Is the U.S. Foreign Policy Apparatus Working?
Signs of strain are showing in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel. The question is why.
As the crisis in Israel and Gaza enters its third week, there are signs that U.S. foreign policy and national security officials are feeling the strain.1 Those affected range from the inner sanctum of the White House to the lower rungs of the State Department.
Let’s start with the White House. President Joe Biden and his national security team are navigating the difficult tightrope of backing Israel after the most serious attack on its soil in a half-century while still trying to constrain the Israeli government’s impulsive but understandable desire to act first and ask questions later. It has become abundantly clear that Biden and his team are publicly backing Israel while privately asking their ally whether it has really thought through all their options.
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From everything I have gleaned from senior U.S. officials, Biden failed to get Israel to hold back and think through all the implications of an invasion of Gaza for Israel and the United States….
A senior U.S. official told me that the Biden team left Jerusalem feeling that while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel understands that overreach in Gaza could set the whole neighborhood ablaze, his right-wing coalition partners are eager to fan the flames in the West Bank. Settlers there have killed at least seven Palestinian civilians in acts of revenge in just the past week….
Unfortunately, the senior U.S. official told me, Israeli military leaders are actually more hawkish than the prime minister now.2 They are red with rage and determined to deliver a blow to Hamas that the whole neighborhood will never forget.
This sense of what is to come, combined with other trouble spots across the globe, appears to be bringing down the mood in the White House. According to Axios’ Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, “Never before have we talked to so many top government officials who, in private, are so worried about so many overseas conflicts at once…. inside the White House, this was the heaviest, most chilling week since President Biden took office just over 1,000 days ago…. Not one of the crises can be solved and checked off. All [of them] could spiral into something much bigger.”
So that’s a lot of pressure on the White House! But that does not mean other elements of the executive branch are not feeling the heat. The Huffington Post’s Akbar Shahid Ahmed has filed multiple dispatches about State Department personnel upset at the Biden team’s full-throated public endorsement of Israel. His first one, in the immediate wake of the Hamas attacks, reported that senior State Department officials did not want the phrases “de-escalation/ceasefire,” “end to violence/bloodshed” and “restoring calm,” included in any press materials. Then, on October 18th, Ahmed reported:
As Biden grapples with the crisis, several U.S. officials told HuffPost it has become difficult to have a full debate within his administration about what’s happening in Israel-Palestine ― and in particular that people who want to talk about Israeli restraint or humanitarian protections for Palestinians feel stifled.
Several staffers across multiple agencies, most of whom work on national security issues, told HuffPost they and their colleagues worry about retaliation at work for questioning Israel’s conduct amid the U.S.-backed Israeli campaign to avenge an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, that killed more than 1,400 Israelis.
The fear is especially intense among staffers with Muslim backgrounds.3 On Sunday, presidential personnel office chief Gautam Raghavan organized a call with close to a dozen current and former high-level Muslim appointees to discuss their concerns. Some staffers said they felt unsafe voicing their opinions around colleagues because it could endanger their careers, according to a person on the call, which has not been previously reported.
At least one State Department official decided his government career was no longer worth it. Josh Paul, the director of congressional and public affairs at the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, resigned on October 18th and posted a two-page letter to LinkedIn protesting official U.S. policy. In a follow-on interview with Politico’s Nahal Toosi, Paul confirmed that he did not think there was sufficient debate within State about the wisdom of backing Israel to the hilt:
I’ve been watching events since the horrors of Oct. 7 and participating, of course, in the State Department and interagency discussions about how to respond, what we would do. Over that period, I just saw the lack of debate. Normally when we have controversial arms transfer decisions, those are hashed out intensively and sometimes over a period of weeks or months, or sometimes even years. There just wasn’t any space for that sort of discussion. I attempted it on a number of occasions, in emails and conversations and discussions and meetings. But there was no response, just, “OK, got it. Let’s move on. We’re doing this.”
Then, on the 19th, HuffPo’s Ahmed reported that preparations were under way for State Department officials to use the dissent channel to protect the ongoing U.S. approach:
Officials told HuffPost that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his most senior advisers are overlooking widespread internal frustration. Some department staff said they feel as if Blinken and his team are uninterested in their own experts’ advice as they focus on supporting Israel’s expanding operation in Gaza, where the Palestinian militant group Hamas is based.
“There’s basically a mutiny brewing within State at all levels,” one State Department official said….
State Department staff are trying to simultaneously conduct delicate diplomacy, respond to calls from Congress to demonstrate huge support for Israel and regard for Palestinian lives, and manage global outrage over the impression that the U.S. is providing cover for excessive Israeli force.
Counterparts in Arab governments are telling State Department officials the U.S. is at risk of losing support in their region for a generation, a U.S. official told HuffPost.
It’s unclear whether Blinken — who returned to Washington on Wednesday after a five-day trip across the Middle East, during which he met with officials in seven countries — understands the crisis of morale in his department.
“There’s a sense within the workforce that the secretary doesn’t see it or doesn’t care,” a State Department official said, saying that the feeling extends to high-ranking figures at the agency. “And it’s almost certain he’s not aware of just how bad the workforce dynamics are. It’s really quite bad.”
The negativity is surfacing in a variety of ways. One official described peers as “depressed and angry about it all,” while another said some staff are experiencing “resignation.” That official recalled a colleague in tears during a meeting over their view “that U.S. policy statements emphasized support for Israel over the lives of Palestinians.”
Contra Ahmed, it seems clear that Blinken is aware of the uneasiness within his own department. Politico’s Toosi reported only a few hours later that, “Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his staffers Thursday night that he knew many were shaken professionally and personally by the Israel-Hamas war.”
So what is going on? I think there are three different dynamics at work here. The first is at the level of the Biden White House, which probably feels like its circuits are overloading and its influence over regional dynamics is limited. For example, even though it seems increasingly clear that Israel was not responsible for the horrendous hospital attack in Gaza last week, that has not stopped Arab populations and leaders from acting as if it were so. As Friedman noted ruefully in his column, Islamic Jihad likely accomplished achieved more with its misfired rocket than any of its successful missile strikes.
You know what, though? That’s life in the big city. The job of any foreign policy team is to put out the fires so the next guy has less of a full plate. Biden inherited one hell of a full plate from his predecessor — but this is the remit if you want to work in the West Wing.4
As for the staff, my hunch is that they are coping with twin pressures. The first is just the overall beleaguered state that regional experts are feeling right now. Hamas’ sole accomplishment has been to depress the hell out of anyone invested in regional stability in the Middle East, regardless of whether they focus on Israel, Palestine, or the overall region.5 Even before any ground assault, the loss of life in Israel and Gaza has been appalling. That is enough to weigh down the soul.
The second is that, weirdly enough, I suspect the State Department personnel are feeling an even more heightened sense of the helplessness that outsiders have been feeling about the escalating spiral of violence. At least outsiders know their influence is limited. State Department personnel are supposed to be able to help mold policy. In a crisis situation like this one, however, administrations often narrow the decision-making circle. That certainly seems to be the case with the Biden team right now.
Nothing will remedy the sadness and pain about the state of the region but time and peace. What should remedy the second frustration, however, is the recognition that Biden’s strategy has evolved over the past ten days or so in a direction that should please all the internal critics cited in these pieces.
Josh Paul told Toosi, “there are options for Israel that do not involve displacing 600,000 civilians.” Others have made similar points. And it would seem that Biden and other allies are pressing Netanyahu’s government on whether it has contemplated all the possible options. One immediate result of this questioning has been the return of humanitarian aid flows into Gaza. Indeed, Biden has played his hand well enough for the New York Times’ Steven Erlanger to suggest that Israelis are now worried Biden has too much influence right now:
In the wake of a visit by President Biden, Israelis on Thursday praised his courage in coming at a time of war and for his full-throated support, as he pledged “we will not let you ever be alone” after attacks from Hamas killed at least 1,400 Israelis.
But while the words were welcome, there was also concern that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, badly damaged by his failure to protect Israelis, had given Mr. Biden too much influence over how Israel should now fight its war in Gaza against Hamas, the group that controls the enclave.
Mr. Biden embraced Israel, but also cautioned it not to overreach to its detriment in the region — and implicitly, to the detriment of the United States. He even attended a war cabinet to be briefed on Israel’s plans, as Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken did before him.
This degree of consultation is rare, if not unprecedented, even in a relationship this close, Israeli analysts said. If it has potential benefits for Mr. Netanyahu, it also carries risks. It may give him political cover for an extended war, but it may also constrain how he conducts it.
There are still a lot of ways the situation in Gaza and the greater Middle East can go sideways. Despite the laments of some, the Biden administration’s diplomacy does not appear to be one of those reasons.
I don’t mean to alarm anyone but that is the most terrifying sentence I have read since the start of the crisis.
This is related to but distinct from the objections that Arab-American and Muslim leaders have lodged to the Biden White House about official U.S. rhetoric in the wake of the October 7th attacks.
To be clear, I doubt Biden personally is kvetching to Axios about the difficulty of his job. I’ll also note that it’s funny how, during this crisis, concerns about his age seem to have faded away.