Biden’s Pier Gets Pummeled—Along With His Foreign Policy

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April 27, 2024

Stung by the charge of indifference to Palestinian suffering, President Joe Biden attempted to refute the accusations during his State of the Union address. "It’s heartbreaking," he said about the cost of the war to Gazan civilians, so "tonight, I am directing the U.S. military to lead an emergency mission to establish a temporary pier." This "would enable a massive increase" in the humanitarian assistance reaching the beleaguered people of Gaza.

This week, Hamas and its allies sent their reply to Biden: Drop dead. As preliminary construction started, terrorists bombarded the site, damaging several pieces of American equipment. This misadventure illustrates the core problem of Biden’s foreign policy. As much as some Democrats want to abandon Israel and cater to the Palestinians, the rest of the party realizes they cannot do it. Biden is trying to keep his party united by restraining Israel and loudly proclaiming his support for the people of Gaza. But his publicity stunts, like the pier project, are accomplishing very little. The region is still on the brink of war, and the Democrats’ Middle East consensus is faltering.

Democrats care about the Palestinians as much or more than any of their neighbors in the region do, but the Biden team’s other ambitions outweigh those concerns. When Biden came into office, he and his team hoped to placate Iran enough to allow for a graceful exit from the Middle East. Much to their surprise, the Iranians contemptuously tossed aside several invitations to reenter the Obama nuclear deal. The administration nevertheless relaxed American sanctions. The mullahs pocketed the concessions, nearly quintupled their oil exports, brought in tens of billions of dollars in revenue, and more than tripled their funding of Hamas, from $100 million to $350 million the year before their murderous rampage. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser who had played a key role in the nuclear deal, confidently asserted in Foreign Affairs on October 2 that the Middle East "is quieter than it has been for decades."

When Hamas attacked Israel five days later, the entire Middle East came to the brink of all-out war. Much to the chagrin of the peaceniks, no one could prevent Israel from striking back entirely. The major question was if Jerusalem would retaliate against Hamas, who carried out the attack, or make Iran pay for its support of Hamas and ongoing campaign to destroy Israel. The Biden team, terrified of escalation and a wider war in the Middle East, made clear an Israeli counteroffensive in Gaza was more palatable than a region-wide confrontation with Iran. For the White House, destroying command posts that Hamas deliberately and systematically intermixed with civilian housing was better than forcing Hamas’s benefactors to stop and then sweeping out the weakened terrorists.

This strategy has considerable downsides for the civilians caught in the crossfire, but it created some benefits for Biden. A serious confrontation with Iran's axis of resistance could tear apart the Democratic Party, which has made its belated opposition to the Iraq war a core part of its identity. The anti-Israel wing of the party is loud and growing in strength, but it is only a part of the larger faction that wants to appease Iran and get out of the region.

The problem is Biden has divided that region. The war in Gaza stalled Israel's integration with its Arab neighbors, who are not going to tear up their relations with Israel but are prevented by public opinion from openly drawing closer to Jerusalem while the war rages. By contrast, when the Gulf Arabs provided Israel with intelligence to stop Iran's recent barrage of hundreds of missiles and drones, and the Jordanians even shot down some Iranian munitions themselves, they showed that a substantial part of the Arab world is still willing to confront Iran as long as the Americans show up.

Biden has tried to unite his party at the expense of this divide, but it is not clear how long he can do so. Thus far, he has tried to tap dance his way through the war by halfheartedly supporting Israel while loudly expressing his displeasure about the conduct of the war and undertaking publicity stunts like the Gaza pier. This has been too clever by half, alienating the Arab Americans in Michigan he is desperately trying to court for his reelection campaign while also disgusting considerable portions of the larger pro-Israel electorate—and dismaying his regional partners to boot.

More trouble for Biden lurks around the corner. He may yet succeed in preventing an Israeli offensive in Rafah, which is the only realistic option for destroying Hamas but would likely cause tremendous collateral damage. At the same time, Hezbollah's missile and rocket attacks have made much of northern Israel uninhabitable, and so far Iran has not been willing to rein in its Lebanese minions. The region remains on the brink of the massive war that Biden is desperate to avoid.

That war might force the United States to lead Israel and its Arab allies into battle against Iran, but it might also doom Biden's reelection chances. Regardless of the consequences of that war, if it happens, the Palestinians will not be anyone’s priority.

Mike Watson is the associate director of Hudson Institute's Center for the Future of Liberal Society.