Schumer’s Folly

And the foreign policy delusions of the Democrats

Chuck Schumer (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
March 23, 2024

Speaking on the Senate floor last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced, "It has become clear to me: The Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after October 7." As New York’s Democratic senator sees it, "a new election is the only way to allow for a healthy and open decision-making process about the future of Israel." What he means is that he hopes a new Israeli government would permanently halt the counteroffensive in Gaza. "He made a good speech," President Biden commented, "and I think he expressed a serious concern shared not only by him but by many Americans," only to backtrack and tell Netanyahu that he is not trying to force a change in Jerusalem.

This administration is no stranger to disastrous retreats, but even so the seeming ineptness is puzzling. Competent diplomats usually praise their allies in public and air their grievances behind closed doors. The Biden team and its congressional allies are doing the opposite because they are pandering to one of the Democratic Party’s worst foreign policy instincts. Rather than come to grips with the larger political and social dynamics that plague the Middle East, the party typically believes that removing an individual would solve their problems. In other words, they keep thinking the political is the personal.

Attempting to keep Benjamin Netanyahu from power has become a tradition for the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton admitted that in the 1996 election that first brought Netanyahu to power, "I tried to do it in a way that didn’t overtly involve me." At the time, many Democrats thought that Netanyahu and his Likud party were the main obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. They eventually got a Labor government in Israel, but not peace. Despite Clinton’s full-court press at Camp David, the gulf between Israeli and Palestinian demands was too wide for them to reach an agreement, even without Bibi in the room.

President Obama saw the nuclear deal with Iran as a legacy-making accomplishment, and Bibi’s spirited opposition to the deal infuriated the White House. Jeremy Bird, Obama’s 2012 national field director, worked with the Israeli activist group V15 in a failed attempt to unseat Netanyahu. Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen asked, "Can you imagine Karl Rove going to London while George W. Bush was in office to help conservatives oust Prime Minister Tony Blair?" Even worse, the State Department gave a grant to OneVoice, the Israeli organization that became V15, and did not put any restrictions on the funding after OneVoice gave notice about its pivot to electoral politics. Those moves were inappropriate and also misguided: Seventy-three percent of Israelis agreed with Bibi that the nuclear deal was a threat to Israel. Removing him would not have changed that.

Israel is not the only country the Democrats have gotten wrong. During the Arab Spring, the Obama administration convinced itself that ousting longtime ally Hosni Mubarak would lead Egypt to democracy. The younger staffers fixated on the telegenic protesters who filled Tahrir Square without asking why the Egyptian military, which normally squelched political dissent, allowed them into the square in the first place. They got played by Egypt’s generals, who wanted to choose Mubarak’s successor among themselves rather than let their president install his son and were happy to let the Americans push Mubarak aside.

The same thinking led to the disastrous Libya intervention. "As had been true with Egypt," Obama wrote in his most recent memoir, his staffers, including now-secretary of state Antony Blinken, "felt we had a responsibility to support those forces protesting for democratic change in the Middle East." After Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi met his demise, Hillary Clinton joked, "We came, we saw, he died." Her triumphalism was entirely misplaced: The White House hoped that the Europeans would manage the aftermath, but instead Libya descended into chaos. Jihadists killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, a civil war later broke out, and our allies backed rival factions.

Joe Biden picked up right where his boss left off. On the campaign trail, Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" and isolate Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Salman is hardly a Jeffersonian democrat, but he is leading Saudi Arabia in a modernizing, secularizing direction and is open to making peace with Israel. Salman’s critics seem to imagine there is a gentler, nicer monarch waiting in the wings who can reform Saudi Arabia while keeping a tight grip on the radicals who, among other things, stormed Mecca’s grand mosque in 1979. His country, moreover, still has a strong influence over global energy markets, and it will remain strategically important for decades to come. After Russia’s attack on Ukraine upset the global economy, Biden had to abandon his ineffectual pressure campaign against Saudi Arabia.

By overseeing the Israeli counteroffensive in Gaza, Netanyahu has once again drawn the Democrats’ ire. Although many on the left claim Bibi is only continuing the war to further his political prospects, the prime minister has been much more moderate than his coalition would like. For example, he agreed to a hostage deal that dismayed the Israeli right.

Removing Netanyahu is not likely to change Israeli policy much. A recent poll reveals that a majority of Israelis oppose a hypothetical political settlement to the current conflict that is far better for Israel than anything Hamas has offered. Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main opponent, wants to expand the draft to conscript young men from the growing Haredi community. Since many Haredi receive government support, conscripting them would make the war more economical than continuing to pull reservists away from their day jobs.

On the home front, Democrats tend to downplay individual responsibility and explain crime surges, drug usage, and poverty by pointing to larger economic, political, and social issues. Ironically, on foreign policy they often fall off the other side of the horse and act like all of their problems with another country or region are due to one or two individuals. Political leadership certainly matters, and the Middle East has had its share of charismatic heroes and villains that draw eyeballs. But contra President Obama, the Middle East would not "all be easy" if only the leaders there "could be like the Scandinavians."

Biden and Schumer are encouraging their party to make the same mistake again. Since they made their comments, Senate Armed Service Committee chair Jack Reed (D., R.I.) said on the Senate floor, "it is time for new leadership for both the Palestinians and the Israelis." They may think that by drawing a distinction between Netanyahu and the Israeli people, they are somehow safeguarding the Israeli-American relationship from their party’s left wing. But few people stop committing errors when their leaders keep encouraging them to do so.

The Democrats’ Middle East forays have created plenty of tragedy and heartbreak, but not much else. Haven’t we had enough of that?

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