Biden’s waffling war stances miffing allies, losing votes

Trapped in a Gaza war predicament between the irreconcilable goals of Israel and Hamas, US President Joe Biden has taken a whiplash approach of trying to please one side on one day and the other the next.

From offering “unwavering support” for Israel at war’s beginning, Biden now withholds some weapons in protest of Israeli war tactics.

He also faces continued inconsistency in his backing for Ukraine. Having pledged at the war’s beginning to support Kiev “as long as it takes” to oust invading Russian troops, he now says that the US will back Ukraine as “long as we can.”

Policy whiplash gives Biden’s positions a Janus-faced quality. He tries to hold opposing positions at once to keep all sides at bay, always speaking with the fervor of someone who can’t understand why no one else understands his logic.

Critics remark that he leaves a sensation that his foreign policy is simply confused. “The ambiguity of American diplomacy in the face of two major conflicts has weakened Joe Biden’s administration, with just a few months left before the presidential election,” said a commentary in Le Monde, the French newspaper. “By seeking to avoid escalation without ever imposing the conditions for a resolution, the United States has lost credibility.”

Even the latest serving of multiple billions of dollars worth of military aid provided to Israel and Ukraine failed to ease concerns over the depth of US support. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky are both unhappy.

Netanyahu responded to the partial cancellation of weapons defiantly. “Israel has to stand alone,” he said. “Israel will stand alone. I have said that if necessary we will fight with our fingernails.”

Netanyahu and Biden have long been at odds, and not just over this Gaza conflict. Animosity dates from the time during the administration of President Barack Obama and his vice president, Biden, when Netanyahu traveled to Washington to speak out against Obama’s effort to persuade Iran to shelve its nuclear weapons development program.

US President Joe Biden wants to control Israel and Ukraine’s war efforts. Image: NBC Screengrab

Biden’s creeping opposition to Israel’s heavy bombardment of Gaza and the resulting civilian casualties – deaths number more than 34,000, according to Hamas figures – rankled Netanyahu.

He said that, by second-guessing Israel’s wartime tactics from a distance, Biden was treating Israel like a “banana republic” that must do US bidding. Netanyahu, acting in response to general public rage over Hamas’ October 7 killing of around 1,100 civilians in south Israel, has vowed to destroy Hamas.

The US president seems unbending. On Wednesday, he related to a CNN television interviewer that he had told Netanyahu:

Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which they go after population centers. I made it clear that if they go into Rafah … I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities – that deal with that problem.

Zelensky, despite the new delivery of weapons, quickly complained they weren’t coming fast enough. “Today I don’t see anything positive on this point” of timely support, he said. “There are supplies, they have slightly begun. This process needs to be sped up,” he said.

Biden’s rhetoric has shifted markedly over the past six months. At the war’s beginning, he not only said, unequivocally, “We stand with Israel,” but showered weaponry on Israel. Over time, though, he began to periodically beseech Netanyahu not to kill too many civilians.

That evolved into a request to Netanyahu not to assault the Gaza town of Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians have taken refuge. Finally, he stopped the delivery of the 2,000-pound bombs Israel wants to use on Rafah and other parts of the Gaza Strip.

Zelensky, meanwhile, had been speaking out about inadequate arms deliveries since late last year, because of both slow delivery and the unwillingness to provide weapons his generals say they need to repel Russian forces. That wish list includes fighter jets, bombers and long-range artillery. He has accused NATO, as well, of not providing enough arms.

“I have heard many times” from a certain state “because they sometimes did not want to give us weapons quickly because our soldiers are not ready to use them,” Zelensky said last month.

“But instructors of such equipment, our instructors, will get our troops ready. If it’s a plane, for example, pilots can be ready in two weeks. Whether it’s kamikaze drones, artillery, howitzers or multiple-launch rocket systems, we have very smart people. We’ve had training with NATO countries,” Zelensky said.

Last winter, as Russia began to slowly reverse earlier Ukrainian battlefield gains, Biden administration officials lowered their assessment of the chances that Ukraine could actually win the war.

“The immediate goal is to stop Ukrainian losses and help Ukraine regain momentum and turn the tide on the battlefield,” an administration official said last month. “Will they have what they need to win? Ultimately, yes. But it’s not a guarantee that they will. Military operations are much more complicated than that.”

US domestic politics, not least this November’s presidential election, appears to be influencing Biden’s decision-making on both Ukraine and Israel. Members of the opposition Republican Party have expressed anger that Ukraine gets not only military aid but also economic help at a time when American families suffer from persistent inflation.

Biden’s opposition also asserts that, while helping Ukraine defend its border, Biden has left the US southern frontier open to thousands of illegal immigrants to enter freely. His opponent in the coming vote, former President Donald Trump, says simply he will end the Ukraine war “in one day.”

Donald Trump says if elected he’ll end the Ukraine war in a day . Photo: X Screengrab

For his back and forth over Gaza, Biden stands to lose the support of voters who habitually back his Democratic Party: Jewish Americans and Arab Americans.

Many Jewish voters fully support Israel in its effort to crush Hamas while Arab American voters back the Palestinians and want a stop to the bloodshed. Each group could be a key to whether Biden wins closely contested US swing states.

Political observers point to Biden’s back-to-back speeches last week on Gaza, one favoring Israel, the other punishing Israel by withholding weaponry, as a clumsy effort to please all.

“There’s no doubt that the drivers of the US-Israeli relationship that have accounted for its resilience, its special quality and character over the years, are more under stress than at any point in my government experience,” said Aaron David Miller, a former advisor to several US administrations on Israeli-Arab affairs.

Doug Bandow, an analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank, said, “Biden is dealing with serious political problems. He has a lot of … Arab Americans who have been very angry about his support for Israel. He’s worried about losing their votes in November.”

Some commentators see the wavering as a symptom of an inability to see reality.

Late last year, just before the Hamas attack on southern Israel, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, published an article in Foreign Affairs extolling the administration’s foreign policy goals and record.

Sullivan wrote that Washington’s leadership is “absolutely necessary if the United States is to win the competition to shape the future of the international order, so that it is free, open, prosperous, and secure.”

As an example of the virtues of US leadership, he boasted that “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in decades.” The article was published eight days before Hamas attacked Israel.

Sullivan quickly ordered that the assessment be erased from the online version of his article. But the print version lives on and perhaps so too does the Biden administration’s self-delusion.

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