A weekend of terror in Israel has sharpened already grave questions about the capacity of the politically fractured United States to lay out a unified and coherent response to a world spinning out of its control.
When the House of Representatives descended into chaos last week, many Republicans, Democrats and independent experts warned that anarchy raging in US politics sent a dangerous message to the outside world. But no one could foresee just how quickly the paralysis in Washington would test the country’s reaction to a major global crisis.
The horrific Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians, which have killed hundreds of people and shattered the country’s sense of security, thrust the Middle East to the precipice of a new era of violence and instability. This followed a period of relative calm and after US presidents spent years trying to extricate American forces from the region.
Israel’s response to the carnage caused by a major Iranian proxy raises the possibility of a wider regional war that would further destabilize the global order already rocked by the war in Ukraine and China’s flagrant challenges to Western power.
A situation this dangerous requires a calm, united and thoughtful US response, supported across the political spectrum. But the turmoil in America’s politics – plagued by internal extremism, threats to democracy and the hyperpoliticization of foreign policy – means it will be an impossible task to bring the country together at a perilous moment.
Swift efforts by lawmakers to quickly register support for Israel and to rush extra aid to its government could be hampered by the collapse of the Republican Party’s ability to govern in the House after the ouster of Speaker Kevin McCarthy last week by his party’s extreme elements.
And the US is also facing an unprecedented election season. A president with low approval ratings confronting questions about his advanced age could go up against a potential Republican nominee who could be an indicted felon by Election Day. This means, at best, the United States will spend the coming months preoccupied by its own political plight. At worst, the world’s superpower guarantor of democracy could actually worsen global disruption and instability.
Republican front-runner Donald Trump rushed to exploit the crisis for his political gain, accusing President Joe Biden of causing the conflict because of “weakness.”
“Joe Biden betrayed Israel, he betrayed our country. As president, I will once again stand with Israel,” Trump said.
Foreign policy issues rarely decide US elections. But the danger for Biden and the opening for Trump is that yet another crisis abroad could foment an idea that the world is in turmoil, American power is weakening and Biden is hapless. At home and abroad, chaos is Trump’s friend as he seeks to foment the classic conditions that benefit aspiring autocrats promising strongman rule.
Fractured American governance doesn’t simply pose a material issue for Israel and for Ukraine, whose US lifeline as it battles Russia’s unprovoked invasion is now in extreme jeopardy due to far-right Republicans. The spectacle also suggests to US enemies – including Iran, the main supporter of Hamas, and Russia and China – that the US is hopelessly divided and may struggle to wield power to safeguard its interests.
“It wasn’t my idea to oust the speaker. I thought it was dangerous,” Rep. Michael McCaul, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “I look at the world and all the threats that are out there, and what kind of message are we sending to our adversaries when we can’t govern, when we’re dysfunctional, when we don’t even have a speaker of the House?
“How does Chairman Xi in China look at that when he says democracy doesn’t work?” the Texas Republican added. “How does the Ayatollah look at this, knowing that we cannot function properly? And I think it sends a terrible message.”
US sends a message of chaos and weakness
The shuttered House created a particularly damaging symbol of the US – and the democratic system of governance it promotes around the world – in disarray. The Biden administration has the capacity to send immediate military aid to Israel, whose government has asked Washington for JDAM precision-guided munition kits and more interceptors for the Iron Dome air defense system as Hamas rockets rain down on Israeli cities. But any delay in seating a new speaker and creating a functioning majority in the House could have serious consequence.
Republican Rep. Michael Lawler, who faces a tough reelection in a New York district that Biden would have carried in 2020 under its new lines, warned that the chaos in the House needs to end. “Given the situation in the Middle East with one of our closest allies in the world, it is critical that we bring this to a close expeditiously,” Lawler told CNN’s Dana Bash. “And so, I think it is imperative, frankly, that this nonsense stop, that Kevin McCarthy be reinstated as speaker,” Lawler added.
Republicans left town after ousting McCarthy last week, and are expected to try to choose between Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, who has the backing of Trump, and House Majority Leader Steve Scalise this week. But given the demands of extremists in the GOP conference, the complications of a tiny majority and the fact it took McCarthy a marathon 15 rounds of balloting to win the job in January, there is no guarantee that strong, new Republican leadership will quickly emerge.
While there is crossparty consensus over supporting Israel in the House, the US response to another murderous assault on a vulnerable democracy – Ukraine – threatens to be derailed by America’s viciously polarized politics in a way that could seriously erode Washington’s global leadership.
Right-wing Republicans who back Trump are echoing the former president’s opposition to further US aid and ammunition to Ukraine. While there is still a majority in favor of such measures in the House and the Senate, any future Republican speaker will likely have to pass aid packages with the help of Democratic votes – the very scenario that caused McCarthy’s fall as he tried to head off a damaging government shutdown (even though that stopgap funding bill did not include Ukraine aid, as the White House had wanted).
Already, the political showdown over Ukraine is causing deep concern in Kyiv that it will be unable to continue its fight against Russia in the current form without the more than $20 billion in assistance that the Biden administration has requested.
In a broader sense, the possibility that a populist, nationalist wing of the Republican Party under Trump could desert a democracy under attack from Russia – and therefore reward the aggression of an autocrat who shaped his worldview as a member of the KGB – threatens to not just shatter the logic of decades of US foreign policy, but to fundamentally change the US’ role in the world and the values on which its allies believed they could depend.
The politicization of global crises is not just confined to Israel or Ukraine. A Chinese spy balloon that wafted over US soil this year caused an extraordinary outburst of Republican fury toward Biden, which threatened to tie the president’s hands when managing the critical issue of US relations with the Pacific superpower.
A growing sense abroad that America’s political problems are limiting its ability to lead globally could also have a devastating effect on its power. This can only play into the hands of enemies in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran, who have all sought to influence US elections, according to US intelligence agencies, and all have strong geopolitical incentives in seeing American democracy fail.
The extraordinary and sudden Hamas attack on Israel – which has been compared to the September 11 attacks in the United States, and in terms of per capita casualties was far more bloody – falls into the category of tragedies that could change the world.
Aside from the awful human toll – now also being felt by Palestinian civilians in Gaza, where hundreds have perished in the initial Israel reprisal attacks on the infrastructure of Hamas – the onslaught will have far-reaching strategic consequences that will be felt in the US.
If evidence is found that Iran directly plotted the attack with Hamas, there will be huge pressure on the Israelis to respond by directly confronting the Islamic Republic, at the risk of sparking a wider regional conflagration that could draw in the United States.
The attacks and their fallout are also almost certain to disrupt the effort, in which the US is a key player, to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia and allied Arab states. Such an agreement would fundamentally reshape the region and further isolate Iran – a logical reason why it could have had an interest in perpetrating the Hamas assault. US officials are still trying to establish how, if at all, Iran was involved.
The horror in Israel presents Biden with another fearsome foreign policy crisis as he contemplates his reelection bid – alongside the war in Ukraine and a rising confrontation with China.
It comes at a moment of political vulnerability for the administration as it seeks to explain why it made a deal to release US prisoners from Iran that resulted in the release of $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds. The Iranian government can use the funds only to buy humanitarian and medical supplies. The deal took place far too recently for such money to be used to finance this attack. But such subtleties don’t count for much in an election year, as multiple Republican presidential candidates accused the president of funding Iranian terror.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday tried to defuse the political impact of the agreement. “Not a single dollar has been spent from that account. And, again, the account is closely regulated by the US Treasury Department, so it can only be used for things like food, medicine, medical equipment,” he insisted on “State of the Union.”
But, in a political sense, it only matters that enough Americans believe what the Republicans are saying is true.
GOP hopeful Nikki Haley, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, for instance, implied Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that funds that Iran may not have to spend on medicine because of the hostage deal could now be spent on terror.
“Secretary Blinken is just wrong to imply that this money is not being moved around as we speak,” Haley said, although her argument is undercut by the fact that Iran’s clerical regime has rarely seemed to prioritize the humanitarian needs of its people while building up a huge state military complex.
Another 2024 candidate, GOP Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, went even further, accusing Biden – who has been one of the strongest Washington supporters of Israel in half a century in politics – of being “complicit” in the attacks.