressure is being applied is the Holmesian dog that did not bark: Put simply, the people who run U.S. foreign policy show no indication of viewing a shift in Israeli policy as a matter of national interest for the United States. For the fact of the matter is that when U.S. officials perceive the national interest as being at stake, they are more than willing to change policy, including overriding close allies.

The classic example is the 1956 Suez crisis when President Eisenhower threatened the United Kingdom financially and humiliated his old companion in arms, Anthony Eden. Other examples include President Kennedy’s withdrawal of Jupiter missiles from its NATO allies Turkey and Italy as part of the Cuban Missile Crisis deal; President Nixon’s squeezing of South Vietnamese President Thieu over the Paris Peace Accords; President George W. Bush’s bypassing of Thatcher and Mitterrand regarding German reunification; and, most recently, President Trump’s sanctioning of Turkey over its offensive in northern Syria.

If, therefore, there are no signs of the U.S. threatening Israel over Gaza, it is unlikely due to White House qualms about facing down Netanyahu and company; rather, it is because the Administration sees little U.S. cost in slow-walking a modest policy change. Put simply, there is just not enough at stake to warrant the use of pressure. Both in terms of international relations and of domestic politics, the status quo is not significantly unsatisfactory. To see this, consider each of these factors.

The “humanitarian situation” in Gaza, as a so-called “senior administration official” put it, is not perceived by Biden and his advisers as putting the United States in a position that requires a notable change in policy. I refer here not to the private views of these individuals, but to how they see the international status of the U.S. as affected by its support of what Israel is doing in Gaza. The answer is, not much.

For example, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, after characterizing the plight of the people in Gaza as “gut-wrenching,” added immediately that this was why Israel’s “operations” should be seen “through to completion quickly, effectively, and doing everything possible to minimize the harm to those caught in a crossfire of Hamas’s making.” Another unnamed official described the diplomatic “cost” as “intangible” and making it “harder to win support on issues we care about.” And when journalists ask about the U.S. being isolated because of its Gaza policy, the questions are blandly dismissed.

One might imagine that this downplaying of discontent from other countries’ governments or public opinion is due to a realpolitik sense that human rights and humanitarian concerns, even during genocides, are secondary. Evidence for this claim would cite President Clinton’s maneuvers to prevent UN intervention in Rwanda, continue with President Reagan’s support of Gen. Rios Montt in Guatemala and Presidents Ford and Carter’s de facto backing of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and stretch back as far as President Roosevelt’s refusal to bomb the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

However, the point has to do with perceived pressure from outside the U.S.: Viewed from Washington, neither massive killings nor most other situations give rise to pressure significant enough to change U.S. policy. In part, this is because the United States is in a unique position: Most of its adversaries are economically too weak to threaten the U.S., whereas those with economic weight are for the most part its allies or clients.

But it is also due to a more fundamental feature of American foreign policy. When policy makers choose a course of action, they tend to discount longer-term negative consequences. A classic case in point is the July 1965 decision to send 200,000 ground troops to South Vietnam. When Under Secretary of State George Ball argued that the U.S. would end up like the French, his points were dismissed with Micawber-like platitudes. So too it was with Truman’s decision to send troops north of the 38th parallel, and with Bush’s decisions to invade Iraq and dissolve Saddam Hussein’s military.

Given this tendency, claims about future diplomatic damage for failure to crack down hard enough on Israel are no doubt met with reactions akin to Keynes’s famous line about the long run.

In this regard, it is significant that the cases cited above in which the U.S. cracked down on its allies involved reactions to current events, not a long-term calculation. Thus, U.S. policy over Suez was spurred by a sense of being in a life-or-death battle with the Soviet Union for the favors of countries in Africa and Asia; to side with the colonial powers and Israel who had occupied the canal was an immediate threat to U.S. interests (this is also why the Eisenhower White House supported civil rights at home).

Similarly, the pressure on Thieu to go along with the Paris accords was, as Henry Kissinger infamously put it, in pursuit of a “decent interval.” For U.S. policy makers, the response to discontent from abroad over their Gaza policy is akin to Scarlett O’Hara’s views in “Gone With the Wind:” Tomorrow is another day.

What of domestic U.S. politics? Here, multiple strands of argument lead to the same conclusion: For Biden and his advisers, there are no clear political reasons to switch U.S. policy on Gaza. To start with, it is very likely that within the policy-making group, there are strong norms against bringing up domestic politics, the assumption being that Biden, as a long-time professional, is capable of making such judgments on his own. Those judgments, second, are likely to be that current policy already is triangulated correctly between hawks and doves; that the latter, if faced in the end with a choice between Trump and Biden, will swallow hard and vote Democratic; and that in any case, elections are almost never won or lost on foreign policy issues.

These calculations, of course, leave little room for error: Even a small increase in abstention rates among core Democratic constituencies could prove fatal in various swing states. For that reason, a non-veto in the Security Council, repeated emphasis on “targeted operations,” humanitarian issues, and a two-state solution, and, most importantly, well-publicized criticisms of Netanyahu by close Biden allies are attempts to reframe U.S. policy as less anti-Palestinian. As the war drags on, it is possible that the White House will agree to modest conditions on the use of military aid, albeit with waiver language included so that push never comes to shove.

These kabuki-like moves show clearly that U.S. policy makers feel little pressure, whether domestic or foreign, to change their policy on Gaza. Absent additional, immediate moves, such as organized abstention in presidential primaries, the most likely scenario is continued death for thousands and despair for millions.

President Joe Biden speaks with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in the White House in January, 2022. (Official White House photo by Cameron Smith)

Analysis | Middle East
NATO’s 75th birthday party: All balloons, no brass tacks

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reacts after the ceremonial first pitch throw to celebrate "NATO day" before the start of the game between the Washington Nationals and the St. Louis Cardinals at Nationals Park in Washington, U.S., July 8, 2024. REUTERS/Yves Herman

NATO’s 75th birthday party: All balloons, no brass tacks

Europe

The heads of state and government of all 32 NATO allies will meet at a summit in Washington, July 9-11, to celebrate the Alliance’s 75th birthday. It was scheduled more than a year ago, but, as the date has approached, it increasingly seems like a bad idea.

Of course, nobody could have foreseen current concerns in the American media and political class of President Joe Biden’s travails stemming from his poor debate performance with Donald Trump on June 27. Unfortunately, that story risks squeezing the summit’s achievements off page one.

keep readingShow less
This week, NATO III celebrates itself

Photo: Shutterstock/Ben Von Klemperer

This week, NATO III celebrates itself

Europe

NATO likes to present itself as “the most successful alliance in history,” not because it was successful in war, but because it prevented war, and also simply because it has lasted far longer than most alliances.

What this propaganda narrative, however, obscures is that NATO during the Cold War avoided actual war not just by deterring the Soviet Union, but by eschewing actions of its own that would have led to war.

keep readingShow less
Is it time for the US to recognize the Taliban?

Members of Afghanistan's delegation, led by the Taliban-run government's Acting Labour and Social Affairs Minister Abdul Hanan Omari, attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in Saint Petersburg, Russia June 5, 2024. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

Is it time for the US to recognize the Taliban?

Middle East

Late last month, roughly two dozen countries sent envoys to Qatar for a conference about international engagement with Afghanistan and for the first time the Taliban participated too.

Taliban representatives attended the latest round of the “Doha process” because, unlike the May 2023 gathering, activists were not in attendance this time around. This conference gave the Taliban the chance to call on the U.S. and other western governments to lift economic sanctions on Afghanistan and build deeper ties with the Islamist regime in Kabul.

keep readingShow less

Israel-Gaza Crisis

Latest