The Consequences of Squandering Good Will
I have no memory of the Super Bowl game that was played in February 2002. That was back when I still cared about such things, so I surely paid attention at the time. What I do remember vividly, however, is a specific moment in the halftime show, which was headlined by the then-ultra-cool Irish band U2. At one point, Bono pulled open his leather jacket to reveal that the lining was an American flag. In almost any other moment, that gesture would have been politically uncomfortable, because it would have probably been the politically outspoken singer's way of mocking the US for one reason or another. But in that moment, less than five months after the 9/11 attacks, every viewer knew what the singer meant to communicate: The world was with the US to support us in our pain.
We now know how that all turned out. Not long afterward, the arguably justifiable invasion of Afghanistan (and I do mean only arguably) began to turn into a quagmire. More fatefully as a matter of politics, the Bush/Cheney hawks put the country on the path to invading Iraq in a war of choice built upon lies (one the biggest being Colin Powell's infamous attestation to the "evidence" of Iraq's supposed nuclear program). What was a brief period of global support soon reverted into the status quo ante, with the rest of the world treating the United States as one might expect the leading superpower to be treated: despised or at most the object of leery acceptance (even by its allies).
In the weeks since the October 7 slaughter and kidnappings in southern Israel, President Biden has tried on multiple occasions to tell the government led by Benjamin Netanyahu -- as in previous columns, I will not use the rhetorical shorthand "Israel" to stand in for the people who are currently in power, any more than I would shorthand Donald Trump's government as "the United States" -- that the US made a lot of mistakes after 9/11, mistakes from which Netanyahu and his advisors should learn. As I will discuss below, it is difficult to know whether Biden's advice has had any impact on the course of events, at least outwardly. It is, in any case, worth asking what Biden is doing, and why.
In a new Verdict column today, I ask a question for which I have no answer: "Is President Biden Being a Supportive Friend or a Too-Trusting Enabler in the Aftermath of October 7?" There, I note what I hope is a useful analogy between the way Biden seems to be treating the Netanyahu government and the way he treats his son Hunter. I concede that the analogy has obvious limits, but the idea is that Biden's life has in part been defined by a relationship in which someone he loves dearly has made bad decision after bad decision, yet the father has loved the son throughout and has never given up on him. Although Biden most likely cannot stand Netanyahu personally (Netanyahu being every bit a Trump clone), Biden's love of Israel and all of its people puts him into the same bind that he has been in with Hunter.
That is, in both instances, Biden has had to ask: What can I do to get him to make better decisions? And by "better," I mean not only decisions that would be a relief to others but that would prevent harm to themselves.
Even though shameless politicians in both countries might describe criticism or calls for restraint as being tantamount to allowing Hamas to win -- an update of the classic "you're either with us or against us" trope -- Biden knows that getting the Netanyahu government to make different decisions would be better for the people of Israel (and thus for the prime minister himself and his government). Again, it is not a matter of "opposing Israel" but of opposing ultimately self-destructive decisions by the current government of Israel. Biden, of course, surely cares about the potential immediate victims of those self-destructive decisions, making the course that he is apparently pursuing a win-win.
As I point out in the Verdict piece, however, it is arguable that Biden's deeply empathetic personality sometimes causes him to become an enabler. Even if he wanted to take a tough-love approach, however, US domestic politics leaves no room for Biden to openly threaten to cut off aid to Israel, even though the lack of a credible threat to walk away leaves any US government in a weaker position when it comes to influencing an ally's behavior.
Although I do not take a stand on the question of whether Biden is doing enough to alter Netanyahu's disastrous course, I think a fair reading of today's column would conclude that I am trying to give Biden the benefit of the doubt. That is because, even though I was never much of a Biden fan over the years, I think his personality is perfectly suited to this moment, precisely because of his painful past. Also, we simply cannot know how hard Biden is twisting arms behind the scenes.
I thus am in the position of saying, "Well, we can't know for sure, but we have good reason to think that Biden is doing what he ought to do, given the constraints." And today's report that Biden's Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is"urg[ing] the Israeli government to agree to a series of brief cessations of military operations in Gaza to allow for hostages to be released safely and for humanitarian aid to be distributed," is certainly a hopeful sign.
But if my Verdict column mostly expresses a willingness to trust that Biden is doing it right, in this column I will be a bit more skeptical. For one thing, even that report about Blinken's new initiative seems to indicate that the goal is rather unambitious, only asking for "pauses" and "cessations" in a military operation that now involves ground and air assaults. It is possible, of course, that those military actions will be precise and will minimize the deaths of innocents, but the record to date strongly suggests otherwise. Even so, I am not one to say that the Netanyahu government's proper response would involve zero military action. (I can see the argument for doing that, but I disagree with it at this point.) After all, from the beginning I hoped that they would use special operations and other limited moves instead of bombs and tanks, not that they would do nothing.
In any event, my concern continues to be that the Netanyahu government has let its most bellicose people off the leash, with horrible consequences for everyone -- Israelis very much included. As I wrote two weeks ago, my first reaction upon reading about the October 7 attacks was of course grief, but my second reaction was the near-immediate realization that what Hamas did would lead some people to claim to be justified in doing terrible things. Or as I put it in that column: "Oh no, this is going to be used by some people to make things much worse." And tragically, that has turned out to be true. Even worse, it happened almost immediately.
I do not know exactly when the Netanyahu government started to drop bombs on Gaza, but it was at most a couple of days. It was more likely a matter of hours, but the exact length of time is less important than to say that it was very, very short. Certainly, it was happening before the Netanyahu government told one million Gazans to grab what they could and run to join the other one million Gazans in what was supposed to be a safe zone.
The Netanyahu government also cut off power, water, and supplies nearly immediately. On his MSNBC show on October 20, Chris Hayes interviewed Sari Bashi, a program director for Human Rights Watch who is an Israeli/American Jewish woman married to a Palestinian man living in the West Bank. Bashi described the humanitarian crisis that had already arisen only thirteen days after the attacks, noting that the lack of water and electricity had the additionally horrible result of shutting down sewage treatment plants, thus threatening disease outbreaks along with everything else. She also called on the Biden Administration to push the Netanyahu government to allow trucks with supplies to resume shipments into Gaza.
At that point, Hayes asked the kind of question that a skeptical journalist would ask: "I think if an Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson were sitting here, he would say something along the lines of, 'We've just suffered the most catastrophic violation of our sovereignty and security via those exact fences and border, and the security risk would simply be too high.'" Bashi immediately delivered a pointedly sarcastic response with a completely straight face: "No, I understand the security risk to turning the water and electricity back on." She had a further response to the issue of trucks crossing into Gaza, but the point here is that, as Bashi pointed out, the shutoff of water and electricity was unjustified, even under the most generous interpretation of the situation.
Again, my almost immediate realization that the October 7 attacks would be used to justify horrible things turned out to be true. And unlike the US after 9/11, the Netanyahu government managed to lose that high ground almost immediately. Moreover, it was not as if there were not similarly trigger-happy voices on this side of the Atlantic, with warmongering Senator Tom Cotton arguing that the Israeli government could "bounce the rubble," an especially disgusting turn of phrase that I had not previously heard but that apparently means bombing an area that has already been reduced to ruins by previous bombings.
Cotton, along with usual suspects like Bret Stephens in The New York Times, have argued that everything that happens henceforth is Hamas's fault, because its attack provoked the Israeli government's reaction and are using Gazans as human shields. A headline on a Stephens article was blunt: "Hamas Bears the Blame for Every Death in This War." David Firestone, who sits on the editorial board of The Times, noted in a column that "Senator Rick Scott of Florida and several other Republicans introduced a bill to prevent that aid from going to Gaza until Hamas’s hostages are released," then added archly, "which is another way of making sure it will never be delivered."
It was simply shocking, then, when a Netanyahu advisor, while his government was in the process of starting a large-scale ground attack last week, said this: "Tonight we are starting payback." I could only think: Starting? As I put it in a Dorf on Law column last week, everything that the Netanyahu government has done is apparently to be justified by what amounts to the simplistic answer: "Because war."
Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli scholar, wrote a Washington Post op-ed on October 19 asking the question: "Is Hamas Winning the War?" As I made clear in that previous column, I think that using the very word "war" changes the way we think about this situation in a dangerous way (the same way that "the war on terror" changed the way we responded to terrorist acts). I will put that aside for now, however, because Harari's point was that, because war is politics by other means, the question in any war is who ultimately achieves their political goals. Tellingly, he wrote:
As the bodies keep piling up, who will win this war? Not the side that kills more people, not the side that destroys more houses and not even the side that gains more international support — but the side that achieves its political aims.
Hamas launched this war with a specific political aim: to prevent peace.
And this is what has worried me from the beginning. The Netanyahus, Cottons, and Scotts of the world are easy marks, because everyone knows what makes them tick. They are barely in control of their impulses at the best of times, and it only takes someone -- or a group of someones -- who simply do not care that the inevitable response will involve the killings of countless innocents to put the warmongers on the path to causing everyone else's destruction. That group of someones is, of course, Hamas. They are not playing n-dimensional chess, or normal chess, or checkers, or even tic-tac-toe. They are playing poke-the-bear, then watching as the completely predictable bloody chaos follows.
Again, US military and political leaders learned lessons from our response to 9/11 that the Biden Administration should be (and I hope are, in private) emphasizing to Netanyahu and his ministers and generals. One of my current research assistants served in the US Army in Afghanistan a few years ago, and he provided me with research about how utterly barbaric the US's rules of engagement had been in the mid-2000's (years before he served).
As he described it in an email, the 2007 rules "effectively [gave] commanders carte blanche to shoot in any direction that may assist in protecting troops, whether the threat was in that direction or not, as a measure of deterrence. This gave rise to the '360 rotational fire' method of self-defense, in which Soldiers were ordered to just start shooting." He forwarded an article from Global Policy Forum that included this first-person account from a US soldier in Iraq:
Myself and Josh and a lot of other soldiers were just sitting there looking at each other like, 'Are you kidding me? You want us to kill women and children on the street?' And you couldn't just disobey orders to shoot, because they could just make your life hell in Iraq. So like with myself, I would shoot up into the roof of a building instead of down on the ground toward civilians. But I've seen it many times, where people are just walking down the street and an IED goes off and the troops open fire and kill them.
Another article recounted house-to-house searches by US forces in Iraq operating under these extraordinarily loose rules of engagement:
Searches are usually tense. Often, troops shout orders in English which family members cannot understand. Troops may "prep a room" by spraying it with gunfire or tossing in a hand grenade. In Haditha, two house-searches resulted in the death of fifteen civilians. Sometimes, troops may consider a house to be a "free-fire zone" and commanders may give orders to "shoot first and ask questions later." Such methods have killed many civilians, including women and children.
Fortunately, the US military's rules of engagement were updated in 2016 to include the requirements of necessity and proportionality. And although one wants to believe the Israeli government's sources (including Netanyahu) who are saying that they are holding themselves to similarly high standards, the politicians' decisions to date are leading to growing criticism from people who are very much not "taking Hamas's side," or whatever the insult of the moment might be.
This situation, which began with one of the most horrifying attacks imaginable, continues to horrify. Even at best, more deaths were sure to follow. And maybe President Biden's deeply rooted empathy has prevented things from being even worse. I certainly hope so. What is happening, however, seems unlikely to lead to the release of more hostages or to prevent the response from Hamas and its allies from leading to a cycle of escalation.
There are most likely no good options, especially given the raw political calculations involved. Even so, the measured confidence that I have expressed in Biden's leadership at this heartbreaking time must at least be tempered by healthy skepticism. But in the midst of all of the violence, hope is more important than ever.