Joe Biden started his political career blasé about the Vietnam War. He is ending it blasé about Palestinian genocide.
In 1972, while campaigning for his first term in the senate, Joe Biden couldn’t muster up the moral outrage needed to condemn the Vietnam War. Despite the twenty-fold increase in American troops deployed to the region, Biden had been medically deferred from the draft five times. He won his seat after war crimes like My Lai were made public, after the US government shot and killed students at Kent State for protesting the war and those war crimes, after the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Curtis LeMay, led a campaign to bomb the communists “back into the Stone Age,” that dropped two million tons of bombs not only on Vietnam but neighboring Laos in an overwhelming strategic failure to win the asymmetric not-war that eventually claimed the lives of millions of Vietnamese and thousands of Americans.
The indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations labeled enemy combatants wasn’t enough to get the junior senator from Delaware to condemn the Vietnam War. Neither was the use of napalm, a sticky incendiary that melted through the skin of children and combatants alike. Biden witnessed war crimes and saturation bombing and the abject failure of both to hand the richest, most powerful nation in the world a military victory. Somehow, he remained so complacent that upon encountering anti-war protesters he thought to himself: “Look at these assholes.”
What I am saying is that President Biden has already seen the sort of destruction Israel is visiting on Gaza. And he doesn’t really have a problem with it.
50 years later, Joseph R. Biden is President of the United States, and he still thinks protestors are assholes. It’s only been a month since Israel responded to the horrific Hamas attack with explicitly genocidal rhetoric and carpet bombs, but Biden’s disdain for those opposing the war is clear:
- 15 Oct - A week after Israel shut off water to the 2.4 million inhabitants of Gaza, Biden acknowledged a protestor interrupting his Human Rights Campaign dinner with “Thank you for whatever you’re saying, I can’t hear you.”
- 30 Oct - Two weeks after Israel demanded 2 million Palestinians, half of them children, evacuate to the southern portion of Gaza while bombs rained down on bakeries, hospitals, and refugee camps, the Biden administration initiated a tracking program for “antisemitic” activity like saying “Free Palestine” and “Divest from Zionist Genocide.” Both statements were and are being made in powerful concert by Jewish people and Jewish organizations throughout the course of this conflict.
- The administration decided it would be nice to pair their antisemitism strategy with an anti-islamophobia strategy, while adamantly refusing to do a single material thing to mitigate the disproportionate, vengeful slaughter of Palestinians, or constrain the unrepentant architect of this genocide. Instead, as the death toll approached 8,000, as hospitals ran out of- fuel and anesthetic, as an internet blackout had to be circumvented by Egyptian activists and the videos, endless videos of neighborhoods leveled, settlers invading, soldiers dehumanizing, and the aftermath of tanks and rockets fired at civilian targets filled the internet, Biden gave Israel’s Netanyahu a hug.
- 31 Oct - Protestors raised blood-red hands at the US House of Representatives to call for a ceasefire as Secretary Blinken argued for 14 billion dollars in unrestricted funding and munitions for the Israeli government. Blinken, like Biden, like the administration as a whole, ignored the protestors entirely, saying later that a pause would “simply consolidate what Hamas has been able to do and ... potentially repeat what it did another day."
Biden’s foreign policy experience echoes painfully through Secretary Blinken’s statement. Twenty years earlier, Senator Biden said almost exactly the same thing, when he argued that to keep Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from consolidating his power, Congress must authorize then President George W. Bush to wage war on Iraq:
To place a limit on the amount of time the President possesses this authority, once Congress has granted it to him, would only encourage Saddam Hussein to stall and temporize on his commitments, knowing that the clock is working in his favor. Such an incentive would make us less secure, not more secure.
Senator Biden went on to say that he learned from Vietnam that Congress’s “power of the purse” is useless when the President refuses to de-escalate or withdraw troops already deployed. Better, in Biden’s opinion, to lean into the conflict and end it decisively rather than risk a long drawn out war against an insurgency. Senator Biden did not note that this plan failed spectacularly in Vietnam.
Senator Robert Byrd, who voted for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that laid the foundation for American involvement in Vietnam, spoke next. He had learned very different lessons from that war. Byrd began by listing the dead, the wounded, the damage to the nation and to two administrations. And then, he spoke about the lengths the executive branch went to convince Congress that they didn’t have the power or the right to stop the war machine:
After all that carnage, we began to learn that, in voting for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, we were basing our votes on bad information. We learned that the claims the administration made on the need for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution were simply not true, and history is repeating itself.
It is 2023 and the Senator Biden who was unmoved by the failures of the Vietnam War, who helped history to repeat itself by facilitating the Iraq War based on bad information, is now President himself. And he is insisting that his administration should be granted the unrestricted ability to fund and arm military actions in the name of protecting American interests and allies.
History is not just repeating itself this time. It is being brought into the rhyming meter of Shakespearean tragedy by the one person today with the unilateral power to prevent yet another shameful chapter in the long list of unjust, immoral military actions—if only he could summon the moral outrage to do so.
In an address on 20 October, Biden insisted that “American leadership is what holds the world together. American alliances are what keep us, America, safe. American values are what make us a partner that other nations want to work with.” And yet, in that same speech President Biden insists that providing military support to Zelenskyy’s Ukraine is equivalent to providing military support to Netanyahu’s Israel. With fifty years of foreign policy experience under his belt, Biden is claiming that America sees Ukraine’s fight to defend itself and its people from extermination by a neighboring imperialist dictator as equivalent to aspiring dictator Netanyahu’s clearly stated, long term ambition: the genocide of the Palestinian people.
This is absurd. The inability to properly assess the threat landscape does not make us a good ally—it makes us an easily manipulated stooge.
Biden can recognize a genocide. He was one of the first to push the United States to intervene in the Bosnian genocide, and less than two years ago he was willing to condemn China’s treatment of its Uighur population as genocide.
The precedent he has set within his own career shows that he is capable of the necessary will to acknowledge the reality of the Palestinian genocide and refuse to support it. That he chooses otherwise will be remembered as Biden’s own tragic mistake.
As a Senator, Biden has witnessed not once, but twice, what happens when Congress preemptively confers war powers to the President. Twice now, he has watched long, drawn out conflicts with enormous civilian casualties result, as administrations eager to prove America’s strength rely on bad information to justify decisions based on fear. Twice now, he has watched the richest, most powerful nation in the world assume that firepower is equivalent to strategy and attempt to wage an asymmetric war against a dispersed force that uses tunnels to move people and resources. And twice, Biden has seen this approach fail.
Today, Biden is attempting to convince Congress to give up its power just as he did twenty years ago and as Senator Byrd did thirty years before that. He claims that this time, the terrorists really will be bombed into submission. That this time, the civilian population is actually the same as the enemy combatants. That it is not only impossible to distinguish between them, but that anyone who wants to has effectively taken the side of the terrorists. Biden, as President, is just as eager to use bad information to demonstrate American might and launch American weapons in a misguided bid to prove America’s moral and military superiority.
In doing so he is ignoring the assessments of his own internal advisors, the resignations of key officials, the pleading of the globe to end hostilities. Tangible demonstrations of his own power as President of the United States to mitigate humanitarian disaster are being ignored. As he tries to bring arms deals to Israel under a veil of secrecy, Biden refuses to hear his own party—his own citizens—registering their dissent.
Protests for Palestine are just beginning. It’s estimated 5% of the US population protested the Iraq war, with 36 million people across the world saying No, not in our name. Those protests were the largest since Vietnam, when the immediacy of the draft gave demands for peace a deeply personal edge—except for those who were medically exempted, like Biden. Like the Vietnam War protests, they were ignored by those with the power to stop the war machine. Dissent was spirited out of the public consciousness by media that embedded themselves with the invading troops and wrote off protest as “anti-American.”
The Biden administration appears unwilling or unable to recognize that the greatest threat to our integrity and leadership, the greatest threat to our safety, comes not from those who would challenge our institutions, but from those who would co-opt them for their own purposes. In the United States this can look like the capture of the judiciary by the Federalist Society and the infiltration of white nationalists into our police and military forces. In Israel, it looks like the election of a prime minister under investigation for corruption who is intent on weakening democratic norms and institutions to strengthen his own power.
Netanyahu is eagerly exploiting Biden’s unqualified, uncritical support for the state of Israel to effect the genocide of the Palestinian people, using American weapons to commit war crimes over the protests of both his people and ours. A grim case in point: On November 3rd, a rabbi begged President Biden for a ceasefire. Biden responded by suggesting a pause to free the hostages was indeed needed. That same day, Netanyahu vowed to “keep bombing with all of our power” and as if to underscore who is calling the shots, he dismissed Biden’s suggestion of a pause in hostilities to free the hostages just a day later.
As Biden said in his 20 October address, there is no limit to the depravity of people when they want to inflict pain on others.
Tragically, Biden’s administration seems unable to recognize that supporting the genocidal ambitions of Netanyahu and his government is not the same as supporting the Jewish people. The conflation of antisemitism with criticism of the state of Israel or its government is a dangerous one, one that has allowed the state of Israel to ignore its own citizens and perpetrate apartheid and now a genocide of the Palestinian people. The people of Israel are protesting their government, loudly. We should listen to them.
80% of Israeli citizens are demanding Netanyahu take responsibility for the failure of intelligence that led to the Hamas attack. Holocaust survivors are demanding a ceasefire, as are family members of those killed by Hamas. The families of the hostages taken want the government of Israel to exchange “everyone for everyone”—the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons for the hostages taken by Hamas. Netanyahu’s government is not listening to its people.
Netanyahu probably thinks protestors are assholes too.
In that speech on 20 October, Biden asked “What would happen if we walked away? We are the essential nation.” It’s not a mystery. We know what happens when the US uses its moral authority, its leadership to refuse the Israeli government. They comply. They are dependent on us for their munitions, for their finances, for the political will to conduct their war. We do not have to be a part of it. We can demand a ceasefire. It is not too late.
Biden has participated in many of the tragic foreign policy mistakes made by the United States. He did not get a vote on US military strategy during the Vietnam War, but he saw the aftermath. He has served long enough to regret his vote for the Iraq war, long enough to end the wars he was reluctant to begin, long enough to watch the Global War on Terror become a global war of terror that makes all of us less safe. His unwavering support for Netanyahu’s “war” against refugee camps and children is poised to join Vietnam and Iraq as yet another monumental human rights and military failure.
This time around, Biden is the commander-in-chief of America's armed forces. He decides whether or not to send munitions to yet another country where lines drawn by global empires in the middle of the 20th century have resulted in decades of dehumanization and violence. He decides what lessons to take from fifty years of policy experience. He decides whether this time he will listen to the protestors and the calls for peace.
The protesters are right. They have been right for decades and they continue to be right in this new conflict. They protest because in today’s political and media landscape they can watch in real time the way state violence is visited on their fellow human beings, the way propaganda is developed and disseminated by states and administrations with a vested interest in dehumanization. The pleas for a ceasefire are pleas to recognize our shared humanity in a way that nations and their leaders often do not.
The protesters against this war, like the protesters against the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, have a sense of moral outrage.
It is beyond time that President Biden learns from them.
Featured Image is Palestine demonstration 2023