Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
Opinion Editorials, April 2021
Stale foreign policy
Almost everyone in the West who is not a fan of Donald Trump—and if they are a fan, their sanity is to be doubted — assumes that US President Joe Biden is now helping to save both the United States and the world. In some categories such as climate change, environmental regulation, economic reform favouring the poor and middle class, equal rights and, of course, combating the COVID-19 virus, they might have a point.
Nonetheless, it really saddens me to say that, at least in this author’s opinion, President Biden is not “the sharpest tack in the box”. That is, he is not the smartest guy in Washington, DC. On the other hand, Biden has a strong point. He has the good fortune to have drawn together some very strong and progressive advisers on the domestic side of the political equation. It would also seem that, unlike his predecessor, Biden has the capability to actually listen to these people. He also has accommodated himself to the pressure put forth by true progressives such as Bernie Sanders.
The one exception to this wealth of good advice is on the other half of the job, in the area of foreign policy, in particular foreign policy towards the Middle East, and specifically policy towards Israel. Here is where he has difficulty thinking straight and is out of luck with his chosen advisers.
To wit Andrew Bacevich of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft:
Beneath a veneer of gender and racial diversity, the Biden national security team consists of seasoned operatives who earned their spurs in Washington long before Donald Trump showed up to spoil the party. So, if you’re looking for fresh faces at the departments of state or defence, the National Security Council or the various intelligence agencies, you’ll have to search pretty hard. Ditto, if you’re looking for fresh insights. In Washington, members of the foreign policy establishment recite stale bromides, even as they divert attention from a dead past to which they remain devoted.
Analytical shortcomings: Policy formulation towards Israel and the Palestinians
In the field of US-Israeli relations, there are two areas where President Biden’s analytical shortcomings show themselves.
(1) The inability to formulate foreign policy that takes into account the behaviour of the object of that policy.
President Biden says “my commitment to Israel is completely unshakable. As president, I’m going to continue our security assistance… and maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge. I’m not going to place conditions for the security assistance.” Essentially, this position abdicates US national interests in favour of Israeli interests.
Here is a metaphor for such blind commitment. Think of how one adjusts attitudes towards friendships held over time. If you had a friend (we will refer to this friend as male) who, for whatever reason, evolved into a robber, would you give him a gun every year on his birthday? Would you do that because you remember he was a battered child and you think the arsenal you provide will make him feel secure and, hopefully, lead him to give up his criminal behaviour? Or maybe you think he needs the gun because he lives in a bad neighbourhood?
Biden believes that “Israelis wake up every morning facing an existential threat. That’s why we always have to be adamant that Israel must be able to defend itself.” But this is just a long-obsolete rationalisation for spoiling your friend, who turns out to be head of the strongest gang on the block.
In the meantime, Biden points fingers at his predecessor for adopting the same stance towards the Saudi kingdom. Biden complained that “Donald Trump has given the government of Saudi Arabia a blank cheque to pursue a disastrous set of policies”.
(2) The reverse side of this coin entails Joe Biden’s uninformed attitude towards the Palestinians. These are people who allegedly pose an “existential” threat to Israeli lives.
“The Palestinians need to end incitement in the West Bank and rocket attacks in Gaza… No matter what legitimate disagreement they may have with Israel, it’s never a justification for terrorism.”
The truth is that it is the Palestinians who are under the “existential threat” and it is the Israelis who exercise massive violence against them, more often than not of a terroristic nature. When Palestinians resist Israeli oppression, they are labelled terrorists, they are killed and their infrastructure is destroyed. When they do not resist, more and more of their land is taken. Volunteers must come from Europe to the West Bank so that farmers can harvest their olives without getting shot by Israeli settlers. Gaza is under blockade, not able to obtain basic supplies or vaccines. It should come as no surprise that “the death tolls in the Israel-Palestine conflict are lopsided, with Palestinians far more likely to be killed than Israelis”. According to the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, which has compiled month-to-month fatality records, “looking at the figures since 2005, 23 out of every 24 conflict deaths have been Palestinian”.
Biden also insists that the Palestinian Authority should “acknowledge, flat-out, Israel’s right to exist – period – as an independent Jewish state and guarantee the borders”. Actually, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) did so in 1993. The Palestinian Authority suspended recognition in 2018 due to incessant theft of Palestinian land by Israel.
It appears that Joe Biden takes none of these facts into consideration. Is it because he does not know them? Such ignorance is certainly possible, though for a US president it would be inexcusable. More likely, he has heard the Palestinian side, but cannot interpret it objectively because he is ideologically committed to the Israeli worldview.
President Biden has declared that “I am a Zionist. You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.” Commitment to Zionism is commitment to an ideology. Seeing the world based on an ideology – any ideology – must distort your understanding. Thus, Biden’s view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict becomes as lopsided as the conflict’s death toll.
Analytical shortcoming: The BDS Movement
President Biden’s personal refusal to adjust US policy to confront even those aspects of Israeli behaviour he says he opposes – settlement activity and threats of annexation – carries over into his personal opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement against Israel, active both in the US and Europe. Just as his reasoning is often faulty when refusing to match policy to Israeli behaviour, it is also faulty as to his opposition to BDS.
On the one hand, “Joe Biden will protect the constitutional right of our citizens to free speech”. On the other, the president “has been unequivocal in condemning calls in the United States to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel”. In other words, Americans can say it, but in this case, Joe ain’t listening.
According to the president, “the BDS movement singles out Israel – home to millions of Jews – in a way that is inconsistent with the treatment of other nations, and it too often veers into anti-Semitism”.
It is obvious that in the case of the BDS campaign, Israel is “singled out”. However, this is not unusual or “inconsistent with the treatment of other nations”. It is quite consistent. Cuban Americans single out Cuba. Other groups single out China, or Russia, or Myanmar and the like. Does the president dismiss these defenders of human rights because of their single-country focus? Of course not. Thus, he is being a hypocrite when singling out BDS.
In the case of Israel, those involved in BDS are mostly victims of Israeli oppression (Palestinians) or Jews who are utterly disgusted with what the Zionists are doing in their name. Israeli actions, particularly in the occupied territories, are in clear violation of international law and human rights declarations, and this gives the BDS a solid legal grounding. So, what is Biden complaining about? Nothing that he has seriously thought through. And, when pushed on this, he falls back on the charge of anti-Semitism. Yet, the suggestion that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic is just a red herring.
Israel is indeed unique in that through its agents – Zionist lobbies – it is powerful enough to divert the debate over the aims of foreign policy in relation to much of the Middle East.
Here is another quite legitimate justification for Americans, and others in the West, to “single out” Israel for attention by supporting BDS. Israel is indeed unique in that through its agents – Zionist lobbies – it is powerful enough to divert the debate over the aims of foreign policy in relation to much of the Middle East. That is, these agents of a foreign power divert the debate away from what is in the best interests of the US or this or that Western nation, towards the question what is in the best interest of Zionist Israel. As a result, billions of dollars, pounds, euros and other resources have been diverted into making Israel a supremely powerful apartheid state.
Can President Biden understand these arguments? No more than any other self-proclaimed Zionist. As a Zionist, he must, if he is to stay ideologically consistent, let Israel off the hook for its crimes. Sometimes this blinkered way of thinking creates embarrassingly contorted positions.
Consider this emotional proclamation made by then Senator Joe Biden at the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) Policy Conference, on 20 March 2016.
Singling out Israel, [either at the UN or by BDS] is wrong! It’s wrong! I know it’s not popular to say, but it’s wrong, because as the Jewish people know better than any other people, any action that marginalises one ethnic and religious group imperils us all. It’s incumbent upon us, all of us, that we stand up against those who traffic in pernicious stereotypes, who seek to scare and divide us for political gain, because the future belongs to the bridge builders, not the wall builders.
Let’s unpack this declaration. We start with the sentence “the Jewish people know better than any other people, any action that marginalises one ethnic and religious group imperils us all”. It is correct that, given their history, many Jews should recognise Biden’s statement as true. But all those who are Zionists will make an exception for Israel. They must do so in order to avoid outright contradiction. Why so? Because Israel has posited both its identity and its security on the “marginalisation of one ethnic and religious group”, namely, the Palestinians. Maybe President Biden senses that there is some inconsistency here, but being a Zionist he dismisses it as justified. Addressing an AIPAC audience, of course, meant no one challenged him.
We move on to the next sentence: “It is incumbent that all of us to stand up against those who traffic in pernicious stereotypes.” When Israeli leaders and Zionists such as Joe Biden constantly refer to Palestinians who resist Israeli oppression as “terrorists”, they too are “trafficking in pernicious stereotypes”. It is a safe guess that Biden does not realise this.
Next sentence: “It is incumbent that all of us that stand up against those who… seek to scare and divide us for political gain.” I cannot think of a more apt description of what the Zionist/Israeli aim is here in the United States and the West in general – to scare us away from the defence of Palestinian rights and divide us when it comes to legitimate criticism of Israeli behaviour, all done for political gain in the form of maintaining an extraordinary level of financial and military support of an apartheid state.
Finally, the last statement: “because the future belongs to the bridge builders, not the wall builders”. It is amazing that, given his immediate audience, Biden made this statement with a straight face. For he was addressing those infamous for building a wall that divides and isolates.
Essentially, this entire declaration by Joe Biden attributes to BDS all the negative characteristics that Israel in fact displays. As a self-declared, true-believer Zionist, he does this without any recognition of the deep irony his declaration contains.
How much history does Joe Biden, or his foreign policy advisers, know? For instance, do they know the history of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency? Lyndon Johnson could have gone down in US history as a remarkably successful and progressive leader. He could have done this on the basis of his championing of civil rights. But he was destroyed by the Vietnam War – a war fought by the US because of ideological imperatives.
President Biden may well be faced with the same choices. He probably could go down in US history as the 21st century’s first truly great president for all those reasons listed at the beginning of this essay. But these achievements may be diminished by adherence to obsolete and dangerous foreign policies in the Middle East. If he follows his current trajectory, he will bury the 2015 Iran agreement – one of the most promising diplomatic achievements of the 21st century. He may linger on in that “forever war” in Afghanistan. He will let both the Israelis and the Saudis off the hook for their past and future abominations. And he will sustain Israeli dominance in the region even as that country confirms itself as a rightist, racist threat to human rights and international law. Through all of this Joe Biden may lose his moment in history.
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