Joe Biden at history's crossroads: Is backing Bibi's Gaza war a fatal mistake?

Biden's presidency has been a surprise in many ways. But it was always a compromise, and now it may be a disaster

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published November 18, 2023 9:00AM (EST)

Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Joe Biden was the Democratic Party’s duct-tape solution to a national emergency, the compromise candidate who was almost everyone’s second (or third) choice. Given that, the duct tape held surprisingly well for a while, in increasingly precarious circumstances. Until it didn’t.

It would be foolish in the extreme to predict the outcome of an election that’s almost a year away, especially under these chaotic circumstances. In all likelihood, the 2024 presidential election will be decided by events that haven’t happened yet, both “known unknowns” such as Donald Trump’s criminal trials and unknown unknowns still to be revealed. 

But we can clearly say that Biden and the Democrats, along with the rest of us, now face not just a national but a global emergency, one that threatens to expose the abundant contradictions underlying American politics and American foreign policy. 

Biden’s literal and figurative embrace of Benjamin Netanyahu, and his unqualified support for Israel’s war in Gaza — which is, at minimum, already a humanitarian disaster and a PR disaster, without even getting into contested questions about “war crimes” and “ethnic cleansing” — feels like a turning point in present-tense history, and not in a good way. 

Recent polling suggests the scale of political danger involved here for Biden and most of the Democrats in Congress, who risk blowing apart the already duct-taped electoral coalition that ousted Trump in 2020 and partly withstood the expected “red tsunami” of 2022. A new survey from Quinnipiac University finds that majorities of registered Democrats, voters under 35 and Black voters (along with pluralities of both independents and Hispanic voters) disapprove of Israel’s response to the appalling terrorist attack of Oct. 7. On a more ambiguously-phrased question about whether voters’ “sympathies” lie more with Israelis or Palestinians, pluralities of registered Democrats and Black voters (and a clear majority of voters under 35) favor the Palestinians.

Being president, to be sure, is not supposed to be about following the polls, and sometimes involves making decisions your own supporters won’t like. There is a compelling or at least rational argument that Biden had no choice — in moral, political or geo-strategic terms — but to stand with Israel after the devastating trauma of Oct. 7, which affected not just that nation but Jewish people all around the world. But beneath that argument lies a cynical, short-term electoral calculation that we cannot afford to ignore, which holds that younger voters and voters of color are still relatively unimportant compared to older white voters, who overwhelmingly support Israel. Anyway, the thinking goes, those folks who aren’t happy with Biden now have nowhere else to go: When showdown day comes, they’ll hold their noses and vote for Biden over Trump.

Beneath Biden's decision lies a cynical electoral calculation: the premise that younger voters and voters of color are still relatively unimportant compared to older white folks, who overwhelmingly support Israel.

That analysis could be proven right one more time next November, as far as I know, and I’m certainly not qualified to advise Biden or Antony Blinken on what they could or should have done differently in the days after the Hamas attack. But I hardly need to tell Salon’s readers that Biden already faces a dead-even race, or worse, against a guy who has been indicted on four different sets of criminal charges and has pretty much announced that if he wins he intends to suspend the Constitution, deport millions of immigrants and throw political opponents and unfriendly journalists in jail. In that context, losing a few thousand Black voters in Georgia and Pennsylvania, a few thousand Latino voters in Arizona and Nevada, and maybe a few thousand white lefty vegan snowflakes in Wisconsin or wherever (insult them all you like!) could lead, let’s just say, to a less than optimal outcome.

But even beyond the admittedly troubling question of whether Democrats can get their immensely unpopular president re-elected because most Americans (justifiably enough) fear and despise his opponent, Biden’s decision to grab hold of the proverbial third rail of American politics — that is, the U.S.-Israel relationship, or the Israel-Palestine question more broadly — has a larger significance. 

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Among other things, it makes clear that the ideological and generational split within the Democratic Party’s coalition — what we used to call the Bernie vs. Hillary divide, although neither of those people is especially relevant now — has not been directly addressed, let alone resolved. In fairness, Biden and his team deserve considerable credit for their efforts, during the first two years of his presidency, to enable dialogue and compromise between the party’s “moderate” and “progressive” factions, which correlate partly (but not entirely) with older, predominantly white and more affluent voters on one hand and younger, more demographically diverse and more financially precarious voters on the other. Given the barest possible majorities on Capitol Hill, and the grotesquely inflated roles of ostensible Democrat Joe Manchin and apostate Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, they accomplished more than anyone could have reasonably expected.

That almost feels like a vanished golden age now. Most Democratic voters do not want Joe Biden to run again, and are simply being told by the party’s Washington leadership to wake up and smell the bottomless cup of decaf that comes with the senior breakfast special at Denny’s. On the most charitable reading of the evidence, Democrats are sharply divided on supporting Israel’s Gaza war, and many clearly oppose it. But only 18 Democratic members of Congress signed onto a nonbinding resolution urging an immediate ceasefire — and all 18 were people of color who represent deep-blue urban districts. It’s safe to assume that quite a few other Democrats who privately support that resolution concluded that they could not afford to say so, for a variety of more or less obvious reasons.

America is locked into a two-party system as far as we can see (which admittedly isn’t far), and both parties inevitably contain contradictions and rival factions. Even the Republicans still do, sort of, although the tax-cutting, churchgoing small-town bank presidents of days gone by have been consumed by a brain-eating virus, and now must pretend to care about a long list of imaginary “woke” concerns they can barely understand. 

But the Democrats’ problem is that their two main voter pools — affluent, well-educated boomer and Gen-X white folks in or around major cities; and a younger, visibly struggling cadre of Black, brown, Asian, white and mixed-race folks who are spread impressively across the spectrum of gender and sexual identities and who overwhelmingly favor dramatic social and economic reforms — have directly competing interests. As I said earlier, Biden or someone in his inner circle (most likely) understood this well enough, and I can only imagine that innumerable party strategy sessions have been held on how to manage this tension. But sooner or later, the day of reckoning will come. (Assuming we still have a two-party system and some approximate version of democracy and all that. Let’s not count chickens!)

Finally, but in some ways most important of all, we come to the massive, even staggering hypocrisy of American foreign policy, a widely accepted fact around the world of which most actual Americans are blissfully unaware. Oh, and to return to the subject of younger folks who are a collective thorn in Joe Biden’s butt, is it a coincidence that the first generation to grow up with global social media is also the least hypnotized by the myths of American exceptionalism? Possibly not.

Biden’s national address from the Oval Office after his return from Israel probably didn’t carry much political risk; no one cares what politicians say. But as Fintan O’Toole wrote recently in the New York Review of Books, the president’s rhetorical effort to equate Israel’s war against Hamas with Ukraine’s defensive war against Russia did not create a “single moral cause,” but rather “exposed a double standard.” If anything, that's too gentle: It was a transparent propaganda ploy, meant to depict those who oppose either military aid to Ukraine (Republicans) or military aid to Israel (Democrats) as unpatriotic.

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It remains astonishing that someone like Secretary of State Blinken, whom I believe on good authority to be an intelligent person with humane instincts and a sense of ultimate justice, can talk about a global “rules-based order” with a straight face. Everyone understands — and by “everyone,” I mean a lot of people around the world but hardly any Americans — who sets those "rules" and who is expected to follow them, and that they are only invoked against designated U.S. enemies, never against countries or regimes of any description that have made accommodations with the world’s rapidly declining but still dominant superpower. 

Vladimir Putin is without question an execrable tyrant, and those on the far fringes of the left who have talked themselves into making excuses for him, or what-about-ing themselves into some brilliant post-Marxist analysis, are — Jesus Christ, don’t get me started. But as O’Toole observes, Biden handed the Russian leader an unearned propaganda victory: Putin can only be delighted to observe that the U.S. has been “so fierce in its denunciation of [Russia’s] attacks on civilians, [but] has been so forbearing in its attitude to similar assaults on Gaza,” and Putin’s oft-expressed contention that “ethical standards are just weapons in the propaganda war is being vindicated.”

It remains astonishing that an intelligent and decent person like Tony Blinken can talk about a global "rules-based order" with a straight face, when everyone understands (except most Americans) who sets the rules and who is supposed to obey them.

I mean: How else are we to understand Biden fist-bumping Mohammed bin Salman, who had a prominent journalist (and U.S. legal resident) chopped up and dissolved in industrial chemicals, so that his fiancée will never know where he is buried? Or Biden’s recent love-fest encounter with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is doing his level best to turn the world’s largest so-called democracy into a Hindu theocracy? Both the left and the right in America are obsessed with Viktor Orbán, probably because he’s a white guy in a picturesque European country with lots of tourist destinations. But for the love of God: Compared to the leaders I just mentioned, he’s about as meaningful and dangerous as a stoned Disneyland character sharing white supremacist views on TikTok.

Why have nearly all nations in the Global South, including important players like Brazil and South Africa, stayed on the sidelines of the Ukraine war? I doubt they hold any illusions about Putin, or that they feel no compassion for the Ukrainian people. But they see no percentage in taking sides in a proxy war between two global powers who are equally willing (as many perceive it) to twist language to mean whatever they want it to mean. There is already widespread sympathy for the Palestinian cause in many formerly colonized developing nations, and Biden's actions over the past month are not likely to improve that dynamic.

Why has there been a wave of “anti-democratic” military coups across the Sahel region of northern and central Africa over the past year — in most cases with majority support from the local population? Same answer, basically. I am eager to defer to actual experts, but it’s clear enough that the brand of “democracy” promoted by the U.S. and its allies (in this case, it’s a lot about France), looks increasingly like a con game to many people around the world. 

I don’t think Joe Biden is either dumb or senile. His “too old” affect comes partly from reading off a Teleprompter, partly from his lifelong speech impediment and partly from Donald Trump’s relentless mockery (a tedious but effective element of his standup routine). But Biden has now opened an entire super-sized can of whoop-ass on himself, driven by what we can probably call good intentions but with little apparent understanding of how badly it might go. 

Honestly, I think more compassion than contempt is in order. Joe Biden’s entire adult life has been spent within the unquestioned assumption that America's self-interest — largely as defined by parties unseen, not by American voters — is a moral imperative. We can’t reasonably expect him to transcend that ideological frame the way that Abraham Lincoln transcended 19th-century views on race and slavery. (No nation gets that kind of grace more than once.) Biden has come a long way, and deserves our gratitude, even our love. He has suffered for us, in his endearingly inarticulate fashion. It might not be enough.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Benjamin Netanyahu Commentary Gaza Hamas Israel Joe Biden Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin War