Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 29 April 2024

The Middle East Is a Trap for Joe Biden


(5 min)

Damage from a bombing by Israeli warplanes in Rafah, Southern Gaza, April 29. Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib/Zuma Press

The 19th-century British prime minister Lord Palmerston supposedly said that the Schleswig-Holstein international controversy of his time was so complicated that only three people had ever understood it: Prince Albert, who died; a professor, who went mad; and Lord Palmerston himself, who had forgotten all about it.

The modern Middle East is even more complicated than the Schleswig-Holstein controversy, and while the U.S. has no shortage of mad professors, the number of Americans who understand the background of the Israel-Palestinian dispute or the limited choices among which an American president can realistically choose is vanishingly small. As a result, America’s Middle East policy debates are almost always bitter and seldom smart.

That is bad news for Team Biden, for whom the Middle East is a problem that won’t go away. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is barnstorming the region to develop plans for a cease-fire and for postwar reconstruction in Gaza. Protests and pro-Hamas encampments at college campuses from Harvard to the University of Southern California are deepening divisions in the Democratic Party and dominating headlines at home. A recent CNN poll found that only 28% of respondents approved of President Biden’s handling of the Gaza war, with 81% of those under 35 disapproving.

Mr. Biden is caught between the demands of American national interests during a global crisis and the demands of a vocal and visible part of his political coalition in the runup to a close election. Internationally, the U.S. must resist Iran’s drive to disrupt what is left of the post-Cold War order in the Middle East. Failure to stabilize the region could lead in the short term to inflationary gasoline price spikes, and in the longer term could seriously weaken Washington’s position in the contest with the revisionist powers seeking to overturn the American order worldwide.

Domestically, the administration needs to keep tensions over Middle East policy from splitting the Democratic Party. This won’t be easy. Many of Hamas’s most passionate campus supporters believe that the organization wants to establish a secular Palestinian state. They also believe that Israeli Jews are European immigrants displacing an indigenous population—white settlers who should go home to Poland.

They think that Israel survives only because America supports it and that an American president who “gets serious” with Israel can make it do almost anything he wants. They see Hamas as part of a global coalition of “progressive” movements advancing causes such as climate change, democracy and LGBTQ rights against global capitalism. People who share these perceptions can organize a march or build an encampment, but the wisest heads in the world all working together couldn’t craft a feasible diplomatic strategy based on such an incoherent and unrealistic view of the world.

Many of Mr. Biden’s serious Democratic critics don’t merely oppose American strategic cooperation with Israel. They resent the administration’s close alliance with authoritarian governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They sympathize with the Muslim Brotherhood, the transnational Islamist movement to which Hamas belongs, and blame the U.S. for the continuing frustration of “democratic Islamists” across the region following the Arab Spring. This group, which includes many American Muslims seeking to reconcile their faith with democratic values, has been pulled sharply to the left by their empathy for the Gazan victims of the war.

The administration’s plan to end the war and move toward a Palestinian state involves assembling a structure including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. to create and support a new Palestinian governance structure. This Palestinian body, no more democratic perhaps than its Arab allies, would align with its sponsors and move toward peace with Israel.

This may well be the best way forward from the standpoint of American interests. In my view it is significantly better for the Palestinians than anything else on offer. But the approach will require major investments of American diplomatic capital and resources. And the strategy won’t quiet the administration’s domestic critics.

Many Palestinian-Americans, Muslim Brotherhood supporters, campaigners for Arab democracy and human-rights activists would denounce an approach that further entrenches Middle East authoritarianism. Many of Israel’s friends in the Democratic Party would also resent pressure on Israel to accept a Palestinian state so soon after the horrors of Oct. 7.

Possible International Criminal Court arrest warrants for Israeli officials would pose new complications for the White House. Warrants would enrage Israel’s friends, while encouraging critics to redouble their efforts to impose sanctions on Jerusalem.

In the Middle East, as in Ukraine, Team Biden finds itself grappling with the tragic, expensive and destabilizing consequences of conflicts it failed to prevent and hoped to avoid. Between now and November, voters at home and partners abroad will be looking hard for signs that a second term will have greater success.

Main Street: Joe Biden may be in for a rerun of 1968, with a ruinous Democratic Chicago convention. Image: Jaime Carrero/ZUMA Press Wire


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Appeared in the April 30, 2024, print edition as 'The Middle East Is a Trap for Joe Biden'. 

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