Politics / December 22, 2023

The Street and the Elite Can Unite to End Israel’s Criminal War

Both realists and idealists realize that Biden’s carte blanche policy of support for Netanyahu is hurting America.

Jeet Heer
From left, Representatives Elissa Slotkin, Chrissy Houlahan, Mikie Sherrill, and Abigail Spanberger participate in a panel discussion during the DNC Women’s Leadership Forum conference in Washington, D.C., on October 17, 2019. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Anti-war movements can gain traction only if they are popular fronts, bringing together factions with disparate agendas and ideologies. There are always people who oppose armed conflict out of pacifist principles, whether grounded in religion or philosophy. But committed pacifists are few and far between—never enough by themselves to sway the national security establishment. Broader organizing against war comes from a variety of factors: fear of being conscripted, wishing to avoid soldiers dying for an unnecessary cause, and revulsion at specific tactics that tarnish a nation’s reputation as well as prudential concerns about the financial and diplomatic costs of military adventures.

The anti-war movements that have won a national audience have always combined the street with the elite, scruffy protesters voicing popular anger along with well-tailored policymakers whose Rolodexes include Pentagon and White House staffers. The outcry against the Vietnam War shook national politics because it included not just New Left radicals but also eminently elite figures like the columnist Walter Lippmann, diplomats George Kennan and George Ball, and senators like J. William Fulbright. These habitues of the corridors of power were in a position to add an extra layer to the critique of the war, their cool analysis of strategic folly providing extra ammunition to the moral indignation of ordinary citizens.

Joe Biden has adopted a policy of offering Israel a virtual blank check in its current campaign of retribution against Palestinian civilians (which is being sold as a war with Hamas). To be sure, Biden has offered occasional lip service about the excessive civilian casualties, but he has also repeatedly indicated that there is no daylight between the United States government and Israel in this war.

From the start, Biden’s policy has faced headwind from the left of his own party, with mass protests in major cities combining with criticism from the congressional left. Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, joined by other members of the Squad, have become the face of political opposition to Biden’s unconditional backing of Israel.

But on Tuesday, a letter from a very divergent congressional cohort speaking in a completely different timbre also rebuked Biden. The letter was written by centrist Democrats who have long-standing ties to the military industrial complex and intelligence agencies: Seth Moulton (of Massachusetts), Jason Crow (Colorado), Mikie Sherrill (New Jersey), Chrissy Houlahan (Pennsylvania), Abigail Spanberger (Virginia), and Elissa Slotkin (Michigan). Politically, these representatives are on the opposite end of the Democratic spectrum from the Squad. They are centrists deeply entrenched in the security establishment. Spanberger and Slotkin are both former CIA agents. Crow was a paratroop commander in Iraq. Houlahan is an Air Force veteran who rose to the rank of captain. Sherrill is a Navy veteran, a former helicopter pilot.

Their letter is evidence that the military industrial elite now has grave misgivings about both Biden’s nearly unquestioning support for Israel’s war.

The letter, succinct and forceful, is worth reading to the end:

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We are deeply concerned by PM Netanyahu’s current military strategy in Gaza. The mounting civilian death toll and humanitarian crisis are unacceptable and not in line with American interests; nor do they advance the cause of security for our ally Israel. We also believe it jeopardizes efforts to destroy the terrorist organization Hamas and secure the release of all hostages.

From our positions on the Intelligence, Armed Services, and Foreign Affairs Committees, we have consistently pushed for Israel to shift its military strategy—there has been no significant change.

We have dedicated our lives to national security and believe our nation’s values are a source of credibility and power. Some of us also spent years fighting America’s war on terror. We know from personal and often painful experience that you can’t destroy a terror ideology with military force alone. And it can, in fact, make it worse.

Accordingly, we urge you to continue to use all our leverage to achieve an immediate and significant shift of military strategy and tactics in Gaza.

This is a very conservative letter. It is rooted in the language of realpolitik, not human rights. The animating concern is about the effectiveness of military strategy, not the moral stain on the United States for aligning with a regime carrying out one of the great slaughters of this century. Yet the very conservatism of this letter is a hopeful sign. It indicates there is now a broad opposition to the war within the Democratic Party—one that extends from national security Democrats to the Squad. It offers up the possibility of a genuine popular front in the party, broad and deep enough to pressure Biden to actually change policy.

The letter makes clear that the president is increasingly isolated in his own party. Biden’s carte blanche to Israel is rooted in his own ideological hawkishness and long-standing pro-Israel sympathies. At a recent event, Biden said, “I’m a Zionist.” Biden’s vicarious Zionism can be criticized from the left as being callously indifferent to Palestinian lives. But it can also be criticized from an old-fashioned national security conservatism that recognizes the United States has its own distinct interests, which often do not align with the goals of the Israeli government.

Conservative Democrats are starting to reflect the concerns of their own voters. Israel’s war is deeply and increasingly unpopular among Democrats and independents (although it still has strong support among Republicans). A recent Quinnipiac poll shows that 58 percent of Democrats oppose Biden’s policy of sending more military aid to Israel, against 36 percent who support it. Among the general public, support for more military aid has also been going down. On October 17, 64 percent of Americans supported more military aid and 28 percent opposed. Two months later, on December 20, only 45 percent supported more military aid and 46 percent opposed. In other words, support for military funding rapidly went from being overwhelmingly popular to being polarizing just eight weeks. This downward trajectory of support will likely continue.

Both realists and idealists can join hands in opposing this war, because the humanitarian catastrophe is in fact bad for America’s national interest. On December 20, Human Rights Watch surveyed the internal refugee crisis inside Gaza. According to the human rights watchdog, “On October 13, Israeli authorities ordered more than a million people in northern Gaza to evacuate their homes. Two months later, almost 1.9 million people—85 percent of Gaza’s population—are displaced, nearly half crammed inside Rafah, the enclave’s southernmost governorate with a prewar population of 280,000.” Among this immense displaced population, “food, water, and medication” are scarce. “According to Gaza’s Health Ministry, at least 19,600 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, have been killed since hostilities began, including in areas to which the Israeli military told them to flee.”

In addition to this indiscriminate killing, there are disturbing new allegations emerging of execution-style killings. On Wednesday, the UN human rights office reported “receiving disturbing information alleging that Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) summarily killed at least 11 unarmed Palestinian men in front of their family members in Al Remal neighbourhood, Gaza City.” The UN called for an investigation of this alleged killing.

Israel’s actions run the risk of sparking a wider regional war. American troops who are stationed throughout the Middle East would be ripe targets in the event of a such a war. Even if escalation is avoided, America’s reputation has been tarnished by Biden’s unmodulated support of Israel’s war. The ability of the United States to build allies among the vast majority of nations in the world, where this war is unpopular, will be blunted.

Aside from the congressional letter, there are other signs that the national security establishment is getting antsy about Biden’s policy. David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist who often channels sentiments inside the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies, has been very critical of Israel’s strategy.

The White House is well aware that Biden’s policy is at odds with Democrats. Since the start of the conflict, Biden has pointedly not met with or talked to vocal war critic Rashida Tlaib. But Biden is far more likely to bend his ear toward Abigail Spanberger, Elissa Slotkin—or even David Ignatius. Now that both the street and the elite are turning against the war, there’s a real possibility of a pincer action to squeeze Biden and end his dangerous and disastrous foreign policy.

Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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