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Clockwise from top left: U.S. President Joe Biden with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the G7 Summit in Hiroshima in May; Biden with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv in October 2023; near Gaza City, November 2023; Kharkiv, Ukraine, February 2023
About Face

Ukraine and Israel and the Two Joe Bidens

In Ukraine, Biden has spent two years articulating a stirring argument for a rules-based order. In Israel, he set about burning that argument to the ground. Is a morally consistent foreign policy possible?

Clockwise from top left: U.S. President Joe Biden with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the G7 Summit in Hiroshima in May; Biden with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv in October 2023; near Gaza City, November 2023; Kharkiv, Ukraine, February 2023

Luke Skywalker woke me up and told me to go to the bomb shelter, so there I was. It was 3:30-ish in the morning, in a conference room in the basement of the Radisson in Odesa’s beautiful central district. I had arrived in Ukraine several days before, after a 19-hour train ride from Warsaw, to conduct a week of interviews and site visits to learn more about the impact of the war. After about 45 minutes, he gave us the all-clear. “The air alert is over. May the Force be with you.” About an hour later, just after I’d managed to fall asleep again, Luke once more rousted me, sending me back downstairs for another hour of waiting.

Skywalker was speaking to me through the Air Alert app, to which actor Mark Hamill lent his voice for the English-language warning. The app allows you to input your location in Ukraine and warns you when there are incoming strikes on that area. Fortunately, for me at least, the strikes on Odesa were not close to where I was that night.

The afternoon before, as I sat at lunch with a group of local government officials and activists, all our phones went off. Every one in the nearby park, too. I sat up, ready to get to cover, but no one moved. They listened. They knew the telltale sounds of a nearing strike, and they heard none. One in our group, a woman from Odesa who had been a wine importer/exporter before February 2022 but since then had become a local guide, translator, and community organizer, characterized what she thought many Ukrainians were feeling at the time. “We know we can have victory. We know the cost. We believed in this victory when it made no sense, but now it’s within reach.” Others around the table began tearing up as they nodded in agreement.

In 2022, I wrote a piece for The New Republic arguing that supporting Ukraine’s defense is in line with progressive values and important for the U.S. left. A year later, I wanted to follow it up with another piece, and this time I felt it necessary to go to Ukraine, to at least get as much of a feel for the situation as a week would allow. What I would not do is spend a few days and then return to gravely opine on what I’d learned “while on the ground.”

I arrived with a set of questions. Why is the counteroffensive going so slowly compared to last year? Are Ukrainians still willing to fight? How is morale? Do they see themselves as proxies? Are negotiations to end the war possible? What should solidarity with Ukrainians look like now? What are the stakes for U.S. security of the outcome of this war that for nearly two years was the focus of the Western world?

In Ukraine, Restraint

The Ukrainians I spoke with acknowledged that the 2023 counteroffensive was moving much slower than the previous year’s, whose surprising effectiveness had convinced many, Ukrainians and others, that complete victory was achievable. Some explain this by noting that Russian troops were not as well dug in last time, and its recruits were far greener. In the past year, Russian forces have been able to dig into positions and create vast, multilayered minefields in the eastern portions of occupied Ukraine, all of which makes for much slower going for Ukrainian forces. The people I talked to believed that, with continued support—especially the provision of Army Tactical Missile Systems, or ATACMS, which President Joe Biden agreed to send in late September, after months of hesitation—they can slowly bring more Russian-controlled territory in range and potentially force a better outcome. How that exactly will happen is unclear.

According to Ukrainian and U.S. sources, cluster munitions—which, because of the risks of harm to innocents, were controversial in the United States when the Biden administration announced in July that it would send them—made a difference in advancing the Ukrainian counteroffensive, in holding off a Russian countercounteroffensive, and as a demining tool. U.S. officials have acknowledged concerns about the harm unexploded ordnance can do to civilians, but they argued that areas where the cluster munitions are being deployed are already heavily mined, and they will be off-limits to civilians for a long time.

Ukrainian government officials are treating oversight and end-use monitoring of U.S. and allied military support as sacred, according to one official. They know that the world is watching to make sure that weapons supplied by the United States and its allies are not proliferating into the black market, and that any evidence that this was happening would diminish Western public support for continuing those supplies. To date, there is no evidence of end-use diversion; there have been efforts by Russians to take weapons lost on the battlefield to try to prove diversion, officials say. Potential smuggling is a concern, but right now the smuggling routes are going into Ukraine, not out. That could change at some point.

Up until now, the theory of the case for the United States and the European powers has been to support Ukraine as it gains the strongest possible position on the battlefield, which will put the Ukrainians in the best possible position for negotiations. With the war having ground to effective stalemate, we appear to have reached that point, with Ukraine’s top general, Valery Zaluzhny, admitting as much in an early November interview.

Those involved in the fighting were not saying any of that, at least not in September. They were very clear on what was and was not needed to win the war. “F-16s are expensive, need ammunition, easy to shoot down, a waste of money,” said Mamuka Mamulashvili, the commander of Ukraine’s Georgian legion, a unit of about 1,600 Georgians and a collection of volunteers from a dozen other regions, including Japan and Latin America. (The Americans and Brits don’t last long, he told me. They like sleeping in beds.) What the war effort really needs right now, he told me, are High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, shells; ATACMS missiles; and other ammunition, not big, sexy items like F-16 fighter jets.

We were sitting at a picnic table in a former summer camp on the outskirts of Kyiv, near swings and a jungle gym. He’s been fighting the Russians since he was a 14-year-old kid, he tells me. He’s in his mid-forties now, a large man, who reminded me of a more fit Nick Frost. Every few minutes, one of his troops whizzes by on an electric scooter fitted with big off-road tires. The unit is testing them out for use in the field, Mamuka said. They can go 50 miles on a single charge, move quietly, and carry 300 pounds of weight, more than enough for a soldier and gear. Another example of the innovations this war has produced, in response to the requirement to do more with less.

In Kyiv, apart from a few armed troops, patriotic posters, and recruiting stations, one would barely even know that there’s a war on. In Odesa, the war is more in evidence: Various buildings in the historic central downtown area were damaged or destroyed in missile strikes. But in both cities, people are out, and the culture is lively. Even on weeknights, bars and restaurants seemed crowded. Saturday night in Odesa was downright festive, which was very striking for what is essentially a frontline city, given its strategic significance as a major port. Most of the people I spoke with reported that the February 2022 invasion triggered a Ukrainian national cultural renaissance, not just in civic and volunteer activity responding to an internal displacement crisis, but in arts, culture, restaurants, music. One of Vladimir Putin’s goals was to snuff out Ukrainian national identity. He has achieved the opposite in spectacular fashion.

All that aside, we are where we are: stalemate. All the Ukrainians I spoke to felt strongly that they can achieve complete victory, retaking all territory occupied by Russia since 2014, including Crimea. (These views may be different in areas closer to the front lines.) Any resolution of the war that does not satisfy this will be extremely politically difficult for the Ukrainian government. A recent Time profile of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy described him as increasingly frustrated with the state of the war and what he views as foot-dragging on the part of Western allies, and singularly focused on the goal of complete victory.

However, if a negotiated deal offered the possibility of a real and durable (key word) end to the war, I think it would have to be considered. (And we should have no illusions about what this would mean for areas still occupied by Russia.) Those who argue that such a deal could have been secured shortly after the war began ask us to ignore the evidence that Putin still wants what he wanted when he launched the invasion: the end of Ukraine as an independent political entity, and its reabsorption into “Greater Russia.” There seems to be a tendency among some to treat diplomacy as if it’s a button we can just jam harder to make the peace elevator come faster, but that’s not how either of these things works. It’s worth discussing what such a deal might comprise, but until Putin indicates any interest, we’d just be negotiating among ourselves.

The argument persists that the United States and NATO sought this war. It’s worth remembering that Biden had a summit with Putin in June 2021, for the purpose of bringing some clarity and stability to the relationship. The administration’s goal was to park the Russia problem out of the way and focus on China. But later, once the Russian invasion started to look like a real possibility that fall, Biden dispatched CIA Director Bill Burns (unofficial special envoy for really tough stuff) to talk to Putin. There was a Biden-Putin phone call the following February, shortly before the invasion. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz went to meet with Putin, as did French President Emmanuel Macron, both making clear in public remarks afterward that they sought a security arrangement acceptable to Russia, which was understood by all as “we’re ready to find a solution to your stated NATO concern.”

The growth of NATO was undoubtedly an irritant to Russia. We don’t need to believe Putin on this; numerous U.S. officials have reported it over the years. But it turned out that, notwithstanding the continuing NATO obsession in some quarters, Putin’s grievances and goals were far broader than just that, as he has by now explained multiple times. President Biden has continued to resist bringing Ukraine into NATO, which should disprove claims that this war is a plot to expand the U.S. empire. But for most of the people making that claim, that U.S. goal is simply a given. It’s unfalsifiable. Similarly, the fact that the United States and European allies are now apparently urging the Ukrainians to consider ways to wrap it up should complicate the argument that NATO is “willing to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian.” But that argument was never based in reality.

Another argument, potentially the more dangerous one in my view, is the one advanced by the triumphalist liberal interventionists, who saw in the February 2022 Russian invasion the return of a sense of mission. I got an early taste of this in December 2021, when I attended a conference in Berlin. Over wine and hors d’oeuvres, we were treated to remarks from a very self-serious pundit who could barely contain his excitement about the then-gathering Russian operation in Ukraine. History was back. Meaning was back. War in Europe. He was almost vibrating as he spoke.

Others in the room found his remarks, which could’ve been delivered from a balcony, innervating and inspiring. There were grave, serious nods all around. I found them terrifying.

In my 2022 piece, I cautioned against reading too much into the war in Ukraine from an American standpoint. Ukraine is not a manic pixie dream war that will restore our democratic mojo. There have been numerous examples of this argument over the last two years: Russia’s war on Ukraine “marks a critical juncture that will determine the course of global democracy”; “everything we should care about is on the line there”; “Ukraine is critical to rebuilding our democratic consensus”; the “future of the democratic world will be determined by whether the Ukrainian military can break a stalemate with Russia.”

Considering the massive surge in democratic political activism we saw in the United States in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, particularly in 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd—the largest protests in U.S. history, supported by solidarity protests around the world—the idea that we need a foreign war to reinvigorate our democracy is just another symptom of our diseased political class.

From left; Israeli flares above the Al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza; a Russian missile strikes Kyiv.

Ironically, Biden’s approach indicates an understanding of the significant yet still not existential stakes of the war. Early on, he put a hard ceiling on the level of direct U.S. involvement, quickly tamped down calls for a no-fly zone, made clear that U.S. troops would not fight in Ukraine, and slowly elevated the quantity and quality of military aid the United States and allies provided, rightly watching Putin’s potential response. (His hawkish critics have characterized this caution as bowing to Putin’s nuclear blackmail. I would call it wisely trying to avoid all of us dying in a nuclear holocaust.) His administration’s decision to publicize its intel about Russia’s movements was also a clever and effective example of prioritizing results over militarism. Biden’s Ukraine policy has been, by any reasonable definition, one of restraint. It’s always been strange to me that my colleagues in the restraint community are among the least likely to recognize this.

Nonaligned countries in the global south have been slow to join the Western alliance in support of Ukraine. A Ukrainian foreign ministry official outlined Ukraine’s general diplomatic strategy and explained the complexity of trying to engage with Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. From the Ukrainian point of view, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is a postcolonial war. To discuss it in such terms around representatives from the global south, however, was liable to generate resentment because many in the nonaligned world identified Ukraine’s allies (the United States and Europe) with imperialism and colonialism, and the Russians with support for the anti-colonialist cause. Invoking past imperialism generated resistance rather than solidarity.

Less than a month later, this divide would be starkly illustrated. The Biden administration, having spent two years articulating a stirring argument for a rules-based order, would now set about burning that argument to the ground.

While in Israel …

There’s a photo exhibit in the square by St. Michael’s, panels of photos comparing bombed-out Warsaw in World War II to Mariupol in 2022. As I looked at the pictures, I thought, they could add Gaza to this. That was in September, before the latest onslaught by Israel in response to the savage Hamas attacks of October 7. The late 2023 violence is worse than anything before; indeed, even before the October 7 massacres, 2023 was already the deadliest year for Palestinians since 2015.

I last visited Israel-Palestine in March. I recalled sitting in Inshirah Khamus’s house in Huwara, just south of Nablus in the occupied West Bank. The windows of Inshirah’s house were broken. Outside the front door were several cars burned to carbonized husks. Inshirah, who is in her mid-seventies, was telling us about the night of February 26, 2023, when the home she shares with family members, children and grandchildren, was attacked by a mob of Israeli settlers who rampaged through the town, killing one person and injuring more than 100 others, burning homes and property in revenge for the killing of two settlers earlier in the day. According to Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, the head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Central Command, “What happened in Huwara was a pogrom.”

The February 26 pogrom was unique only in its size and intensity. Israeli settler terrorism against Palestinians is a regular feature of the Israeli occupation, carried out under the watchful eyes of the IDF, which intervenes only when things get out of hand. Settler terrorism in the occupied territories has been on the rise for years. It’s been getting even more intense now, because settlers know they don’t just have allies in government, they are the government.

Inshirah was inside her home when the mob came on February 26. She had watched the Israeli army driving back and forth in their jeeps as the settlers massed for violence, doing nothing, as they almost always do. The Israeli army’s violence is reserved for Palestinians. You may have seen a picture of Inshirah being escorted out of her burning home by Israeli troops. It was shared widely by Israeli PR flacks to demonstrate the morality of the IDF. The reality is the opposite. The IDF enabled the fire to be set in the first place.

You may have heard that the goal of the occupation is to provide “security” for Israel. That talking point is strictly for American tourists and members of Congress. The overriding goal of Israeli policy in the occupied territories is to take control of Palestinian land. Settler terrorism is one of the many tools of that policy. Establishing colonies, usually referred to as settlements, is one. Expropriating Palestinian land under various security pretexts is another. It’s a big toolbox.

When Inshirah was a child, her family fled Jaffa in the Nakba, Arabic for “the catastrophe,” which refers to the mass displacement and dispossession of some 700,000 Palestinians at the creation of the state of Israel. Now Israeli extremists are trying to make her a refugee again. This is what millions of Palestinians have endured every day, even before October 7. As of early December, around 1.8 million have been displaced in Gaza.

I had all of this in mind when I heard President Biden’s October 20 Oval Office speech positing an equivalence between Israel and Ukraine, which I found misleading and, frankly, offensive. The reality is that Russia is occupying Ukraine to end Ukrainian self-determination, and Israel is doing the same to Palestine. “They’re not a real people and the land is really ours by right” is the position of both the Russian and Israeli governments regarding Ukrainians and Palestinians. Israel’s methods are not as extreme as Russia’s, and it’s very important to acknowledge that, but its goal is nonetheless the same: the prevention of the other’s independence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said explicitly that he had helped sustain Hamas in power in Gaza precisely because it served that goal. Many, including Israeli security officials, have been warning for years that it would lead to exactly what we’re seeing now: all-out war.

From left: A Ukrainian woman hugged her grandchildren amid the ruins of their home in April 2022; a woman and girl fled airstrikes in Gaza City in October.

Hamas’s October 7 attack was abominable beyond description. Continuing to fire rockets into Israeli communities is abominable. Holding hostages is abominable. I’ll continue to insist on all those things. I’ll continue to condemn those on the left, or anywhere, who show any sympathy whatsoever for Hamas. I do not ignore the very real security challenges Israel has faced and continues to face. I acknowledge—more than that; I insist that we state forthrightly—that the Palestinian people have been extremely poorly served by a corrupt, incompetent leadership that has made a series of bad choices that have contributed to this situation. I deeply feel the absolute horror of the October 7 attacks, the grief and rage and trauma that Israelis continued to feel as more stories pour out about that day. I have very close friends who have been called up into the Israeli military reserves, pulled away from young families, now deployed in places they can’t reveal, who are terrified of what is coming. I am terrified for them.

What I won’t do, what none of us should do, is pretend that history began on October 7. I will not pretend that Israel is acting purely in self-defense. Its occupation, the various acts of violence against civilians, and the settlement/colonization project that the occupation facilitates are a war crime—in fact, multiple war crimes, committed every single day, for years. The Israeli government is using methods right now against Palestinians that no one hesitates to call terrorism when used by Russia against Ukraine. (Indeed, not only do many of our politicians not criticize it in Israel’s case; they cheer it on.) When one understands the vast machinery of violence and control and segregation that Israel imposes on Palestinians, the suggestion that Israelis are the ones in this relationship facing an existential threat just seems like gaslighting.

“You know, history has taught us that when terrorists don’t pay a price for their terror, when dictators don’t pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and death and more destruction,” Biden said from the Oval Office. “They keep going. And the cost and the threats to America and the world keep rising.”

This is a remarkable passage. He’s so close to getting it! I thought. He could be describing America’s decades-long refusal to impose, and its ongoing diplomatic efforts to prevent, any consequences whatsoever for Israeli aggression against Palestinian civilians. To make sure Israel pays no price. Biden’s words about adhering to international law are nice and welcome, but in the absence of any genuine accountability, that’s all they are. Biden has regularly voiced concern about the right-wing threat to Israeli democracy, but the irony is that the unconditional U.S. support he championed in the aftermath of October 7, as he has for his entire political career, has been wind at the back of the Israeli far right. And importantly: It has not made Israel secure.

And even though this speech was intended for a domestic audience, the whole world was obviously watching. The United States has put a great deal of effort in appealing to the global south/nonaligned world on a range of issues, including support for Ukraine. That effort was mortally wounded when the whole global south saw the West’s blatant double standard. (“For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the International Criminal Court.”) Biden’s speech probably put that effort in the grave. To that extent, it was a propaganda victory for Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, and other anti-U.S. leaders who have long claimed that appeals to international law, and to a so-called rules-based order, are simply a self-righteous gloss on the jealous pursuit of U.S. interests. The weeks after October 7 have proved them correct in the eyes of much of the world. “Nothing about you without you” is a U.S. slogan reserved for Ukrainians, with the Palestinians still treated as objects to be acted upon by great powers, their fate presumably to be determined by others, their national rights barely meriting a remark.

“American leadership is what holds the world together,” Biden said, as the world burned. “We are, as my friend Madeleine Albright said, ‘the indispensable nation.’” Those lines show how, despite his administration’s admirable capacity to assimilate some of the progressive left’s energy and ideas, Biden remains stuck in the past. While Biden has taken some pragmatic foreign policy steps, such as the Afghanistan withdrawal, the weeks after October 7 revealed that he is still a deeply ideological president, committed to a very particular vision of American primacy. U.S. policy for Ukraine and Israel-Palestine offers opportunities for a new and more consistently principled approach to the world, if only we had an administration that was interested. The rehabilitation of Cold War liberal interventionism, and its mutant twin neoconservatism, is perhaps as much a threat to American democracy as Trumpism. The former, after all, gave birth to the latter.

June 2, 2020, was the day I started to think that Biden’s presidency might be more than just a lesser evil. Until then, he was the candidate of restoration, the guy who would let you go back to not paying attention to politics. The candidate who promised wealthy donors that “nothing would fundamentally change.” But that day in June, he gave the most important speech of his campaign, maybe of his political career, during the massive nationwide protests in response to the murder of George Floyd by former police officer Derek Chauvin. It was his fullest acknowledgment to that point of the deep-seated problems in American society and an assertion that a return to the status quo was insufficient.

“The battle for the soul of this nation has been a constant push-and-pull for more than 240 years,” he said. “A tug-of-war between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh reality that racism has long torn us apart.”

I thought of that speech one recent autumn day as I sat in a meeting with several leaders of U.S. civil rights organizations. Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, referred to the response to the post–October 7 assault on Gaza as “an international George Floyd moment.”

Throughout his political career, Biden has been less a shaper of consensus than a reflection of it. This is not necessarily a criticism. Such politicians play an important role in both accelerating and consolidating a new consensus, as Biden did in responding to protests against anti-Black violence during the campaign, as he previously did on gay marriage in the Obama administration, and is currently doing around the post-neoliberal economic order since taking office.

Thus far, Biden has not risen to this moment as he did to the other. He shows no indication of understanding that his approach to the region, which consigned Palestinians and other Arab publics to a future of repression, helped lay the kindling for this conflagration. While administration officials have insisted that we cannot return to the pre–October 7 status quo in Gaza (as if that were even an option now that Israel’s relentless bombing, which Biden admitted was “indiscriminate,” has made Palestine’s largest city an uninhabitable ruin), they have yet to signal any meaningful shift in that approach.

But a shift in approach is desperately needed. It feels absurd to propose ideas for “the day after” while the casualties continue to mount in Gaza. Biden needs to genuinely commit to a real process to end the occupation and ensure Palestinian liberation and self-determination. He doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel here—there’s an entire body of international law and U.N. security resolutions charting a path. If Biden really wants to show the world that he stands behind the words of racial and social justice that he beautifully articulated in the summer of 2020, if he wants to show that he is genuinely interested in strengthening the principles of international law that have undergirded his admirable support for the defense of Ukraine, then Palestine would be a good place to finally start.