“Joe Biden campaigned on restoring American standing and leadership abroad. But his administration’s strong backing of Israel as it destroys Gaza and indiscriminately kills Palestinian civilians is the latest reminder that the U.S. government, whether led by a Democrat or a Republican, often has terrible judgment in foreign affairs and isn’t the strong defender of democracy and freedom it claims to be.
Whether the United States plays a positive role in world affairs of course has long been contested. In recent years, America’s decisions to invade Iraq and to elect Donald Trump as president severely weakened the argument that the United States has strong morals and values and therefore other nations should follow its leadership in world affairs.
Biden, with his decades of experience and relationships with leaders around the world, seemed as if he could be not just an improvement from Trump but a great president on foreign policy. And he has done some good things. The United States has led a coalition to help Ukraine defend itself after Russia’s full-scale invasion, as part of the administration’s push for a “rules-based international order,” in which countries around the world respect international law and worldwide authorities such as the United Nations. With free and fair elections and other traditional measures of freedom in decline around the world, President Biden’s promotion of democracy both in the United States and abroad has been laudable. The president, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top administration officials have also been much more honest and compassionate in articulating U.S. foreign policy goals and working with other countries than Team Trump was.
But the past two months have brought a high-profile series of misjudgments that are blotting out positive memories of Biden’s foreign policies — perhaps permanently. First of all, the United States is making clear that it won’t stand up for international rules and norms if one of its closest allies is violating them. U.S. officials forcefully condemned Russia for bombing schools and residential buildings in Ukraine but aren’t nearly as critical of Israel for doing the same in Gaza. Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and numerous other organizations each day release reports and statements detailing how Israel’s military actions are violating international law and leading to the killing of children, mass hunger, the destruction of major institutions of Palestinian culture and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.
“In no other war we can think of in this century have civilians been so trapped, without any avenue or option to escape to save themselves and their children,” the leaders of Refugees International, Save the Children U.S. and four other major humanitarian organizations wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times this week.
U.S. officials are publicly complaining about the number of civilians being killed, including comments from Biden this week that were among his most critical of Israel since it launched its military campaign in Gaza. But the administration continues to provide military and diplomatic support to Israel — things that matter more than words. The Biden administration last week went around Congress and unilaterally sold Israel more than $100 million worth of tank ammunition. This month, the United States was the only one of 15 nations on the U.N. Security Council to oppose a resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza. Biden administration officials admitted recently to The Post that they are, as the Post article put it, “not conducting real-time assessments of Israel’s adherence to the laws of war.” (The U.S. government announced its conclusion that Russia was committing war crimes just one month after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.)
Second, Biden is weakening his bona fides as a champion of democracy and human rights. To defend its support of Israel’s military operations in Gaza, the administration has emphasized that Israel is a democracy, unlike many other countries in the Middle East.
But events in Israel and the Palestinian territories in recent years are actually a good example of the shortcomings in terms of liberty and equality that are causing so much angst about the state of democracy around the world. Palestinians have so many restrictions on their rights and freedoms that many international organizations describe them as living under an apartheid regime. This year, Israel’s right-wing government passed major reforms to limit the power of the nation’s judiciary, despite mass protests and opposition from Biden himself to these changes. Over the past two months, dozens of journalists have been killed in Gaza, with credible accusations that the Israeli military has intentionally targeted journalists. A member of Israel’s Knesset was suspendedafter criticizing the bombing in Gaza.
The Biden administration could sincerely defend its pro-Israel policies by emphasizing the long-standing ties between the United States and Israel and the importance of maintaining a Jewish state. But framing Biden’s support for Israel bombing everything in Gaza as a defense of democracy is another illustration that U.S. officials invoke democracy and human rights when it’s convenient and ignore them when it’s not.
Third, Biden is damaging his personal reputation for compassion and straightforwardness. The president wrongly stated that Israeli children had been beheaded during the Oct. 7 attacks. He questioned estimates of Palestinian casualties, wrongly hinting that they were overstated. Asked whether Israel was violating the laws of war, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, one of Biden’s closest advisers, callously said he would not be a “judge or jury” on that question, essentially admitting that the United States was indifferent to whether an ally was inhumane.
Throughout his presidency, Biden has emphasized his respect for minorities and groups that traditionally face discrimination, both here and abroad. But based on his actions and words over the past two months, it’s hard to believe that the president values Palestinian lives as much as he does Israeli ones.
People around the world are deeply disappointed by Biden’s approach to the conflict in Gaza.
Agnes Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that the United States is showing “a complete lack of global leadership.” Just days before he was killed by an Israeli airstrike, Palestinian poet and academic Refaat Alareer wrote on X, “The Democratic Party and Biden are responsible for the Gaza genocide perpetrated by Israel.”
Like a lot of Americans, I don’t follow foreign affairs as closely as I probably should. I have generally assumed that the United States, particularly with Biden in office, plays a largely positive role abroad. Watching senior US. officials adopt a deeply flawed approach and then make misleading statements about it has made me more worried and skeptical of America’s actions in other parts of the world. If Team Biden is this disingenuous about what’s happening in Gaza, should I trust its words about Ukraine, Sudan or China?
In the Biden administration’s defense, this is not a simple issue. Even if the United States were to withdraw its diplomatic support of Israel, the Israeli government might continue its operations in Gaza. It is not obvious how to permanently disempower Hamas so that a horrific attack like the one on Oct. 7 never happens again. The path to lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is even less clear.
But it would be easy and logical for the United States to join the calls from around the world for a cease-fire and to stop providing Israel with more weapons. Every day that the United States continues to back Israel’s actions in Gaza further erodes America’s credibility in foreign affairs.
Combining its military, cultural and political power, the United States is the most important, influential nation in the world. The United States could lead the world in a better direction. But people don’t listen to you when you constantly make bad decisions — and they shouldn’t. The United States is blundering in a big way on a major foreign policy issue. Again.“