Blinken's Pipe Dream and Biden's Political Conundrum
I haven’t been posting a lot recently because I’m trying to finish the second part of my series on the origins of the Russo-Ukrainian War, but I figured I’d write a short post about the Biden administration’s strategy on Gaza, because I’m truly baffled by how disconnected from reality Blinken and the rest of Biden’s foreign policy team seem to be.1 A lot of people believe that states just try to maximize the national interest construed in a narrow way and that foreign policy is only determined by the distribution of material power in the international system. As someone who has read and thought a lot about the history of diplomacy and international relations, which happens to be one of my obsessions, I think such a crude version of realism about foreign policy can only be taken seriously if one never looks at the evidence about how concretely foreign policy was made in specific cases. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the state of anarchy and the distribution of material power in the international system don’t create constraints on the behavior of states, but when you look in detail at how the sausage is made it’s impossible to believe in such a simplistic view. Even though it will be decades before we have access to documents that will allow us to have a fuller picture of what is going on behind closed doors, I think the strategy pursued by US officials to end the war in Gaza is a perfect illustration of that fact.
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At the moment, the strategy in question seems to be negotiate a comprehensive peace deal that would have Israel agree to a permanent ceasefire and a pathway to a Palestinian state, in return for the return of all the hostages still detained by Hamas and the normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia. Now, to be clear, there is absolutely no chance this will ever happen. First, the Israelis don’t want or don’t believe in a two-state solution and have not for a long time, a position that October 7 has obviously done nothing to soften. This isn’t just the position of Netanyahu, it’s a widely shared view in Israeli society at this point, so if US officials are calculating that Netanyahu will eventually be removed and this will open a path for Israel’s acceptance of that kind of deal, they are sorely mistaken. It’s completely unrealistic, especially after what happened on October 7, to expect that Israelis are suddenly going to abandon a view that most of them have held at least since the Camp David Summit in 2000 and that is now deeply entrenched.2 I didn’t even bother checking, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you could find a poll showing that a majority of Israelis would take that kind of deal if it were presented. However, even if that were the case, this would not show anything because the reality is that the vast majority of Israelis don’t believe that such a deal is realistic and they would always find something wanting in any concrete proposal.
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Indeed, there is no way that, on the other side, the Palestinians would agree to any deal that didn’t contain immediate and concrete steps toward the creation of a Palestinian state, such as a freezing of settlement building in the West Bank in addition to the immediate and permanent end of military operations in Gaza. They have already been down that road with Oslo and they won’t agree to another deal that requires them to give something of value to Israel right away without a clear and enforceable commitment to a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with minor and reciprocal adjustments. Of course, there is no way Israel will accept, no matter who is Prime Minister. Indeed, precisely because MBS knows that and because he also knows that his public opinion would not tolerate what it would perceive as a betrayal of the Palestinians just as they’re getting massacred in Gaza, Saudi Arabia just issued a very strongly worded statement in which it makes clear that it would accept nothing less than Palestinian statehood within those parameters and that Blinken’s talk of a “pathway” to a Palestinian state was not going to cut it. MBS, it turns out, quite like being alive and would like to remain that way. The idea that US officials are going to bridge that gap in the next few weeks or even months is completely delusional. I didn’t even mention the fact that, although we’re not talking about that at the moment because everybody is focusing on the disaster in Gaza, the Palestinians are still divided between the PLO/Fatah and Hamas plus a few other movements and they would have to unite first.
In short, the Biden administration’s strategy to end the war in Gaza has no chance of succeeding, it’s completely stupid. It’s perfectly clear where the American interest lays here and what the US should do if the goal of Biden’s foreign policy was to maximize it. It may be in Israel’s interest to continue the war in Gaza, although to be clear I don’t believe for a second that it is, but it’s certainly not in the interest of the US. With each day that passes without a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, the risk of a regional way in which the US would be drawn increases. US forces are getting attacked left and right, which prompts a military response, fueling a cycle that may well get out of control eventually. Meanwhile, a significant proportion of the traffic in the Red Sea is being diverted because of Houthi attacks, which in addition to disrupting international trade and creating inflationary pressure for everyone is also depriving Egypt of its main source of hard currency just as it’s already in the middle of a severe economic crisis, hence threatening with collapse the country that has been key to the US strategy to keep the Israeli-Arab conflict under control since 1979.
It’s obvious that, instead of pursuing Blinken’s harebrained plan to end the war by reaching a comprehensive peace that has no chance of happening at the moment, the US should pressure Israel into agreeing to a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. The only arguments to the contrary that people make are of the 4D chess variety or rests on absurd premises and shouldn’t convince any rational person who hasn’t been brainwashed by propaganda. Despite what some people claim, the US has considerable leverage on Israel in theory, it’s just not using it. It’s bankrolling Israel’s war and providing diplomatic cover to it, but more importantly, it’s Israel’s main supplier of weapons and ammunition. Israel could literally not have waged the war in the way it has, namely by laying waste to most of Gaza to avoid using ground troops as much as possible and thereby minimize IDF casualties, if the US had not supplied it throughout the war and despite that assistance it’s still forced to limit bombings due to ammunition shortage at the moment. Of course, we can’t be certain that Israel would not choose to continue the war even if the US really tightened the screws on it, but you have to be delusional believe that it’s not very likely. Even if Israel could make do in Gaza without being supplied by the US for the rest of the war, it’s very doubtful that it would take the risk to find itself naked in the North in case of a war with Hezbollah, a far more powerful adversary than Hamas.
So why doesn’t the US do that? Well, it doesn’t because while US officials are obviously aware that Israel’s war in Gaza threatens America’s interests in the Middle East, foreign policy is not made through a process that ensures the maximization of the national interest. This model of foreign policy decision-making is flawed because, among other things, domestic political considerations often interfere. When I said that the US had a lot of leverage on Israel that it wasn’t using at the moment, I was careful to add “in theory”, because in practice that leverage is constrained by domestic political factors. Indeed, there is a presidential election in a few months, Israel is popular in the US and it has a very powerful lobby defending its interests in Washington that, while not all-powerful, has proven in the past that it could extract a heavy price from a president opposing it. Usually, the administration avoids getting into a fight with the lobby because people in the US don’t care much about the Middle East and political capital is scarce, so the President is reluctant to spend it to fight the Israel lobby when it’s not even sure that it will be enough and prefers to save his political capital to get through policies he cares more about. But the war and the horrors that people see on television or read about in newspapers on a daily basis create an unusual and politically delicate situation for Biden.
Biden’s problem is that his electorate is divided on the issue. A bloc of younger and more progressive voters wants a ceasefire, but pressuring Israel would be unpopular with more centrist voters. In what at the moment still looks like it’s going to be a close election, he can’t afford to alienate either bloc, but he also can’t please one without pissing off the other. I think that conundrum is the key to understand why otherwise intelligent people have ended up talking themselves into pursuing a strategy that, as we have seen, is completely disconnected from reality and has absolutely no chance of succeeding. Indeed, while there is no way Blinken will manage to tie the end of the war in Gaza to a comprehensive peace agreement leading to a two-state solution, if he could actually do it that would solve Biden’s political problem. But he won’t be able to pull it off because again it’s a pipe dream and, even from a purely political point of view, what Biden needs is to end this war as soon as possible by pressuring Israel into agreeing to a ceasefire. Some people in his coalition will be pissed, but once the war is over it will stop being in the news and he can make the election a referendum about Trump, which is the best way for him to win. If he doesn’t, then the war is going to remain politically salient for months because Israel is not close to wrapping things up and it may even lead to a broader regional conflict in which the US would be drawn, which probably would be blamed on him and with good reason.
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Before I publish the second part of that series, I plan to publish a detailed essay on the history of Ukrainian nationalism during World War II. I have been sitting on it for several months because people, including myself to be honest, have been distracted by the war in Gaza and I want it to be read. It provides background that sheds light on some of the issues I discuss in the series on the origins of the Russo-Ukrainian War.
To be clear, I think that view is deeply mistaken and rests on many demonstrably false beliefs about what happened at Camp David and the history of the conflict in general, but that’s irrelevant to the point I’m making here.