World / April 19, 2024

Joe Biden Is Destroying His Own Foreign Policy by Giving Israel Impunity

The administration’s blatant double standard demonstrates that the new “liberal international order” is built on hypocrisy.

Jeet Heer
Woman walks by photo of Iranian missiles
Banners depicting the missile strike on Israel outside a government-affiliated building in Tehran. (Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images)

There’s a story Joe Biden’s foreign policy team likes to tell itself about the recent history of the world—a tale of hubris, setback, and restoration. It goes something like this: Since the vanquishing of the Axis in the Second World War, the United States has been the foundation stone for a global peace based on maintaining and the expanding the international liberal order. That order was dedicated to ever-growing and freer trade between nations and the expansion of democracy and human rights through a strengthening regime of international law, all undergirded by American military hegemony. With the vanquishing of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991, this liberal international order stood unchallenged. But in its moment of triumph, the makers of American foreign policy made a series of arrogant mistakes that undermined the system previous generations had worked so hard to created.

By invading Afghanistan and Iraq, the administration of George W. Bush mired the United States in forever wars that drained treasure and blood while undermining the American public’s commitment to engagement with the outside world. Meanwhile, bipartisan elites ignored the fact that trade agreements, particularly with China, were destroying the economic security of middle-class America. These problems opened the way for the demagogue Donald Trump to run on a twin platform of unilateralism and protectionism.

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In response, the Biden team was prepared to restore the liberal international order—but on fairer and more stable terms, using infrastructure spending and military Keynesianism to rebuild the middle class while renegotiating trade agreements on terms more equitable to American interests. This would allow the United States to once more assume the mantle of global leadership with confidence. 

This shared vision of recent history animates the lofty speeches and essays of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan. As David Klion noted recently in The Nation, this is also the story told in Alexander Ward’s new book, The Internationalists, which relies heavily on interviews with Biden administration insiders such as Blinken and Sullivan. In a now-notorious essay for the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, Sullivan argued that the Biden project of restoring American power is “absolutely necessary if the United States is to win the competition to shape the future of the international order so that it is free, open, prosperous, and secure.” In the original print version of that article, Sullivan boasted that “we’ve de-escalated crises in Gaza,” gloating, “Although the Middle East remains beset with perennial challenges, the region is quieter than it has been for decades.” Written shortly before Hamas’s attack of October 7, these embarrassing words were edited out when the essay was published online.

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Sullivan’s rewrite wasn’t just an attempt to efface a personal embarrassment; it also underlines the ways in which the imagined restoration of the “liberal international order” is undermined by the administration’s blinkered support of Israel at all costs. After all, Sullivan’s boast in the original version of the essay was predicated on the idea that, thanks to American leadership, the question of Palestinian dispossession had been safely sidelined and the world was ready to move on. 

The idea of a “liberal international order” has long been criticized by the left as an ideological fantasy. It’s not difficult to document the innumerable cases where the imperatives of American hegemony overrode human rights and liberal democracy: the support of countless dictators all over the world in places such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Guatemala, Chile, and Greece, as well as American war crimes in Vietnam and elsewhere. 

These violations of America’s stated principle are usually justified on grounds of realpolitik: To win the Cold War, the United States had to dirty its hands. But this was for the greater good, and in the long run the result was a more liberal world. 

Even if for the sake of argument we accept this defense of hypocrisy, it does not apply to Israel. There is no national security reason the United States should support atrocities and ethnic cleansing committed by Israel against the Palestinian people. The Palestinians are not a national security threat, and, if only in a pro forma way, presidential administrations of both parties have long been committed to a two-state solution. Images of Palestinians being maimed and killed don’t make the United States stronger. Instead, in very obvious ways, they fuel terrorism and instability in the Middle East and elsewhere. Any real commitment to a liberal international order, even one predicated on American hegemony, would require reining in Israeli violence against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

The shielding of Israel from any consequences for its human rights abuses isn’t the familiar hypocrisy of realpolitik. Rather, it’s a curiously gratuitous hypocrisy—a violation of norms done because much of the American political elite regards Israel as a special pet, given a unique impunity.

Two recent news stories demonstrate just how much liberty Israel is given to defy the stated principles of American foreign policy. On Wednesday, ProPublica reported:

A special State Department panel recommended months ago that Secretary of State Antony Blinken disqualify multiple Israeli military and police units from receiving U.S. aid after reviewing allegations that they committed serious human rights abuses.

But Blinken has failed to act on the proposal in the face of growing international criticism of the Israeli military’s conduct in Gaza, according to current and former State Department officials.

The incidents under review mostly took place in the West Bank and occurred before Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. They include reports of extrajudicial killings by the Israeli Border Police; an incident in which a battalion gagged, handcuffed and left an elderly Palestinian American man for dead; and an allegation that interrogators tortured and raped a teenager who had been accused of throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.

On Thursday, The Intercept reported another example of the Biden administration’s two-faced approach to Israel/Palestine: “Ahead of the United Nations Security Council action to consider the Palestinian Authority’s application to become a full member of the international body, the United States is lobbying nations to reject such membership, hoping to avoid an overt ‘veto’ by Washington.” The news site added that this is “at odds with the Biden administration’s pledge to fully support a two-state solution.”

Early Friday morning in the Middle East, Israel reportedly bombed Iran—apparently part of a retaliatory tit-for-tat battle with the Islamic Republic. Israel took this action despite being advised by the Biden administration not to escalate. The fact the Israeli state feels secure in defying Biden like this is further proof of the special impunity it enjoys.

Such an egregious display of favoritism makes clear that the liberal international order means nothing more than a purely selfish assertion of dominance: Washington gets to set the rules and the rest of the world has to simply abide by them. But there’s little reason for the world, especially the countries of the Global South, who don’t enjoy the special protection given to European allies, to submit to this regime. As America and its core allies become a smaller part of the world—in terms of both population and wealth—there’s no reason to think this version of the liberal international order is sustainable. In 1974, China, India, and the rest of developing world made up only 26 percent of the global economy. That number has doubled to 53 percent in 2024. Conversely, the share of First World countries (the United States and its core allies in Europe plus Japan) in the global economy has shrunk from 62 percent to 44 percent. These numbers make clear how precarious any long-run project of American global dominance through sheer force is. 

In 2019, Biden gave a folksy version of the restorationist vision of his foreign policy team, promising that “America is coming back like we used to be. Ethical, straight, telling the truth…supporting our allies. All those good things.” This is a centrist Democratic version of Make America Great Again. But it’s also deeply contradictory. As the Biden administration’s policies on Israel/Palestine make clear, “supporting” an ally can mean the opposite of being “ethical, straight, telling the truth.” 

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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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