Biden’s ‘Inflection Points’ Don’t Add Up
Category: Op/EdVia: hallux • 4 months ago • 2 comments
By: Michael Hirsh - Foreign Policy
In what was billed as a historic speech from the Oval Office on Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden declared the world to be at an “inflection point in history” following Hamas’s attack on Israel and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and sought to rally Americans around their role as “the indispensable nation.”
Here’s the problem: It’s not clear what an inflection point in history is. What is clear is that Biden has been deploying this term regularly since the start of his presidency. Actually, it became a feature of his rhetoric even before he became president—in November 2020, only days after his election, Biden made a similarly impassioned speech calling for a national healing, saying his defeat of then-President Donald Trump was an “inflection point” for reclaiming “the soul of America.”
He’s used the term “inflection point” many times since. In September 2021, addressing the response to the global pandemic before the United Nations, Biden declared , “We stand, in my view, at an inflection point in history.” Biden resurrected the term again after Russia invaded Ukraine, and he has repeatedly sought to frame the war as one between democracy and authoritarianism, as when he said in Lithuania in July 2023: “We stand at an inflection point, an inflection point in history where the choices we make now are going to shape the direction of our world for decades to come.”
Few people, however, seemed to be buying it along the way. The United States hasn’t healed all that much, as Biden hoped; on the contrary, we’ve seen growing political polarization. And rather than witnessing a resurgence of democracy and cooperation in the world, we’ve seen the continued dissolution of the international system into anarchy and autarky.
Sadly, it’s unlikely that many people—Americans and others around the world—will buy the argument now, either.
To succeed, the president’s speech this week needed to achieve two things: to make the case that the wars in Israel and Ukraine were part of the same grand, global struggle; and to persuade Americans that engagement in that struggle was in their national interest. Biden didn’t do a very good job on either point.
Addressing the imminent invasion of Gaza by Israeli forces following Hamas’s horrific attack on Oct. 7, Biden sought to link Israel’s challenge with what Ukraine faces in its battle against invading Russian President Vladimir Putin. In one of the clearest lines in the speech, he declared: “Hamas and Putin represent different threats, but they share this in common: They both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy.”
This is quite true, on the surface. Each in its own way, the Russian government and the militant group Hamas both seek to eliminate the national identity of a neighboring state, and both are willing to commit atrocities to achieve it. But the natures of these conflicts are so different in so many ways, each embroiled in long and complicated histories, that it is difficult to see what they have in common beyond that.
Hamas is a violent offshoot from longtime Palestinian aspirations to reclaim the land Palestinians say Israelis seized from them in 1948. Even according to many Israelis, these aspirations are legitimate, at least to some extent. In an editorial a day after the Hamas attacks, the newspaper Haaretz wrote:
“The disaster that befell Israel on the holiday of Simchat Torah is the clear responsibility of one person: Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister, who has prided himself on his vast political experience and irreplaceable wisdom in security matters, completely failed to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession … while embracing a foreign policy that openly ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians.”
Other leading Israelis went further, noting that Netanyahu actually pursued a policy of legitimizing Hamas as the governing authority in Gaza so as to avoid peace negotiations and deny the Palestinians any hope of a two-state solution. As Gilead Sher, the former chief of staff to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak—who pursued a two-state solution at Camp David in 2000— told me recently : Netanyahu’s policies “attempted to nearly topple the PA [Palestinian Authority] and strengthen Hamas while fostering Hamas’s sense of impunity and capability.”
By contrast, Putin’s claim to Ukraine has no legitimacy whatsoever, except perhaps in his own mind and those of his Kremlin minions. Harking back a thousand years to Kyivan Rus’, and the imperial and Soviet unity of Russia and Ukraine when he invaded in 2022, Putin acted on the delusion that Ukraine “never had a tradition of genuine statehood,” as he put it. But plainly Ukraine is a separate state and will remain so, and no one around the world—with the exception of a few ideologists—suggests otherwise.
The second big failure of Biden’s speech lay in making a persuasive case that stopping Putin and defeating Hamas were both equally in America’s national interest. “I know these conflicts can seem far away. And it’s natural to ask: Why does this matter to America?” Biden said. His answer: “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. They keep going, and the cost and the threats to America and to the world keep rising.”
This is also pretty much true, as far as it goes. But then Biden went on to say that “if we don’t stop Putin’s appetite for power and control in Ukraine, he won’t limit himself just to Ukraine.” Biden suggested the Russian president might go after NATO allies such as Poland and the Baltic States.
Biden may be hyping the threat here a little, but plainly any attack on NATO would be in the U.S. national interest to repel. But what does that have to do with Hamas? This group of Islamists has no greater goal than to eliminate Israel as it is presently constituted. This, of course, would be unacceptable, both for humanitarian reasons and to protect a genuine American ally and the only true democracy (setting aside the issue of Arab rights) in the Middle East. But this is quite a different challenge than the one Ukraine and Europe face. Hamas and its sponsor, Iran, are hardly about to send conquering armies into Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and other states (though Tehran has meddled in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria). If there is any U.S. national interest here, it is preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But that is quite another matter.
Biden concluded: “American leadership is what holds the world together. American alliances are what keep us, America, safe. American values are what make us a partner that other nations want to work with. To put all that at risk if we walk away from Ukraine, if we turn our backs on Israel, it’s just not worth it.”
“It’s just not worth it”? Hardly Churchillian. Or worthy of some of the great rallying speeches of the past by American presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. One can be pretty sure no one is going to remember that line as one still remembers, for example , “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Biden might at least have made the argument—as so many other presidents have done—that modern history teaches that when the United States tries to withdraw from the world the nation invariably gets pulled back in, and with the bloodiest consequences. World War II is of course the best example.
To be fair to Biden, he faces an array of brutal challenges—perhaps the most dangerous international landscape since World War II, if one throws a rising and aggressive China into the mix. He’s running for reelection in a year, and he—as well as much of the country—is desperate to prevent the return of Trump, who would almost certainly put the kibosh on what’s left of American constitutionalism and the international system.
And Biden faces an almost mind-boggling task in trying to prevent a bloodbath in Gaza and a wider war in the Middle East. The dimensions of that challenge were obvious when Biden rushed off to Israel in a seemingly quixotic effort to stand behind Israel’s goal of destroying Hamas and simultaneously assure Arab leaders that he sympathizes with their concerns and wants to secure Palestinian rights.
Not surprisingly, the trip didn’t go very well. The Arabs pulled out at the last minute to protest the destruction of a Gaza hospital—spoiling Biden’s efforts to present a united front against Iran—and Biden stumbled in a few of his remarks in Tel Aviv even as he won plaudits in Israel and at home for pledging to “do everything in our power” to preserve Israel. The president went home a mere seven hours after he arrived, having achieved little more than the dubious optics of hugging Netanyahu, whose right-wing policies helped set the stage for the terrible war Israel now faces, and winning a few concessions on humanitarian aid to Gaza.
So Biden has some monumentally difficult work ahead. And he’s right to try to rally Americans and the rest of the world to his cause—indeed, he has no choice. But let’s face it: Few Americans are going to understand any better after this address why they make up “the indispensable nation.”