Israel and the Danger of Western Distraction
A false sense of security in an unserious age
My podcast monologue on the beginning days of the Israel-Hamas war is here:
Launched from land, sea and air, the attack was unprecedented in both scale and barbarity. It was a display of Isis-like savagery. But it was also the culmination of a sophisticated military operation, probably months in the planning and aided by at least one foreign power. As a result, more than 800 Israelis have been slaughtered, and no doubt more will follow in the days and weeks to come. Again: how could Israel, with its vast intelligence apparatus and decades of experience, let this happen?
The obvious answer — at least the one doing the rounds of the think tanks in Europe and America — is that Israel was distracted. And when facing such determined enemies as Hamas and Iran, who are always on the lookout for the perfect moment to strike, distraction amounts to suicide.
There is certainly some truth to this. As Abraham Lincoln put it, “a house divided against itself cannot stand”. Israel, riven by internal discord over Netanyahu’s attempted reform of its supreme court, has been hamstrung for months. Instead of looking outwards to the existential threats on and within its borders, politicians have been infighting over judicial reform. And when the leadership of a civilian-led democracy becomes obsessed with such a complex issue, who leads the military? What good can tomorrow’s justices do for today’s victims of terrorism?
Yet the danger of distraction is not merely an Israeli one. It is just as prevalent, if not more so, in the US-led Western world. In recent years, old fronts have opened in the clash of civilisations (Samuel Huntington is proved more correct by the day). America is now involved indirectly in battles against Putin’s Russia and Iran-backed Hamas, while China is watching closely, perhaps eyeing up Taiwan. Between Khamenei, Putin and Xi, the new anti-Western Axis looks increasingly threatening. And how do we respond?
We can be partly grateful that both the UK and US have pledged to support Israel, as they pledged support for Ukraine against Putin. But these are not difficult decisions to make. A few words here; a press conference there. This is no substitute for strategy which, at present, is sorely missing.
In the UK, the two major political parties are busying themselves with the circus that is conference season, doing their best to emerge with some semblance of respectability. (Judging by the pro-Palestinian demonstrations at the Labour Conference yesterday, Keir Starmer has his work cut out.) In the US, the situation inspires even less confidence. While the Democrats see the return of Trump to the White House as a threat to democracy itself and the Republicans view 2024 as a test of election integrity, America’s enemies continue to circle, looking for an opening. The House of Representatives lacks a Speaker. A government shutdown seems inevitable. We are distracted, and they know it. In my view, it was as much the distraction of the West as the distraction of Israel’s politicians that emboldened Hamas and its backers to launch their war of terror.
The Obama-Biden foreign policy rests on the premise that a “rules-based world order” will emerge if the United States assumes a posture of apologetic weakness. It’s a call for delusion and retreat. The Biden administration has been anxious to please the Iranians, and it recently released $6 billion of frozen assets to ransom Americans hostages held by Tehran. Political pressure will now be felt to confront Iran. This will push against the grain of the Biden crowd in at least two ways. First, it will require action based on national interest rather than gaseous abstractions. Second, it will mean supporting Netanyahu, whom Biden despises, while opposing the Iranians, whom he wishes to befriend.
The administration’s reflexive response to the slaughter was to “urge both sides to refrain from violence and retaliatory attacks.” That was withdrawn in favor of more fulsome support for Israel. A cascade of pro-Israel sympathy has poured out from the governments of nations big and small. It’s a generous but time-limited recognition of reality. Today, the Israelis are the victims: their blood is still warm on the desert dust. A month from now, however, or even sooner, they will be the destroyers of Gaza. The Palestinians will post videos of mangled children and bombed-out hospitals. They have done this before.
The cynic in me suspects that the democratic nations can’t endure such an overdose of reality. Their governments will return the Jews to their default position, as scapegoats of the world. At that point, Israel will desperately need the U.S. as a shield and an ally. One can only hope that President Biden is up to that task—and that he would be willing to perform it.
The New Speaker and Ukraine
Whoever the new speaker is will have to weigh in on that. Much of the media coverage will present a very simple story: Democrats want to support embattled Ukraine, while Republicans want to abandon embattled Ukraine. But the story is not anywhere near that simple, and multiple public opinion polls show why.
The short version is that continued Biden-level support of Ukraine is losing support among all voters. "Support is falling among Americans of both major political parties for supplying Ukraine with weapons," Reuters reported last week, relying on a new Reuters-Ipsos poll of 1,005 adults. "The two-day poll ... showed only 41% of respondents agreed with a statement that Washington 'should provide weapons to Ukraine,' compared to 35% who disagreed and the rest unsure."
More Republicans than Democrats support reducing or ending Ukraine support, but the gap between the parties appears to be narrowing and trending in the direction of less support. From Reuters: "Fifty-two percent of Democrats backed arming Ukraine in the most recent poll, down from 61% in May. Among Republicans, support for sending weapons to Kyiv fell to 35% from 39% in May." In May, the gap between the two parties was 22 points; today, it is 17 points.
Beyond that, Reuters-Ipsos found that "34% of Democrats in the poll agreed with a statement that Ukraine's problems 'are none of our business and we should not interfere.'" Fifty-six percent of Republicans agree with that, also.
In August, a CNN poll found that "55% say the U.S. Congress should not authorize additional funding to support Ukraine vs. 45% who say Congress should authorize such funding. And 51% say that the U.S. has already done enough to help Ukraine while 48% say it should do more."
In June, a Pew Research Center poll found a more partisan situation, with 44% of Republicans saying the U.S. is giving too much aid to Ukraine versus just 14% of Democrats. Most Democrats, about 44%, said the amount of U.S. aid is about right. On the other hand, the strongest Democratic supporters of aid to Ukraine, the Democrats who say the U.S. is not giving enough to Ukraine, has fallen by half, from 38% to 19%, in the 1 1/2 years since the invasion.
Put it all together and, at the very least, there is not strong support for increasing U.S. aid to Ukraine. Yet this is a headline from a Wall Street Journal story this morning: "Congressional Showdown: Can Lawmakers Boost Ukraine Aid by $50 Billion — or Even More?" The paper reported that "pro-Ukraine senators from both parties, unnerved by the upheaval in the House, say they want to move quickly to pass a yearlong aid package for the war-torn country that far exceeds the amount of aid requested by President Biden in August and would last through the 2024 election." The Wall Street Journal said those senators are "aiming to offer a much bigger and longer-term package" than the one sought by the president, "with a price tag between $50 billion and $100 billion."
Why do they want to approve aid to last from now "through the 2024 election?" Because they don't want voters to have a voice in deciding how much U.S. aid goes to Ukraine.
If the polls are correct, it is safe to say that public support would be weak for such a steep increase in Ukraine aid. It would run into opposition not just from Republicans in the House but members of both parties in both houses of Congress. That has nothing to do with turmoil in the House. Rather, it turns on the more fundamental question of how much aid voters believe is appropriate. And right now, there does not appear to be strong, continuing support for the current level of aid to Ukraine.
America’s Betrayal of Israel
For the better part of the past decade, the United States has pursued a foreign policy designed to strengthen Iran and enable it to form a strong sphere of influence in the region. This is the idea behind what Tony Badran and Michael Doran called “the realignment,” a vision of a new world order in which America partners with Iran in order to “find a more stable balance of power that would make [the Middle East] less dependent on direct U.S. interference or protection.” Those words aren’t Badran and Doran’s; they’re Robert Malley’s, Barack Obama’s lead negotiator on the Iran deal who, as Semafor reported this week, helped to infiltrate an Iranian agent of influence into some of the most sensitive positions in the U.S. government—first at the State Department and now the Pentagon, where she has been serving as chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations. Biden himself, in an op-ed in The Washington Post, spoke of “an integrated Middle East,” using the phrase no less than three times to make clear that his administration was intent on pursuing his predecessor’s commitment to seeing Iran not as a U.S. foe but as our collaborator.
And the Biden administration wasn’t just talking the talk. It was also walking the walk, from unfreezing billions in assets to make it easier for Tehran to support its proxy Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon to sending huge cash infusions used primarily to pay the salaries of tens of thousands of unvetted “security personnel.” And while the previous administration halted all aid to the Palestinians—directly because of the “pay for slay” policies that support the families of those who slaughter Israelis—the Biden administration was quick to reverse the decision.
Lots of people argued that this was simply clear-minded realpolitik after decades of disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bullshit. Here’s how you know this policy was, and is, motivated not by what’s best for America but by what would kneecap the Jewish state: Because it extended to inside Israel’s borders.
In addition to creating the external circumstances for terror, the Biden administration did everything in its power to derail Israel’s democratically elected government and prevent it from being able to see an attack like today’s coming. That the Israelis let themselves fall for this was stupidity of criminal order. But the invisible hand here was America’s. Biden himself took to CNN to call Netanyahu’s government “the most extreme” he’s ever seen, and lost no opportunity to lecture his Israeli counterpart about democratic values. The former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, took the unprecedented step of intervening in the country’s domestic affairs, announcing ominously that he “think[s] most Israelis want the United States to be in their business.” And if words weren’t enough, the administration also sent American dollars to support the anti-Netanyahu NGOs organizing the protests that brought Israel to a halt for months. Netanyahu was famously denied an invite to the White House; his key opponent, opposition leader Benny Gantz, had no such problem.
Could Congress Pick the Next President?
Whether they select Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) or New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) or some other heterodox figures to run, you can be sure it will be a serious ticket. Why? Because No Labels is a serious organization. They created the Problem Solvers Caucus in the House, and they are very good at fundraising. Already, the group has secured space for its “unity” ticket on the 2024 ballot in 11 states. And let’s not forget that there is public demand for something other than a Biden-Trump rematch. More than half of voters do not want Biden or Trump.
If No Labels pulls the trigger on this effort, it will be the most real third-party run in decades. For sure, I am sympathetic to their objective. But I am worried about the probability of it failing and the cost thereof.
Which brings me back to a contingent election. It seems highly unlikely that No Labels would outright win 270 electoral votes. There are just too many Americans who cannot imagine voting for anyone other than Trump or Biden. Alabama, Texas, Massachusetts and California — there are plenty of states where their choice for president is going to be whoever is on Team Elephant or Team Donkey.
Thus, the duty falls to Congress, and unfortunately, there is no law that specifies exactly how Congress should carry out its duty. All we have is the 12th Amendment, which has only broad procedural directives. If you thought the January 2021 counting of electoral votes was a trainwreck, you have not seen anything yet.
Legislators would have all sorts of incentives for mischief. A partisan majority in the House could, for example, choose its Speaker, then fail to decide who is the president by Jan. 20, which means the Speaker could become president, per the succession statute. Or, to take another possibility, a determined minority might thwart the House from choosing a Speaker, which leaves it unable to even take up the business of selecting a president.
Meanwhile, the Senate might slow walk its choice of the vice president should it be controlled by the same party as the House. Or if the Senate is led by a different party from the House, the upper chamber might rush through its choice of vice president so that he could ascend to the presidency. (The vice president is second in line and ahead of the Speaker.) Things get even crazier if the Senate president pro tempore decides she wants to be president. While the House dithers she might try to scuttle Senate action on the vice president and get herself elevated to the presidency come Jan. 20.
Whatever the results of the legislative scheming, a huge percentage of voters would feel disenfranchised by the mere fact that legislators did the choosing.
Items of Interest
“The noble lord in this case, as in so many others, first destroys his opponent, and then destroys his own position afterwards.”
— Benjamin Disraeli