In America’s weird empire, dependents call the shots. Soon we will be suffering the consequences.
The alliance system of the United States is frequently called an empire, and for good reason. But it is a peculiar form of empire, in which the metropolitan center seems directed and ruled by the periphery. In the classic idea of empire, rule flowed from the top down. Not in this one.
This inversion is nowhere more evident than in the relationship between the United States and Israel. Biden responded to the October 7 attacks by giving Israel total support for its aim of destroying Hamas. The same pattern is apparent in policy toward Ukraine. For 18 months, the Biden administration did not dare to set limits on Ukraine’s war aims, though these anticipated, absurdly, total victory over Russia, with Vladimir Putin in the dock at the end.
These certitudes, however, have begun to shake. Within the administration, there seems to have been a great awakening over the last few weeks that neither course is sustainable. The gist of recent reporting is as follows: the Ukrainians are losing the war and have to acknowledge that fact, better now than later. The Israelis are behaving barbarically and have got to be reined in, else our reputation in the world is ruined.
On the Ukraine front, there were two bombshells. One was an NBC story that painted a dire picture of the military situation and reported that U.S. and European diplomats were telling Ukraine of the need to restrict its aims. It’s too late in the day to hope for anything other than a stalemate, said one former administration official: “it’s time to do a deal.”
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The other was a long essay in Time that characterized Zelensky as a messianic and fanatical figure, out of touch with Ukraine’s worsening prospects. Corruption is even worse than alleged. The West is scraping the bottom of the barrel for key military items. Ukraine’s military can’t find new recruits. More appropriations from Congress, even the $61 billion requested by the administration, can solve none of these problems.
For 18 months, the Biden administration insisted that Ukraine’s aims were wholly its own to determine and that the United States would support them regardless. With Ukraine’s summer offensive having met with almost total failure, the administration appears to be getting cold feet. This is all very hush-hush, with “quiet” discussions reputedly going on behind the scenes. It’s probable, indeed, that Biden’s advisers are divided. Though official policy hasn’t changed a whit, the impetus to do so is clearly there.
The bind over Israel is yet more acute. According to widespread reports, Biden and his advisers believe that Israel is embarked on a mad project in Gaza. They see that the United States — having given Israel a green light, a blank check, and tons of bombs — will be held directly responsible for the awful humanitarian consequences. They don’t think Israel has defined a coherent endgame. They fear they are presiding over a moral enormity. They see a precipitous collapse in support from others.
Over the past month, Biden has warned the Israelis not to act out of anger and vengeance in retaliation for October 7, advised against a ground invasion of Gaza, and insisted that Israel seek to avoid civilian deaths as much as possible. Use smaller bombs, say Biden’s military advisers. Eroding support, his administration told the Israelis, “will have dire strategic consequences for Israel Defense Forces operations against Hamas.” Last weekend, Secretary of State Antony Blinken went to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with these ideas and with a request for a “humanitarian pause.” Bibi’s response: ain’t gonna happen.
I have an idea. The United States could threaten to suspend military shipments to Israel if it failed to agree to a ceasefire. That might make an impression. Defying Israel, however, is something that no president since George H.W. Bush has been willing to do. The U.S. approach over the last 30 years, as now, has been in the voice of a steadfast friend: “This is really for your own good, but we wouldn’t dare demand it of you.”
Hug the Israelis tight and reassure them endlessly of your undying commitment; that was the way to win an argument with them.
There have been some Israeli leaders who responded to this approach, but Benjamin Netanyahu was never one of them. Bill Clinton’s comment after first meeting with Netanyahu in 1996 — “Who’s the fucking superpower here? — reflects Bibi’s considered judgment that he can call forth domestic opposition in the United States that will nullify any threat from a U.S. president.
Today, 66% of Americans want a ceasefire, according to one poll, but less than five percent of the House of Representatives does, so maybe Bibi knows whereof he speaks. AIPAC is busy with attack ads against the few brave congresspeople who have criticized Israel and called for a ceasefire.
But Biden has to worry about America’s larger role in the world and is alive to the likelihood that what is coming in Gaza will wreck America’s legitimacy. Who in the non-West could ever bear again a lecture from the United States on its zealous commitment to human rights? What would this do to America’s case against Russia?
On present trends — no exit to the Sinai for the mass of Gaza’s population, the complete collapse of the health and sanitation systems, relentless Israeli military pressure and economic blockade, 1.5 million already displaced — it is difficult to see how the total casualty count among Gazans avoids numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Probably many more will die from disease and epidemics than from bullets and bombs. The experience, as Netanyahu has said, will be remembered “for decades to come.” What if it registers in world public opinion as an historic crime?
Incredibly, advocates of total war against Hamas invoke Dresden, Hiroshima, and other atrocities to justify their course, neglecting that neither Germany nor Japan had anyone to weep for them after the war, whereas Palestinians have 1.8 billion Muslims to weep over them today.
The obvious fact is that Israel cannot pursue to the end its aim of destroying Hamas without causing death on a biblical scale. There is no reason whatsoever for the United States to embrace these aims.
Biden’s choice is to get tough with the Israelis or to go along with what he fears is going to be a gigantic catastrophe.
There are precedents for getting tough, but they are admittedly distant ones. Dwight Eisenhower did it in 1956 over the Anglo-French-Israeli Suez adventure. Bush I did it in 1991 over loan guarantees to Israel.
But the most resonant example is 1982, when Ronald Reagan told Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to cease Israeli’s bombardment of Beirut. “Menachem,” Reagan said, “this is a holocaust.” To Reagan’s surprise, his threat of an agonizing reappraisal worked. “I didn’t know I had that kind of power,” he told his aide Mike Deaver. At the time of Reagan’s threat, the death toll from two and a half months of war approached 20,000, of which nearly half were civilians.
Can Biden summon the will to confront Netanyahu? Will his administration force Ukraine to the bargaining table?
In our weird empire, where dependents call the shots, deeply embedded tendencies dictate a negative answer to both questions, though wise policy would dictate positive ones. Perhaps the time is ripe for a new policy in which America consults its own national interests rather than theirs.
David C. Hendrickson is professor emeritus of political science at Colorado College and the President of the John Quincy Adams Society. He is the author of several books, including Republic in Peril: American Empire and the
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Views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Information Clearing House.