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Inflection Points October 12, 2023

Israel, Ukraine, and how Biden should connect the dots

By Frederick Kempe

It now seems like it was ages ago, but only last week US President Joe Biden said he would address the American people soon on why it was “overwhelmingly in the interest of the United States” that Ukraine prevails in Russia’s criminal war against it.

Hamas’s horrifying attack on Israel on October 7, resulting in Biden’s powerful and unambiguous statement of support for Israel this week, would appear to have put Ukraine on the back burner for the moment, replaced by a war that might appear more urgent.

But viewing these wars as entirely distinct from each other would be a mistake.

When Biden does get around to making his speech on Ukraine, he should expand his message and tell Americans, and at the same time our partners around the world, that together we face the greatest threat to global order since the 1930s.

What the wars in Ukraine and Israel have in common is that they are both the result of state-sponsored terrorism. In Ukraine’s case, Russia is acting brazenly and directly. In the case of Israel, Iran is acting through Hamas and others. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Tuesday that although there is no direct evidence that Iran was involved in the planning or execution of the attack, it was “complicit.” Indeed, the alarming scale and competence of Hamas’s attacks couldn’t have happened without Iran’s funding, weaponry, training, and intelligence. And without its deepening partnership with Russia and China, Iran would be a far less potent actor.

Beyond that, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping declared a “no limits partnership” before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Then in March of this year, they spoke together in Moscow of their intention to replace the fraying global system of rules and institutions, established by the United States and its partners after World War II, with something more to their own liking.

Xi told Putin at the time, “Right now there are changes of the likes of which we haven’t seen for a hundred years. And we are the ones driving these changes together.”

“The strategic and political point is that the return of war against Israel isn’t an isolated event,” wrote the Wall Street Journal in a lead editorial on Monday, under the provocative headline “Wake Up, Washington.” “It’s the latest installment in the unraveling of global order as American political will and military primacy are called into question.”

Anne Applebaum wrote this week in the Atlantic, “The Russian invasion of Ukraine and Hamas surprise attack on Israeli citizens are both blatant rejections of [the] rules-based order, and they herald something new. Both aggressors have developed a sophisticated, militarized, modern form of terrorism, and they do not feel apologetic or embarrassed about this at all.”

With the global stakes in mind, a chorus of Democratic and Republican members of Congress had been calling for months for Biden to deliver a major address to Americans, ideally from the Oval Office, on why it is crucial to continue supporting Ukraine.

Administration officials have now said Biden’s speech on Ukraine might have to wait at least until after House Republicans elect their new speaker. Some argue that a Ukraine speech should wait even longer, not wanting it to be lost amid new concerns regarding Israel, where US commitment has longer and deeper historic roots.

Biden shouldn’t wait to deliver his Ukraine speech, and he should broaden it to connect the dots to Israel, making clear that in both cases international crimes are being committed by two countries that need to be held to account. He also needs to warn that China, which is supporting both Russia and Iran, may choose to exploit this moment of perceived US weakness in the Pacific, with a specific danger to Taiwan.

It also would be a good time to underscore the national security dangers posed by our toxic political divisions in Washington. A small minority of Republicans in Congress was almost able to shut down the government. A minority again—just eight Republicans voting with Democrats—ousted the speaker. A similar minority could threaten continued support for Ukraine, although majorities in both the House and the Senate and among the American people continue to back Ukraine.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, writing in Foreign Affairs, provided the disturbing global context for this domestic dysfunction, which on current trajectory will grow only worse in our 2024 election year.

“The United States now confronts graver threats to its security that it has in decades, perhaps ever,” he writes. “Never before has it faced four allied antagonists at the same time—Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran—whose collective nuclear arsenal could within a few years be nearly double the size of its own.”

Gates worries “that at the very moment that events demand strong and coherent response from the United States, the country cannot provide one.”

There’s perhaps a silver lining in this tragic week. As Winston Churchill worked with the United States to create the United Nations after World War II, he famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

The reality of war in Israel, with the terrifying images of Hamas’s atrocities, may make it more difficult for an extreme minority to block government spending packages, when it’s clear so many lives are at stake. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) has floated the idea of a package that would include aid for Israel, assistance for Ukraine, “maybe Taiwan funding and finally border security funding. To me that would be a good package.”

Sullivan has said the president will make request to Congress regarding Israel and would renew its request for Ukraine, though he didn’t link them.

Whatever Congress does, it’s time for US leaders to look at the threat to global order more comprehensively. Until last weekend, Israel’s domestic politics was even more toxically divided than that of the United States. It took the Hamas attack to pull Israelis together, at least temporarily.

One hopes the United States won’t require that sort of wake-up call before it recognizes the threats to Ukraine and Israel are related and that they require a coherent, coordinated, and sustained response.

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe.


#1 Jake Sullivan’s Trial by Combat
Susan B. Glasser | THE NEW YORKER

Susan Glasser’s New Yorker opus is the smartest profile I’ve read anywhere on National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his role on Ukraine and elsewhere.

“As a child of the eighties and ‘Rocky’ and ‘Red Dawn,’ I believe in freedom fighters and I believe in righteous causes, and I believe the Ukrainians have one,” Sullivan told Glasser. “There are very few conflicts that I have seen—maybe none—in the post-Cold War era . . . where there’s such a clear good guy and bad guy. And we’re on the side of the good guy, and we have to do a lot for that person.”

Glasser writes that the task of leading the White House through the “treacherous politics” of the war in Ukraine has fallen to Sullivan, who, when he was appointed at the age of forty-four, was “the youngest national-security adviser since McGeorge Bundy held the job, during the Vietnam War.” Read more →

#2 There Are No Rules
Anne Applebaum | THE ATLANTIC  

Anne Applebaum also draws the crucial connection between Russia’s war on Ukraine and Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel: Both actions completely disregard the “rules-based world order,” whose origins and purpose she describes in rich detail.

“Both aggressors have deployed a sophisticated, militarized, modern form of terrorism, and they do not feel apologetic or embarrassed about this at all,” Applebaum writes. “Terrorists, by definition, are not fighting conventional wars and do not obey the laws of war. Instead, they deliberately create fear and chaos among civilian populations.” Read more →

#3 The Dysfunctional Superpower

The recent ousting of Speaker Kevin McCarthy from his leadership role in the House of Representatives was only the latest act in the circus of US domestic politics. Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates argues that the bigger problem is that the United States’ internal divisions and the ensuing dysfunction have become a national security threat.

“The United States finds itself in a uniquely treacherous position: facing aggressive adversaries with a propensity to miscalculate yet incapable of mustering the unity and strength necessary to dissuade them,” Gates writes. “Successfully deterring leaders such as Xi and Putin depends on the certainty of commitments and constancy of response. Yet instead, dysfunction has made American power erratic and unreliable, practically inviting risk-prone autocrats to place dangerous bets—with potentially catastrophic effects.” Read more →

#4 Wake Up, Washington
The Editorial Board | WALL STREET JOURNAL

Following Hamas’s assault on Israel, the Wall Street Journal published a powerful lead editorial, arguing that Washington is in need of an alarm clock.

“The invasion, planned with an assist from Iran, ought to wake up both parties in Washington,” the Editorial Board writes. “The world is awash in threats that will inevitably wash up on our shore if America doesn’t get its act together.”

“The growing global disorder is a result in part of American retreat, not least Mr. Biden’s departure from Afghanistan that told the world’s rogues the United States was preoccupied with its internal divisions. But too many Republicans are also falling for the siren song of isolationism and floating a defense cut in the name of fiscal restraint. The Hamas invasion should blow up dreams the United States can ‘focus on China’ and write off other parts of the world.” Read more →

#5 Israel Has Never Needed to Be Smarter Than in This Moment
Thomas L. Friedman | NEW YORK TIMES

Tom Friedman draws on his rich, Pulitzer Prize-winning experience in the Middle East to provide some advice.

Friedman outlines how the United States can best help Israel: “First, I hope the president is asking Israel to ask itself this question as it considers what to do next in Gaza: What do my worst enemies want me to do—and how can I do just the opposite?”

“I hope Biden is telling Netanyahu that America will do everything it can to help democratic Israel defend itself from the theocratic fascists of Hamas—and their soul brothers of Hezbollah in Lebanon, should they enter the fight,” Friedman writes. Read more →

Atlantic Council top reads

Image: FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, makes remarks after speaking by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the situation in Israel following Hamas' deadly attacks, from the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, U.S. October 10, 2023. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo