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Why have the October 7 attacks triggered a culture war in the West? Because parts of our Left are anti-Semitic and the Right is calling them out? Absolutely. But this is also psychological displacement: we’re so shocked by the murder of Israelis, distressed by the bombings in Gaza and, unable to comprehend an intractable problem, that we withdraw into the familiar language of domestic politics.
Marjorie Taylor Greene, a pro-Israeli Republican, put a resolution to Congress to censure Rashida Tlaib, a pro-Palestinian Democrat, as an anti-Semite. Had it passed, which it didn’t, Democrats were ready to put a counter-motion calling Greene a racist. This is schoolyard stuff, and while antiwar activists occupy the congressional Cannon House Office Building (300 arrested), and sociopath Brian Mast tells the House there are few “innocent Palestinian civilians” (even kids can be terrorists in their own cute way), it’s left to creaky Joe Biden to manage the Middle East from his basement. And he, with curiously little fanfare, has called for a pause in Israel’s military campaign.
Is this carefully thought-through policy or an old man pulling a random idea out of his hat because he was heckled at a fundraiser? Who knows. But it brings America in line with European opinion and sheds light on the backroom conditions of US support for Israel. The Times of Israel reports (as spotted by Sumantra Maitra of The American Conservative) that Washington ordered officials to permit humanitarian aid in to Gaza: “The Americans insisted,” said the defence minister, “and we are not in a place where we can refuse them. We rely on them for planes and military equipment.”
Biden is under pressure to get Palestinian-Americans out of the blockade and to ensure that Israeli-Americans aren’t killed in the crossfire, but his staff are also weighing up what happens next. Israelis blame Bibi for the security lapses that led to Oct 7, so the administration is worried that it’s dealing with a lame duck prime minister who is – in an unexpected twist – one of the more moderate voices within his government. America and Britain both want to revive the old two state formula, but they can’t rely on Israeli conservatives to play ball. In recent days, Israeli ministers have argued over withholding tax revenue to the West Bank, to the alarm of the US.
Moreover, the longer the bombings continue, the more radicalised Islamic opinion becomes and the more likely a regional war seems – at a time when America is already overstretched in Ukraine (more on that, below). Biden insists that America can run two wars at once; Janet Yellen says the money is there. This is boomer delusion. Yes, they are the generation that protested Vietnam – but they also grew up in the shadow of VE Day and the moon landings, and share that Kennedy-esque conviction that so long as any cause is just enough, they must and can support it. The good guys always win in the end, right?
Alas, America in 2023 is not America in 1960, and likely does not have the material and moral resources to wage multiple wars across different continents. Never mind failing to learn from history: Biden led a humiliating retreat from Afghanistan just two years ago, yet policymakers are already back to fancying their odds against another Islamist army.
Ukraine and Israel threaten to become “no exit” wars: Israel, because no one knows what to do with the Gazan population; Ukraine, because the West’s line is that we fight for as long as Ukraine wants to, but Zelensky is determined to get all his land back against an enemy that has dug in and refuses to surrender. Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations notes that Ukraine has “deeply stressed US and Western stocks of certain critical types of ammunition and weapons”, and that the US has been forced to delay weapons deliveries to Taiwan while Kyiv is rationing shells on the battlefield. “The Biden administration decided to ship morally questionable cluster munitions to Ukraine, largely because it lacked sufficient supplies of other types of artillery shell.”
It is true that some weaponry sent to Israel will be different from that sent to Ukraine, but what happens, while the US is arming two allies, if China takes this moment to attack Taiwan?
Ukraine has become a bottomless pit – and US politicians might start cutting off funds. The new Republican leadership on the Hill is unfriendly; with Mike Pence out of the presidential race, Nikki Haley is the only serious candidate we might call hawkish. The fate of Pax America thus rests in the trembling hands of Joe Biden, who has worsened his country’s position by being a terrible, awful, preposterous president. There are parallels with his border policy: initially liberal, it encouraged mass migration – forcing him to u-turn violently, even to rebuild that infamous wall. Likewise, Biden’s initial attempts to negotiate with Iran, or to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible, gave the impression that America’s new strategic posture was “dumb and vulnerable” – and now that killers are pressing their advantage, he must govern once more with an iron fist.
In short, the situation is dangerous because America has both lost authority – it is not seen as decisive and willing to commit – at the same time as it has failed to be ruthless about what conflicts it can and cannot afford to wage. This is end of empire stuff. We have a nation trying to protect several frontiers – Europe, Middle East, East Asia – while burdened with massive debt, and weakened internally by the culture wars I mentioned at the top. In that sense, the congressional pantomime matters after all. The gradual loss of confidence in the US machine, worsened by partisanship and dragged to the level of satire by the woowoo academic elite, leaves one wondering if America’s political class is inching closer to giving up and letting the world run itself.