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.

Current Issue

Cover of May 2024 Issue

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.

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 moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

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 investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

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

Thank you for your generosity.

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

A worker hangs an election campaign billboard of the Likud party showing former US President Donald Trump, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on September 8, 2019.

Will Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu Bless Donald Trump With an October Surprise? Will Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu Bless Donald Trump With an October Surprise?

Unlike Joe Biden, the former president benefits from international turmoil. 

Jeet Heer

Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas

Impeach Samuel Alito! Impeach Clarence Thomas! Impeach Samuel Alito! Impeach Clarence Thomas!

Corrupt insurrectionists have no place on the Supreme Court.

Jeet Heer

Martin Peretz and then–New Republic editor Hendrick Hertzberg, 1984.

Marty Peretz and the Travails of American Liberalism Marty Peretz and the Travails of American Liberalism

From his New Left days to his neoliberalism and embrace of interventionism, The Controversialist is a portrait of his own political trajectory and that of American liberalism too....

Books & the Arts / Jeet Heer

A protester waves a Palestinian flag from the roof of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University on April 30, 2024.

The Anti-War Movement Needs to Claim Its Victories The Anti-War Movement Needs to Claim Its Victories

There’s no need to accept the churlish narrative of Biden and the establishment. The administration’s shift on Israel is a gain that can—and must—be built on.

Jeet Heer

How Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Brain Became the Diet of Worms

How Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Brain Became the Diet of Worms How Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Brain Became the Diet of Worms

Can a presidential candidate afford to lose gray matter to parasites?

Jeet Heer

Peggy Noonan

Campus Protesters Were Right to Spurn Peggy Noonan, Emblem of Media Obtuseness Campus Protesters Were Right to Spurn Peggy Noonan, Emblem of Media Obtuseness

Our narcissistic media elite doesn’t understand why their lies have made young people wary.

Jeet Heer