What's Biden's Plan If Netanyahu Ignores Him
The person you'd least suspect teed up a useful thought experiment
President Biden has been buffeted by attacks on his Middle East policy for the past two weeks, but enjoyed a brief reprieve on Thursday in the form of welcome criticism from Ari Fleischer, an immense cynic and warmonger who gained infamy as chief spokesman for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“When [President Biden] said that Israelis should not be consumed by rage? Who the hell does he think he is?” Fleischer cried bitterly on Fox News. “I sat in on every summit meeting with foreign leaders when they came to the U.S. after 9/11 and met with President [George W.] Bush—not one said to Bush the Americans shouldn’t be consumed with rage. Instead they just came to support us.”
It’s worth stipulating a few things before we consider why Fleischer’s input was valuable (though he surely did not intend it to be):
First, Biden’s plea to the Israeli people wasn’t to let go of their rage, but to not let rage shape their response to the Hamas pogrom of October 7.
Second, by attacking Biden in this way, Fleischer adopted an implicit position either that Israel should let rage be its guide, or that ministering to a grieving people not to lash out vengefully and ineffectively is wrong in principle. In other words, his view is self-discrediting no matter its intended meaning.
Third, the idea here isn’t just to devise Middle East policy through negative domestic polarization. “If Ari Fleischer is owned we must be doing things right,” is a logically and morally infirm way to think about policy, and in any case, right-wing goons like Fleischer will attack U.S. Middle East policy, whatever it is, when the president is a Democrat.
But we don’t need to assume Biden’s on the right track just because Fleischer played mad at him. Fleischer helped us (or at least he helped me) see past a barrage of good- and bad-faith Biden criticism with an unwitting thought experiment: What if one or more of those heads-of-state had tried to make American citizens and our leaders respond to the 9/11 terrorist attacks shrewdly instead of ruthlessly?
A pincer movement of left-wing critics and right-wing hawks and opportunists has encircled Biden at a precarious moment, but I think, given real political constraints (not polling data but, e.g., Israeli politics, and the U.S. Congress, and its veto powers) he has so far done quite well.
Still he and and all of his critics and everyone else would benefit from thinking through what we’d say today in hindsight if some respected U.S. ally had appealed to us the way Biden appealed to Israelis and Benjamin Netanyahu—supportive publicly, but with caveats, hinting at a more aggressive diplomatic effort behind the scenes to nudge us off the path to flailing wars of retribution.
The unsatisfying answer, as with most alternate history, is that it depends. If it had worked, events would’ve played out much differently, and the person who beat back the neoconservatives would be a hero, underappreciated only because our catastrophic response to 9/11 would never have happened.
If it had not worked, on the other hand, I think people looking back would still appreciate their prescience. (We can see now in our public reassessments of Iraq and Afghanistan war skeptics that the leaders of the post-9/11 period who didn’t fall in line behind Bush have fared the best historically.) But their legacy would turn just at least in part whether they changed their relationship with the United States when it became clear Bush had decided on a course of indiscriminate violence. Did they pay lip service to justice, or did they seek it in earnest?
That hypothetical should (among so many other things) be on Biden’s mind today.
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