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 July 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, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

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

In a 1881 political cartoon, Charles Julius Guiteau approaches President Garfield at the White House to ask for a diplomatic post. Guiteau assassinated Garfield in 1881.

Why Are Presidential Assassins Such Sad Sacks? Why Are Presidential Assassins Such Sad Sacks?

What would-be killers of the US commander in chief have in common is that they aren’t fervent ideologues; they’re outcasts.

Zack Budryk

The torch has been passed: Vice President Kamala Harris with President Biden at the White House in May.

By Withdrawing in Favor of Kamala Harris, Joe Biden Proves That Only the GOP Is a Personality Cult By Withdrawing in Favor of Kamala Harris, Joe Biden Proves That Only the GOP Is a Personality Cult

Democrats acted as a proper political party, while Republicans remain in thrall to a dangerous authoritarian.

Jeet Heer

President Joe Biden, left, and Vice President Kamala Harris on the Truman Balcony of the White House in Washington, DC, on July 4, 2024.

Joe Biden Cements His Legacy Joe Biden Cements His Legacy

Abandoning his reelection run and endorsing Vice President Kamala Harris took courage and vision. Other top Dems are joining.

Joan Walsh

Kamala Harris for President

Kamala Harris for President Kamala Harris for President

Democrats deserve a candidate who can lift the whole ticket, not drag it down to defeat.

D.D. Guttenplan

Big Brother, 25

Big Brother, 25 Big Brother, 25

Swas Ticker, Degeneration X.

OppArt / Marc Murphy and Gary Taxali

Reflected on a mirror, then–Vice President Joe Biden speaks during an event to unveil a report with analysis related to Recovery Act investments in innovation, science, and technology on August 24, 2010, at the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC.

The Democrats Have a Two-Biden Problem The Democrats Have a Two-Biden Problem

And so does the president. As he decides his future, Joe Biden has to come to terms with the war within himself.

Jeet Heer