Politics / November 10, 2023

An Establishment Crack-Up, Aided by Mass Protests, Might Actually End This War

A strategy of outside pressure and inside dissent offers the best path forward on Israel/Palestine.

Jeet Heer
Person in white sweater and mask lays down roses in a line
Congressional staffers hold a vigil for the thousands of civilians in Gaza killed by Israeli attacks. (Celal Gunes / Anadolu via Getty)

Joe Biden’s decision to give near-unequivocal support to Israel’s ferocious war in Gaza is splintering not just the Democratic Party but also the insiders who staff his administration and ran his election campaign. While the president has offered a few timorous verbal rebukes to Israeli leadership—cautioning against the killing of civilians and pushing for brief (four-hour) humanitarian pauses—he is still giving every material and moral support the Israeli government could want in the war. Bloomberg polls of swing states now show Biden trailing his likely 2024 rival Donald Trump. Analyzing this data, Bloomberg concludes, “Key parts of the Democratic coalition—including young and Hispanic voters—are more likely than all registered voters to say Biden is doing too much to help Israel.”

Unhappiness with Biden’s Israel policy is manifesting itself in both mass politics and insider dissent.

The major American cities, like cities all over the world, have witnessed the largest anti-war protests in two decades, with gatherings in the hundreds of thousands under the call for a cease-fire.

These public protests are being joined by a highly unusual mutiny from inside the establishment, with dissent being voiced by staffers in the White House, Congress, the State Department, and in the Democratic National Committee (DNC)—as well as among those who worked for Biden’s election in 2020. This internal opposition is highly unusual, coming as it often does from young staffers at the start of their careers. These are people who have every incentive to swallow their doubts and toe the party line. They aren’t radicals out to change the system but climbers on the first few rungs up the ladder.

In purely careerist terms, the self-interest of junior staffers would normally dictate a tactful silence. Yet the carnage in Gaza and the West Bank is simply too much for many of them.

On Monday, Politico reported on dissenting memos in the State Department lamenting the human rights catastrophe that Biden is supporting and calling for a cease-fire. According to Politico,

Department staffers offered a blistering critique of the Biden administration’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war in a dissent memo…arguing that, among other things, the U.S. should be willing to publicly criticize the Israelis.

The message suggests a growing loss of confidence among U.S. diplomats in President Joe Biden’s approach to the Middle East crisis. It reflects the sentiments of many U.S. diplomats, especially at mid-level and lower ranks, according to conversations with several department staffers as well as other reports. If such internal disagreements intensify, it could make it harder for the Biden administration to craft policy toward the region.

According to one draft memo, Biden’s policy “contributes to regional public perceptions that the United States is a biased and dishonest actor, which at best does not advance, and at worst harms, U.S. interests worldwide.” Another draft memo by a State Department insider accused Biden of being “complicit in genocide.”

Last week, more than 50 DNC staffers signed a statement calling for a cease-fire. A high-ranking DNC official told Axios, “I don’t know how you can see supporting the large-scale killing of Palestinian civilians as anything but immoral.” Even if anonymous, this is remarkably blunt and hostile criticism, especially considering that the DNC has long been the bulwark of centrist power in the Democratic Party and was hostile to the left-wing insurgency launched by Bernie Sanders (who, ironically, has still refrained from calling for a cease-fire even as he criticizes the humanitarian catastrophe).

The Nation Weekly

Fridays. A weekly digest of the best of our coverage.
By signing up, you confirm that you are over the age of 16 and agree to receive occasional promotional offers for programs that support The Nation’s journalism. You may unsubscribe or adjust your preferences at any time. You can read our Privacy Policy here.

Al Jazeera reported on Wednesday, “Hundreds of staffers at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have signed a letter calling for an ‘immediate ceasefire’ in Gaza, as a growing number of government employees voice dissent against US support for Israel’s military offensive there.”

“On Thursday,” Vox reported, “over 500 alumni of Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign banded together to urge a ceasefire. The signatories include staffers from Biden’s 2020 campaign headquarters, the Democratic National Committee, and state staff and leadership; 21 states are represented, including key battlegrounds like Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.”

White House staffers have complained to the press that their dissent on the attacks on Gaza are being stifled. On Wednesday, 100 congressional staffers—from both political parties—staged a walkout and held a vigil for dead in Gaza.

This level of insider opposition to a foreign policy consensus held by large majorities of both parties is rare and perhaps without precedent. Even during the Vietnam War and the two Iraq Wars, elite dissent was rarely visible. Most often it took the form of leaking dissatisfaction rather than public protest.

Although the protest is often worded in cautious terms, the fact that there is in the literal halls of power a constituency for a cease-fire is one of the few signs of hope. It offers the possibility of an inside/outside strategy that can actually change policy.

The outsiders are the people protesting in the streets—and also making their anger vocal in other ways such phone calls or letters to politicians. Although inchoate, this loud unrest will be hard for Biden to ignore, since it mostly comes from within his own party. In 2002, George W. Bush could afford to ignore huge protests since the people in the streets weren’t by and large his voters. Biden doesn’t have that luxury.

The insiders are the government and political staffers who are expressing their dissent through internal channels. Their advantage is having the actual ear of the president and other elected figures—as well as an understanding of how policy is actually shaped.

Now is the time for building bridges between insiders and outsiders so they can work to make each other heard. One avenue might be the revival of the old fashioned teach-in used by the anti-war movement of the 1960s. Teach-ins could help the burgeoning anti-war movement refine its message and also convey it to former Biden campaign staffers who still have access to the White House.

The inside/outside strategy is in fact how most larger-scale changes in American politics—from the abolition of slavery to women’s suffrage to the building of the welfare state—happened. To get big changes you need to mobilize mass protests while also prodding those members of the elite who realize the status quo is untenable.

The prospects for the Palestinians remain bleak, as do any hopes for peace in the Middle East. There’s a real danger of a regional war spiraling out of control. But an insider/outsider strategy might be the one way to pull the Biden administration from its descent into disaster.

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.

More from Jeet Heer Jeet Heer Illustration

Donald Trump and Nikki Haley, oval office 2018

Nikki Haley’s Fake Moderation Should Fool No One Nikki Haley’s Fake Moderation Should Fool No One

The favorite of plutocrats and the mainstream media is running a deeply deceptive campaign.

Jeet Heer

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hugs US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport on October 18, 2023.

Biden’s Bear Hug of Netanyahu Is a Disaster Biden’s Bear Hug of Netanyahu Is a Disaster

The renewed fighting between Israel and Hamas shows the incoherence of mixing humanitarian words and bigger bombs.

Comment / Jeet Heer

A hand holds a poster of Gurpatwant Singh Pannun's face with an X over it

If Narendra Modi Is Running a Global Death Squad, He’ll Be Protected by the Kissinger Doctrine If Narendra Modi Is Running a Global Death Squad, He’ll Be Protected by the Kissinger Doctrine

Trying to murder American citizens on American soil is no big deal—so long as the foreign policy elite likes you.

Jeet Heer

An adult with two children pastes paper onto a wall covered in graffiti

The Humanitarian Pause Is a Chance to Pull Back From a Mindless War The Humanitarian Pause Is a Chance to Pull Back From a Mindless War

The extended hostage exchange offers the opportunity to move from war to cease-fire to negotiations.

Jeet Heer

Pierre Omidyar, the chairman and founder of eBay, looks on during the final session of the annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York, on September 23, 2010.

Why “Liberal” Donors Love Giving Money to the Extreme Right Why “Liberal” Donors Love Giving Money to the Extreme Right

Many purportedly progressive plutocrats turn reactionary on Israel and labor.

Jeet Heer

Jonathan Greenblatt attends the 2023 TAAF Annual AAPI CEO Dinner on September 26, 2023 in New York City.

Why the Anti-Defamation League Loves Certain Bigots Why the Anti-Defamation League Loves Certain Bigots

From apartheid South Africa to Elon Musk, defending Israel overrides fighting antisemitism.

Jeet Heer