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The Masters of War

Where is Biden’s moral compass?

When the national edition of the Sunday New York Times landed in my driveway on October 8, it carried the banner headline, PALESTINIAN MILITANTS INVADE ISRAEL. By that time, most of the wired-in world was well aware of the previous day’s surprise attack by Hamas fighters from Gaza. Knowing of the carnage in Israel, most would know, as well, that all hell was about to break loose. In fact, the Sunday Times reported that on Saturday “Israel had retaliated with huge strikes on Gazan cities.”

From there, the story could write itself: the President of the United States would immediately make a statement of unwavering support for Israel. He would denounce terrorism and condemn the attack as evil and barbaric. He would promise whatever military aid was necessary for Israel to defend itself. In the days to come, President Joe Biden did those things. He spoke frequently with Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He condoned those “huge strikes” on cities in the Gaza strip. “Like every nation in the world, Israel has the right to respond—indeed has a duty to respond—to these vicious attacks,” he said. Biden pretended that Israel could “respond” while at the same time showing care for the lives of Palestinian civilians. He made a few passing comments about allowing humanitarian aid to flow to those in Gaza who would be under attack by relentless Israeli air strikes, while food supplies and electricity were cut off, while approximately one million residents in the north were ordered to evacuate south, initially with just twenty-four hours’ notice.

In that same Sunday edition of the New York Times, there was another article that carried the title “Can We Talk About Joe Biden?” It was an Opinion essay by Times columnist David Brooks, written before Saturday’s news broke in the Middle East, focused on the question of whether Biden should run for reelection. It portrayed the Biden that Brooks and other Washington-based centrists choose to believe in. Yes, he is old, but in Brooks’s assessment, “he’s like a pitcher who used to throw 94 miles an hour who now throws 87.” Having interviewed Biden many times over the years, Brooks testified to the president’s essential decency. “Biden has usually been on the side of the underdog,” he wrote. “He has a seemingly instinctive ability to bond with those who are hurting.” Despite the concerns of an apparent majority of Democrats who would like to see a younger candidate emerge, Brooks judged Biden to be the best choice in the coming 2024 election. “Give me a leader who identifies with those who feel looked down upon,” he wrote. “Give me a leader whose moral compass generally sends him in the right direction.”

War fever always attempts to impose a uniformity of thought, a suppression of dissent.

Biden’s leadership in the aftermath of the Hamas attacks made those words sound preposterous. The “underdog” he sided with was responding with disproportionate military brutality against a captive population. He showed his “instinctive” bond with Israelis who were hurting but made it sound as if they were the only ones who mattered. His “moral compass” led him to stand solidly with a deeply compromised Israeli leader, corrupt and every bit as vengeful as the murderous assailants who crossed the Israeli border on October 7.

On the Sunday following the start of the war, Biden gave an interview to the CBS show 60 Minutes. Here was his opportunity to speak to a large American audience, to provide clarity, to make the case for a de-escalation of violence, to demonstrate some kind of moral wisdom. Instead, he assured interviewer Scott Pelley that the United States could easily participate in wars in Ukraine and Israel at the same time. “We’re the United States of America for God’s sake,” Biden said, “the most powerful nation in the history—not in the world, in the history of the world.” Like George W. Bush two decades ago, he asked Americans to focus on terrorism as the evil that justifies war. He chose to express that view in a way that was not only factually absurd but repugnant: “Israel is going after a group of people,” he said, “who have engaged in barbarism that is as consequential as the Holocaust.”

It was this sort of fevered rhetoric that put the United States on a war footing after September 11, 2001. Biden’s “moral compass” led him to vote in 2002 for Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Later, Biden admitted he was wrong. In his visit on Wednesday to Israel, he vaguely referenced the “mistakes” the United States made in Iraq while cautioning Israelis not to be consumed by rage. But here we are again: Hamas must be “eradicated” by any means. Rage is marshalled to justify a genocidal attack on people described as “animals.” As bombs rain down on Palestinians, Israel and the United States are claiming to be the enforcers of civilized norms; again we are expected to believe in a “war on terror.” Meanwhile, especially in the heat of the moment, one must not equivocate by discussing other evils: one must not talk about oppression, apartheid, or the everyday brutality that comes with occupation in Palestine. More civilians in Gaza will surely suffer, but only by accident—they are collateral damage.

And the blame for merciless new rounds of killing in Gaza is not to be attributed to Israel or the United States. Hamas made the Israeli army do it—just as the 9/11 bombers gave us no choice but to launch a war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Israel, Biden said, has a duty to respond, presumably in whatever way the far-right regime of Netanyahu thinks duty requires. This argument about the ultimate responsibility of Hamas for the unfolding war crimes in Gaza has been made in a specific way, by both centrists and reactionaries. The even-handed, moderate view was articulated by New York Times columnist David French, who drew on his experience while deployed in Iraq of giving legal advice to U.S. soldiers. Writing last week in a Times newsletter, French explained the “law of war,” which he believes both the United States and Israel do their best to honor. “Even in its rage and pain, Israel may not level cities without regard for innocent life,” he conceded. But Hamas, he asserted, disregards the “principle of distinction”—the obligation to fight openly in marked vehicles or in uniforms. By doing so, “Hamas is responsible for the civilian damage that results.” He added: “If Hamas fights from a hospital—or stores munitions in a hospital—damage to that hospital is Hamas’s responsibility. If Hamas fighters shoot at Israel Defense Forces from a home that contains a Palestinian family, then Hamas is responsible for the civilian casualties if that family is harmed in the resulting exchange of fire.”

It’s a short distance from David French’s objection that Hamas does not observe the proper rules of warfare to the bloodthirsty fulminations of the likes of Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas. In an interview on Fox News, Cotton said, “As far as I’m concerned, Israel can bounce the rubble in Gaza. Anything that happens in Gaza is the responsibility of Hamas—Hamas killed women and children in Israel last weekend.”

As many have pointed out, this notion that Palestinians should be collectively punished for violence organized by Hamas is not sanctioned by the law of war, or international law, or any decent understanding of human rights. And yet it was explicitly stated by Israeli president Isaac Herzog in the first week of heavy bombing in Gaza. Herzog claimed, “It is an entire nation out there that is responsible. . . this rhetoric about civilians not aware, not involved, it’s absolutely not true.” This conveniently ignores the history of Israel’s own role in bolstering Hamas to divide support from other Palestinian movements. It ignores the daily constraints Israel has put on ordinary Gazans just to survive. Yet, Herzog insisted, “They could have risen up, they could have fought against that evil regime which took over Gaza in a coup d’etat.” Since they did not, he said, “We will fight until we break their backbone.”

War fever always attempts to impose a uniformity of thought, a suppression of dissent. The government of Israel and its American defenders have been relentless in insisting one must acknowledge Israeli casualties and suffering first and foremost, while treating Palestinian suffering as the just deserts of a violent population, or at least as a secondary concern. Even the Pope was chastised by Israel for not falling in line. When Pope Francis said, “May humanitarian rights be respected, above all in Gaza, where it is urgent and necessary to guarantee humanitarian corridors to help the entire population,” Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Eli Cohen made a phone call to a British archbishop demanding the Pope make an unequivocal denunciation of Hamas.

As protests in sympathy and solidarity with Palestinians erupted here and around the world, the same stifling demand came from all quarters. Some commentators and prominent heavyweights decided that American redoubts—campuses especially—were rife with Hamas sympathizers. Somehow a debate broke out about whether scattered intemperate reactions meant American progressives had “flunked the Hamas test,” as if the problem at hand was that this country lacks a “decent” left that seeks the moral high ground.

That is not the problem. It’s vastly more important to ask whether we have a decent center—whether America’s foreign policy establishment can summon the decency to halt the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Gaza. A group of progressive Democrats in Congress introduced a resolution this week calling on the Biden administration to push for “de-escalation and a ceasefire” and to immediately facilitate humanitarian aid to Gaza. “The answer to war crimes can never be answered with more war crimes,” said Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib. Meanwhile, according to a HuffPost report, an internal State Department memo warned diplomats not to speak publicly about “restoring calm” or to use the words “de-escalation” and “ceasefire.” One can hope that President Biden’s embrace of Netanyahu’s brutal militarism was a public performance designed to prevent further attacks on Israel. It’s possible that behind the scenes, Biden was urging the Israeli leadership to restrain their desire to flatten Gaza, to humiliate Palestinians, and to occupy their land. But his public statements give little indication that this is the case—and even if it is, it is likely that his warnings will be ignored. 

It’s vastly more important to ask whether we have a decent center—whether America’s foreign policy establishment can summon the decency to halt the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Gaza.

When Biden visited in Israel on Wednesday, he made it known that he wants another $10 billion for Israeli weaponry, as part of a $105 billion militarism and border security package he hopes to push through Congress. Last night, in a televised address from the Oval Office, he made the case for this massive spending, calling the $10 billion commitment to Israel “unprecedented.” That was not exactly the case, given that in the waning days of the Obama administration, the United States promised $38 billion dollars over ten years in military aid to Israel.

In his speech, Biden labored to make the connection between arming Ukraine and arming Israel, although the two wars could hardly be more different. At times he sounded like he was reading a script from the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan justified huge increases in military spending by speaking of America as the bulwark against “the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.” He assured listeners that the United States, in arming other nations, takes care to replenish our our own stockpiles with new equipment—implying this fact is a victory for American labor. “Equipment that defends America and is made in America,” Biden said. “Patriot missiles for air defense batteries, made in Arizona. Artillery shells manufactured in twelve states across the country, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas. And so much more.”

So much more. There will be more war, and the best Biden can do is stoke jingoistic pride in how “American workers are building the arsenal of democracy.” While Biden spoke, thousands of Israeli soldiers were amassed along the border with Gaza. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant promised a ground invasion: “Whoever sees Gaza from afar now will see it from the inside . . . I promise you,” he told the troops. Hours after Biden’s speech, Israeli airstrikes continued “in southern Gaza where Palestinians had been told to seek safety,” according to ABC News.

Despite the assurances of David Brooks, it’s evident that Biden’s “moral compass” is not functioning. He made it clear again last night that he has lined up with the masters of war.