Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering US diplomacy, national security and geopolitics. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist.
Just hours after returning from Israel, US President Joe Biden spoke from the Oval Office to remind Americans of something many in this polarized nation have begun to doubt. It’s that the US is a “beacon to the world — still.” It’s that America is the “essential,” the “indispensable” nation.
Abroad, “American leadership is what holds the world together,” Biden said, in explaining why the US must keep supporting both Israel and Ukraine. And at home, America must reject hatred in all forms, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. “I see you. You belong,” Biden said, looking into the camera as though meeting the eyes of every Jewish and Muslim American.
The strategic purpose of Biden’s speech was to connect, in the minds of Americans, two foreign conflicts that threaten to become unlinked in the chaotic politics of a divided nation and Congress. One is the “pure, unadulterated evil” of the attacks by Hamas against Israel on Oct. 7, and the need to stand with Israel as it sets out to destroy that terrorist organization. The other, no less evil, is the ongoing war of aggression and subjugation by Russian President Vladimir Putin against Ukraine.
The need for Biden’s address, however, can only be understood against the backdrop of domestic US politics. Congress is in chaos — the House can’t even find a Speaker and the legislature as a whole can’t pass a budget — because a cabal of extremists beholden to former president Donald Trump keeps sabotaging rules and decorum. Some of those same Republicans — taking their cues from Trump — also want to stop supporting Ukraine, even as they want to increase aid to Israel.
To keep the help flowing to both, Biden will shortly send a bundled budget request to Congress. It will ask for many billions to Israel and Ukraine at the same time. It may even throw in support for Taiwan against China and measures to secure the US-Mexican border against uncontrolled migration — something Republicans obsess over.
In principle, such bundling is unworthy of republican governance as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton once imagined it. Separate topics should be studied and debated separately, not hidden in omnibus and minibus bills stuffed with pork or in amalgamated budget requests. Cramming several big but discrete problems into one law smacks of desperation.
And yet desperation describes the state of US policymaking today, owing largely to the legacy of Trump and his minions in the House. So Biden can be forgiven for stooping from the lofty oratory of his speech to the legerdemain of this legislative ploy. He’s doing it at a time of global polycrisis, when the world needs a leader and no country but America can rise to the occasion.
In that role, Biden knew he was simultaneously addressing various foreign audiences from the Oval Office. There are the Israelis, of course. In Tel Aviv, Biden empathized with their “all-consuming rage,” the same rage Americans felt after Sept. 11, 2001. But he also cautioned the Israelis to learn from America’s mistakes back then, and not to let rage be their counselor in the difficult fight to come.
Another audience is the innocent Palestinians, especially those now trapped in the Gaza Strip, and Arabs and Muslims elsewhere. Biden made clear that he recognizes and values their humanity and dignity just as much. When this is over, he explained, the Palestinians must one day have their own state, and it must thrive in peace.
Biden was also addressing the West’s foes. His greatest strategic imperative as US president is now to prevent the war in Israel from spreading. So he had messages for Beirut, Damascus and Tehran, and by extension Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang. It was simply, as he said earlier this week: “Don’t.” In lieu of an “or else” he’s parked two aircraft-carrier armadas in the Eastern Mediterranean.
There’s Iran, which arms Hamas and Hezbollah and other proxies against Israel and the US, but also equips the Russians with drones for use against Ukrainian civilians. And there’s Chinese President Xi Jinping, who’s just been hosting his “ no-limits friend” Putin in Beijing, and casts a covetous eye at Taiwan and the South China Sea. Further out in the strategic offing, there’s North Korea, which is nowadays also supplying Russia with ammo for Ukraine.
At the United Nations and beyond, these rogues and tyrants have each other’s backs. If Beijing today keeps the economies of Russia and Iran afloat despite Western sanctions, it’ll expect their help in return if and when it attacks Taiwan. In that way, Biden implied, these conflicts really are connected, and it falls to America to rally the free world in defense.
Biden’s speech won’t end the partisan and intra-partisan bickering roiling Congress and the nation. But with luck, he’ll nudge the national debate toward something that resembles reason. So let the White House bundle Israel and Ukraine in one law, this time. And let Congress rise to the occasion despite its in-House saboteurs and pass it.
Let the Ukrainians, with American support, ward off the imperialist Kremlin, and let Israel destroy Hamas while also embracing a vision for a flourishing Palestinian state. Let the Iranian mullahs stand back — and ordinary Iranians stand up against their mullahs. Let Xi Jinping stay on his side of the Taiwan Strait.
And spare a thought for Biden, whether you’ll vote for him next year or not. He’s trying to do what’s right, rejecting hate in all its forms, and using American power for good in the world. As he said, the US is a beacon — still.