Politics / March 13, 2024

Biden’s Spokespeople Are the Perfect Vessels for His Soulless Gaza Policies

If the president is the man in charge, these press secretaries are his robotic enforcers, playing the same hollow tunes every day.

Y.L. Al-Sheikh
Karine Jean-Pierre, Matthew Miller, and John Kirby.

Karine Jean-Pierre, Matthew Miller, and John Kirby.

(Drew Angerer / Getty Images; Celal Gunes / Anadolu via Getty Images; Nathan Howard / Getty Images)

On February 29, after Israeli soldiers opened fire on desperate and starving Palestinians in the north of Gaza, killing over 100 and injuring more than 700, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller went to his daily media briefing and did what he has been doing for months: issue bland, vague, useless statements about the war on Gaza.

“Far too many innocent Palestinians have been killed over the course of this conflict, not just today, but over the past nearly five months,” Miller intoned. He has said things like this over and over again—things that bear no relation to the gravity of the crisis Gaza is facing and that are so abstract that you wouldn’t even know who has been killing “far too many innocent Palestinians.”

But Miller’s sympathies were short-lived. Minutes later, he was sparring with a reporter in defense of Israel:

QUESTION: […Y]ou supply Israel with lethal weapons with no conditions and no reviews, as much as we ask about it…. So how can you respond to people who criticize this administration that actually you are the one who’s supporting the Israelis when they’re killing—

MR MILLER: […A]nyone that is asking the question about Israel and Israel’s conduct in this campaign—which are fair questions, and it’s why we stand up here and answer them—also needs to ask questions about Hamas’s culpability and Hamas’s side in it. Because this is a difficult problem, and we continue to believe that Israel has a legitimate right to go after terrorists that are right across its borders, right in Gaza, that are committed to the destruction of the state of Israel and are committed to killing Israeli civilians. But we want them to do it in accordance with international humanitarian law.

Over 31,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, including more than 12,000 children. Over 70,000 people have suffered serious injuries. More than 1.5 million people have been displaced. Roughly half of all Gazans are crowded into Rafah and threatened with an imminent invasion. A catastrophic famine is developing, the result of an intentional and illegal strategy of starvation from the Israeli state. But day in and day out, Miller gets in front of the press and has a version of this exchange. So do his counterparts at the White House, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby and White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

If Joe Biden is the key public face of US policy on Gaza and Israel-Palestine at large, then these spokespeople are his robotic enforcers—repeatedly playing the same cynical, hollow tunes and shielding not just the United States but the Israeli government itself from its responsibilities and obligations to international humanitarian law. These attempts to apply bureaucratic bandages, however, do very little in the face of a press corps increasingly fed up with answers that neither make sense nor do much in the way of highlighting the humanity of Palestinians.

Since the International Court of Justice ruled that the Israeli government was plausibly committing acts of genocide, the United States has vetoed UN resolutions calling for a cease-fire and emphatically refused to suspend arms transfers to Israel, in violation of both international and domestic law. These actions, as I wrote recently, highlight the ways in which the Biden administration undermines its credibility by being Israel’s lawyer and protector above all else. This endangers the United States on the world stage and might doom this president before he even attempts to bring about a conclusive and final peace process.

The vague condemnations of Israel that we get from Miller, Kirby, and Jean-Pierre ring hollow in the face of these realities. The sheer scale of incongruence between this administration’s professed commitment to international law and peace and its actual conduct not only makes them look ghoulish and apathetic to Palestinian suffering. It also makes them look confused and incompetent.

On the one hand, you have to acknowledge that a government briefing room is not where key decisions are made. John Kirby and Matthew Miller don’t set the policies of the Biden administration; it’s their job, as public relations officers, to defend the administration’s positions. It is difficult to imagine anyone being able to personally buy into the argument that Israel’s fiercest defender and patron on the world stage is actually interested in upholding international law or a rules-based international order while the Israeli army conducts “indiscriminate bombing”(in Biden’s own words) on the people of Gaza.

But, like every other human being, they have free will. They’re not being forced to do this. So it does not reflect well on their moral fabric if they are content with regurgitating these talking points, whether or not they agree with them.

And even if we’re being generous, the truth is that this trio is just not doing a very good job defending the indefensible. Kirby, for instance, seems to have inadvertently drawn the ire of Saudi Arabia by suggesting that normalization between the kingdom and Israel could come before a permanent cease-fire. Similarly, after having admitted that Israeli ministers of state were responsible for blocking the delivery of flour to Gazans in need, Miller had no coherent answer as to why this wouldn’t trigger the legal mechanisms that prohibit arms transfers to states that block US humanitarian aid.

This was far from the only time Miller flailed thanks to the glaring incoherence of the administration’s policies. When asked by journalist Said Arikat why the United States can’t explicitly condemn the killing of Palestinian women and children, Miller deflected and brought up Hamas. When asked by The Intercept’s Prem Thakker about updates on the investigations into the killings of 6-year-old Hind Rajab and Al Jazeera cameraman Samer Abudaqa, Miller failed to provide much of a substantive answer and simply referred to Israel’s purportedly investigating itself. And, perhaps most gallingly, when asked by Thakker about the double standard in defunding UNRWA while continuing to supply aid to the Israeli army, despite the ICJ’s investigation into plausible acts of genocide, Miller asserted that there’s a false equivalency in the question.

Current Issue

Cover of April 2024 Issue

Things haven’t gone much better over at the White House. Press Secretary Jean-Pierre, who as a private citizen wrote a Newsweek column condemning AIPAC and implying that Netanyahu’s government was likely guilty of war crimes, has shifted her rhetoric dramatically in her current post, most famously calling some House Democrats who supported a cease-fire early on in the conflict “disgraceful.” (Five months and at least 30,000 Palestinians killed later, the White House is now calling for a temporary cease-fire.) And Kirby has tried to assert that the US is Gaza’s best friend, firing back at a reporter in December by saying, “Tell me, name me, one more nation, any other nation, that is doing as much as the United States to alleviate the pain and suffering of the people of Gaza. You can’t. You just can’t.” When compared to these histrionics, the doctrine of shooting and crying looks almost legitimate.

Watching these clips reminded me of the first time I paid attention to the messages coming from the Biden administration’s spokespeople. On May 10, 2021, in the early weeks of the Unity Intifada that mobilized Palestinians across both sides of the Green Line in defense of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, Ned Price, Miller’s predecessor at the State Department, was asked if Palestinians had the right to self-defense. Price responded that “states” have the right to self-defense. When pressed on this qualifier and the fact that the US conveniently does not recognize the State of Palestine, Price retreated, saying, “I’m not in a position to debate the legalities from up here.” This sums up how valuable the words of these spokesmen tend to be for both the press and the average citizen concerned with how their government views the world.

Three years later, Miller, Kirby, and Jean-Pierre are similarly embarrassing themselves every day. That won’t change unless Biden’s policy changes. Until then, we’ll just have to look out for the rare moments of candor we get from the administration.

For instance, in a February 28 interview with The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, Kirby responded to a question about Israel’s failure to comply with American requests by saying, “Israel’s not just like any other nation around the world.” If Kirby meant that, for this White House, Israel is simply exempt from its legal and moral responsibilities as a state, it is perhaps the most honest thing he’s said during this war.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Y.L. Al-Sheikh

Y.L. Al-Sheikh is a Palestinian American writer and organizer active in the Democratic Socialists of America and in international solidarity work between Israel/Palestine and the United States.

More from The Nation

Police patrol outside Columbine High School on April 17, 2019 in Littleton, Colorado, the site of the deadly school shooting in 1999.

25 Years After the Columbine Massacre, Is There Any Hope to End America’s Epidemic of Gun Violence? 25 Years After the Columbine Massacre, Is There Any Hope to End America’s Epidemic of Gun Violence?

With the National Rifle Association now weaker than it has been in decades, progress is possible—if politicians are willing to seize the time.

Peter Dreier

Bob Graham, former US senator from Florida, cochairs a hearing of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling in Washington, DC, on August 25, 2010.

Bob Graham Knew Iraq Would Be a Quagmire Even as Most Democrats Fell for Cheney’s Lies Bob Graham Knew Iraq Would Be a Quagmire Even as Most Democrats Fell for Cheney’s Lies

The former Senate Intelligence Committee chair saw through Republican efforts to manipulate Congress into authorizing a war that should never have been fought.

John Nichols

Trump Campaign Launches

Donald Trump’s Christian Soldiers Donald Trump’s Christian Soldiers

The MAGA church and white evangelical Christian voters.

Peter Dreier

A voter prepares to cast their ballot in the Democratic Primary as they walk in to the Cordesville Rural Fire Department on February 03, 2024 in Cordesville, South Carolina.

The Only Thing Worse Than Taking Rural Voters for Granted The Only Thing Worse Than Taking Rural Voters for Granted

… is dismissing them as out of reach for Democrats.

Editorial / Erica Etelson and Anthony Flaccavento

Donald Trump is greeted by Representative Mike Johnson (R-LA) before the 2020 State of the Union address in the House chamber on February 4, 2020, in Washington, DC.

House Republicans Tie Themselves Into Knots Over Federal Surveillance House Republicans Tie Themselves Into Knots Over Federal Surveillance

The vote to reauthorize section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act rose and fell and rose again on the whims of one Donald J. Trump.

Chris Lehmann

O.J. Simpson at his 1995 trial

O.J. Simpson Was a Rorschach Test for America O.J. Simpson Was a Rorschach Test for America

Society / March 13, 2024 Biden’s Spokespeople Are the Perfect Vessels for His Soulless Gaza Policies Most people saw the Hall of Fame running back not as a person but as symbol…

Dave Zirin