I had intended to get back to you much sooner, but I procrastinate, not to mention possess a writing style that is either slow, slower, or out of service. I suppose that would be defensible if the final product sheds some insights on our present political predicament and challenges, but I make no guarantees of that.
I should warn you, this is long, far longer than I had initially planned and probably far more than you care to read. But as I wrote, new thoughts cropped up in my head. Some are prompted by your recent articles, while others originate elsewhere. You will find that I’m argumentative in spots and raise some questions in more than a few places.
Here they are:
1. President Biden’s trip to Israel and fulsome hug of Netanyahu on his arrival in Tel Aviv was done in large measure, I believe, to give the president and his team some political leverage behind the scenes in its conversations with Netanyahu and his governing coalition.
Netanyahu, while enthusiastically welcoming the “hug,” paid no attention to Biden’s counsel and cautions regarding Israel’s response to the deeply traumatic event in Israel on October 7.
Meanwhile, a worldwide audience watching this encounter was left with the impression, and I believe it is mistaken, that Biden and the full power of the U.S. government were, without conditions or equivocations, on Israel’s side in its invasion of Gaza that is so gruesome, so deadly, and so one sided that a vigorous debate, I don’t have to tell you, is afoot as to whether it constitutes genocide or something slightly less heinous. The genocide side seems to winning.
If Biden, as he flew over the Atlantic on his way to Israel, had hoped to be a behind the scenes broker of peace, advocate of restraint and counselor against overreach, he pissed it away in that moment of embrace. It brings to mind the aphorism: “If you run with the hounds, you end up smelling like them.”
Revealed in this episode of botched statecraft was the shrinking limits of U.S. power as well as the hollowness of Biden’s recent claim that the U.S., stealing a phrase of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s from the late 1990s, remains the “indispensable nation” in global affairs.
Needless to say, such a claim failed to capture power realities in the global system at the time and less so now. In the world in which Biden governs, power is increasingly diffused and unipolarity is giving way to multipolarity. The U.S. still sits at the top of the hierarchy of states in a competitive and dynamic world of rivalries and blocs, but its ability to project power, shape events, and determine outcomes is far more circumscribed than it was decades ago.
The sooner Biden and his foreign policy team fully metabolize this reality, the likelihood of foolhardy adventures on their part and the accompanying dangers of overreach, blowback, even catastrophe that can follow, will hopefully recede.
2. Many on the left say Biden’s appeal for a bombing pause and restraint, while in Israel and since then, is no more than political theater and rhetorical obfuscation designed to conceal his full throated support of bloody mayhem in Gaza, courtesy of Israel’s powerful military machine. This view strikes me as driven more by ideological disposition than evidence and concrete analysis.
I, obviously, have no first hand knowledge, but what would be the logic that informed Biden and his team of advisors to decide that the president of the United States should visit Israel at a moment of deep national trauma?
To express his solidarity with the Israeli people? For sure. But also, I would argue to urge restraint, proportionality, and a narrowly defined war mission.
Think about it, if he wanted to green light Netenyahu’s plan to transform Gaza into a living hell of death and destruction, he would have done so quietly in a phone call from the White House, not travel to Tel Aviv and engage in a lovefest in front of a worldwide audience, already outraged.
A shrewd gambler in contrast with a adventurous or reckless one only “bets the house” when the likelihood of winning is high. Biden’s bet was that he stood a good chance of convincing, Neranyahu, in a face to face meeting to scale back the planned invasion of Gaza and exercise restraint thus avoiding tens of thousands of Palestinian casualties, the destruction of Gaza, and the chance of a wider war. In his calculus, a measured, proportional response would minimize the death of Gazans and flattening of Gaza, while setting the table to address the vexing issues that keep this small geographical space in either a state of “violent equilibrium” or open warfare.
To be fair, this isn’t the first time a president and his advisors overestimated their ability to influence other world leaders and world events. Hubris, as we know only too well, isn’t a recent arrival at the White House. It is a trip wire that few presidents avoid during their stay there. Biden and his advisors, we now know, are no exception.
Which brings me to the popular slogan “Genocide Joe.” It poorly fits Biden’s role at the time of the outbreak of the war in Gaza or now.
Biden doesn’t deserve a free pass, but neither does he deserve the crown of a practitioner of genocide. His culpability in the deaths and destruction in Gaza is of a different kind than Netanyahu’s. He is neither the author of this wretched action, nor did he pull the trigger. He urged restraint, proportionality, humanitarian pauses, and a narrowly circumscribed invasion in the expectation that Netanayhu would heed the counsel of the president of the most powerful country in the world.
I’m not suggesting that Biden bears no responsibility for what transpired there. But his culpability is one of gross miscalculation in thinking he could deter Netanyahu in private conversations and then in failing to insist on a ceasefire to what became obvious early on — an unfolding human catastrophe in Gaza.
Had he intervened along these lines, he would have encountered powerful headwinds, undoubtedly, in Israel and here. It would have taken courage. But that he couldn’t summon up. If he had done so, I believe he would have received support from many quarters, including at the highest levels of the U.S. imperial project. That he didn’t was a failure of a high order, politically and morally. But to tag Biden as “Genocide Joe” or some variant is analytically mistaken, counterproductive, and, looking ahead, potentially damaging to efforts of the anti-MAGA coalition to reelect him and a Democratic congressional majority in November and dodge a metaphorical “bullet.”
3. The horrific bloodletting and forced displacement of more than a million Gazans, as you point out in your recent articles, has brought the struggle of the Palestinian people for equality and statehood out of the shadows and into the corridors of power, not to mention workplaces, houses of worship, homes, and streets worldwide.
If Biden, like Obama before him, wanted to pivot away from the Middle East and turn his full attention to China and the Pacific rim countries and their politics and economies, the mass slaughter on October 7 and the river of blood, destruction, and ethnic cleansing in Gaza that followed have slowed down his (and U.S. imperialism’s) strategic turn.
Which goes to prove that the best laid plans of even the most powerful state and its leaders can be shredded in a moment in an unstable, unequal, and volatile world.
(Giovanni Arrighi in one or another of his later books mentions that the quality of statecraft can either considerably accelerate the decline or extend the life of a hegemonic power.)
4. Israel’s unrestrained military assault, arguably genocidal, is provoking a significant number of policy makers and shapers of public opinion and members of the top layers of our society into rethinking the longstanding practice – almost a third rail of American politics – of successive administrations and Congress, especially since the Six Day War in 1967, of uncritically and generously supporting Israel.
Moreover, the reappraisal afoot in these circles, while more muted and more cautious than what we may like, is growing (evidence is found in one article after another in publications, like Foreign Affairs) and of enormous political significance if we hope to change this longstanding and deeply embedded policy.
I would include in this category as I have argued above, though many will likely disagree, the Biden administration. If the White House wasn’t fully convinced of the necessity of this rethink a while ago, it likely has far fewer reservations now. Once burned, twice shy!
Not surprisingly, some on the left, as I mentioned earlier, say all this noise is nothing but smoke and mirrors and clever deception, noting in a self satisfied and gotcha tone that the pipeline of military aid to Israel has encountered no blockages since October 7 and the employment of the veto power of the U.S. continues uninterrupted.
A riposte to this assertion has an easy answer: two things can be true at the same time. Which is the case here, I believe. Moreover, these rifts in political and policy circles over our present policy toward Israel create a more favorable terrain in Washington and across the country to widen and deepen them and effect a change of policy.
Contrary to what some on the left think, street heat, pressure from the left, and militant rhetoric alone aren’t enough to force major policy shifts. No one made this point better than Lenin in “Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder”
Of course, few people read Lenin these days. Perhaps a better suggestion might be a recent book of a noted historian that analyzes one or another turning point in U.S. history that are rich in complexity, contradiction, and variety.
5. The landscape in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is shifting, Vivek Chibber writes in the recent issue of Catalyst:
“Now that it is out, there is simply no chance of putting this genie back in the bottle. There is every reason to believe that this might be a turning point in the struggle for Palestinian statehood, in that, as Noam Chomsky predicted in the summer 2021 issue of Catalyst, the “era of impunity” might very well be at an end.”
I hope he is right.
The social explosion worldwide in response to the bombing and invasion, comparable, as many have said, to the upheaval at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2004, is certainly encouraging. I do wonder though if it’s sustainable, in part because Its strategy and tactics strike me as problematic. Some of its slogans and chants won’t travel well across the country. Many of its leaders and activists act as though it is enough to be right and righteous. And antisemitism is no stranger to this surge of protest either.
I see little or no mention, for example, of the current negotiations for an extended ceasefire and hostage exchanges. Why not? Why the tone deafness? Why the failure to see an opportunity here.
Set aside the immediate relief it would bring to the people of Gaza and the release of some if not all of the hostages held by Hamas and many Palestinians languishing in Israeli prisons, such an agreement could create momentum for a permanent ceasefire and turn to economic reconstruction in Gaza, the return of the nearly 2 million displaced Gazans, the provision of safety and security for Palestinian and Israeli people alike, and, not least, steps toward Palestinian statehood in one form or another.
I also don’t recall great enthusiasm last month for Bernie’s Senate bill calling for restrictions on aid to Israel. But you would know more about this than I do.
That the most rabid supporters of Israel here would oppose such measures is to be expected, but I am surprised by the silence of the leaders and activists in the Palestinian solidarity movement. Maximalism, it seems, is ascendant and partial demands nowhere to be found.
6. For the moment it seems like President Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken are turning their attention for all practical purposes to the main issues/challenges when the guns of war die down. At the top of their stated priorities are an extended ceasefire, the reconstruction and governance of Gaza, the return of 1.9 million people to their homes, and, a two state solution.
But the political dilemma here is obvious: if Netanyahu and his extremist coalition won’t take his advice to moderate and scale back the war on Gaza, what makes anyone believe that this motley collection of racist and colonial minded authoritarians will embrace, even rhetorically, the rebuild of Gaza, the return of the displaced, the safety and security of Palestinians, and the national rights of the Palestinian people.
It appear Netenyahu and his motley crew are confident that the state and military capacity of Israel plus its support in Congress and in U.S. civil society will allow him to ignore the Biden administration and world public opinion as it imposes a settlement that leaves Israel occupying and governing the land and people between the “river and the sea” with an iron fist when necessary, the threat of force always present, and sunk in relations of deep inequality between Israeli Jews and Palestianians.
Such is the nature of an apartheid state.
What could throw a wrench into this retrograde plan, essentially, a second Nakba, is a gelling alignment of political actors and constituencies in the U.S., Israel, the Middle East, and across the globe who oppose the annexationist designs and the genocidal-like actions of Netanyahu and his governing bloc. At the top of their agenda is the reconstruction of Gaza, the return of 1.9 million people to their homes, the resolution of the immediate governance of Gaza, and Palestinian statehood in one form or another.
In this new alignment, we find, I would argue, the Biden administration as well as members of Congress, U.S. foreign policy makers and commentators, a majority of the American public, and important voices in the Jewish community.
Last week, I’m sure you know, 15 Jewish members of Congress issued a statement challenging Netenyahu’s rejection of a two state solution. But this too was met with silence by the solidarity network.
7. In thinking about the war in Gaza and the slaughter of 1200 people in Israel on October 7 that provided the ramp for Netanyahu and the Israeli military to flatten Gaza, kill 26,000 Gazans, and force nearly 2 million people to flee for their safety, I came upon this seemingly simple, but, in my opinion, profound observation by Sally Abed, a national leader of Standing Together (she is a Palestinian Israeli; the other co-leader is Jewish Israeli), the largest Jewish-Palestinian grassroots movement in Israel:
“I always say that Palestinian liberation necessitates Jewish safety, and vice versa. And I say it to both sides. You’re pro-Israel? You need to liberate Palestinians. You’re pro-Palestinian? You need to talk about Jewish safety. It’s much bigger than the hostages. It’s a much bigger shift in conception. It’s a very simple equation, and I repeat it like crazy. It is the basis of the new left that needs to emerge. When you talk about peace and ending the occupation, it’s related to that very deep, existential interest and need.”
This kind of dialectical framing, I believe, should inform the thinking and practical activities of the solidarity movement here.
From my perch, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Once you get beyond the demand for a ceasefire, which has considerable support, as it should, the other demands and slogans are too general, too easily misinterpreted, and too narrowly constructed to attract a wider swath of people and organizations, including, and importantly, significant sections of the Jewish community.
When I joined the Party in 1972, I learned that the fight against racism, notwithstanding white skin advantage, was in the interest of the entire working class as well as people of color. Similarly, I learned that the fight for Black equality strengthens democratic and class struggles all down the line. And I was also taught by Martin Luther King as well as Party leaders that ending the war in Vietnam was the key link in the chain that had to be grasped to move the entire chain of social progress forward.
In framing these struggles in this manner rather than siloing them one from the other, the aim was to widen and deepen the unity and power of the movements fighting for equality, democracy, working class interests, and, not least, an end to the war. I don’t see a similar methodology employed in the current struggle for a ceasefire or the equality and national rights of the Palestinian people. Instead demands seem to stand alone, things in themselves, even in contradiction to other democratic demands.
The safety and security of the Israeli people, for example, aren’t accorded even a cameo appearance in this mode of thinking. Any daylight between them and Netanyahu is nowhere to be found. It’s as if the 1200 people murdered, mainly Israeli Jews, deserved what they got.
That common interests and a common field of struggle, not to mention a common foe of Palestinians and Jews alike might exist is nowhere to be found. Such political myopia — and, I have to think, a dollop or two of anti-semitism — won’t bring us a flea hop closer to a ceasefire as well as securing Palestinian equality and national rights and the safety and security of both peoples.
Will this change? Perhaps. But it is more likely if new organizing centers emerge, showing more flexibility and articulating new demands and slogans that accent the mutual interests of the two peoples.
8. I’m surprised you make no reference, even passing, to the 1200 innocent people slaughtered in Israel. I have to assume, knowing the attention that you give to matters like this, that it isn’t simply an oversight or error of omission on your part, but reflects a political choice. If I’m wrong or if I missed it in my reading of your articles, I’m sure you will let me know.
For my part, the mass killings of 1200 innocent people on October 7 have no justification. They are politically and morally indefensible. And inconsistent with the left politics that I embrace. I believe that they should be unequivocally condemned.
Context matters for sure and can shed light on causes and dynamics, but it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) justify atrocities, the mass slaughter of noncombatants, as happened on October 7.
In my understanding of anti-imperialist politics the taking of innocent lives has no place. Resistance it isn’t; inhumane it is; and it should be strongly and forthrightly condemned.
It isn’t good politics either. Most people are taken aback and horrified by mass slaughter and any defense of it, no matter how righteous its interlocutors or how just their cause.
What is more, it can weaponized by the other side. When Hamas attacked and killed innocent people in Israel, an authoritarian government, desperately hanging on by a thread politically and considered illegitimate in the eyes of a majority of Israelis, was given a reprieve and rationale to kill, maim, and uproot Gazans and turn Gaza into a wasteland. Meanwhile, settlers in the West Bank, took the opportunity to savagely attack and expropriate Palestinians living there.
To pay no attention to this dynamic triggered by Hamas’s rampage or, worse still, celebrate it, as some have done, is, in my world, a caricature of anti-imperialist politics. Once movements give up the high moral ground, a political slide will follow. People remember.
10. I was also surprised that you made no mention of the rise of anti-semitism in your first two articles, except as a weapon deployed by the right against the solidarity activists.
In my view, anti-semitism — and not only on college campuses and not only on the right — is a feature, and a growing one, of this conjuncture, including on our side of the political divide. How could it not be? To suggest as some do that it finds no expression on the left is, I believe, mistaken and damaging.
Such a posture, especially when it isn’t countered from within the solidarity movement, turns into a moral indictment and an unforced error that yields to the MAGA movement a platform that it cynically deploys to attack the solidarity movement and the anti-Maga coalition, as we have chillingly seen.
11. Turning to the elections, did a steep climb to defeat Trump and the MAGA movement become steeper on October 7? I would say it did, but not so steep that the Democratic presidential candidate, almost certainly Biden, can’t defeat Trump in November.
Of course, one might look at the current polling and reach entirely different conclusions. But I tend to agree with you and others who say any polling a year out from the election is problematic in many ways. If the polling tells me anything it is that the presidential election will be decided by a sliver of voters in a handful of states. That assumes, of course, that some unforeseen event — Trump’s conviction of insurrection, for example, or something else — doesn’t change the math and dynamics of the elections.
I take encouragement, like you, from the string of victories registered by Democratic Party candidates in recent election cycles. What worries me, though, in this election cycle is the danger of voter abstentionism or flight to a 3rd party candidate. If either happened in any significant numbers, given the expected closeness of the race, it could spell trouble for Biden and the entire coalition opposing Trump and Trumpism.
Biden and the entire anti-Maga coalition will have to take special steps to win back some of its traditional voter base among people of color, young people, people of Arab descent, and not least, white workers with no college degree. At the same time, the Biden campaign will need the votes of independents, Anybody but Trump Republicans, and suburban women as well. How Biden and his team thread the needle between these different constituencies will be a first class challenge for them and us.
Biden isn’t a nimble and persuasive explainer in chief, which in today’s social media climate, is a major liability more so than his age. In contrast to Obama who could clarify complicated issues, deconstruct and unmask right wing demagoguery, and tell a “story of America ” that inspired and motivated people to do the right thing and vote the right way, it’s not Biden’s strong suit at all. Nor is it increasingly Trump’s.
But one advantage Biden has is a stable of inspiring speakers in the Democratic Party and affiliated organizations. They hopefully will speak on his behalf. And the rest of us will do whatever we can to mobilize and get out the vote.
12. In thinking about the unhappiness of some young, progressive, and socialist minded voters who have a problem voting for Biden, we should remind them of the dilemma of the abolitionist movement when the Republican Party’s nominee in 1860 was a candidate whose oratory didn’t lift people out of their seats, was hardly telegenic (albeit in a non-telegenic age) or cool, didn’t dress to the nines, and, most of all, held a position on slavery that most abolitionists considered inimical to their own views and life work.
Lincoln, by his own words, said he wouldn’t attempt to abolish slavery where it existed, while adamantly opposing its expansion to states and territories where it didn’t.
Faced with what they considered a far less than ideal choice, the majority of abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, (not William Lloyd Garrison) who could be hard on Lincoln, supported his candidacy.
I see a lesson here for progressives and people on the left, not to mention young people.
I wrote and posted an article on this historical experience.
13. It seems like ancient history now, but the youth movement and much of the left failed miserably in negotiating the terrain and contradictions of the 1968 elections.
I posted an article on my blog on this moment too.
14. We shouldn’t defend Biden’s position on Gaza or any other issue where we find ourselves in disagreement with the administration. But neither should we damn Biden with faint praise or no praise at all when he does something right. Given the stakes in this election that would be worthy of a fool.
In other words, in evaluating the Biden administration, we should do it unblinkingly and evenhandedly, Give credit where credit is due and not worry about the predictable admonishments from some on the left flank.
Such a methodology guides the main social and political constituencies that constitute the core of the anti-Maga coalition. When they aren’t happy with the administration, they find ways to let the White House as well as Congressional Democrats know of their displeasure. Sometimes they do it publicly; other times they choose other channels. And still on other occasions they do both. What they won’t do is speak in a low key or push the mute button when it comes to the successes of Biden’s presidency out of fear of a negative reaction from their left flank.
Notwithstanding a narrow advantage in the House and the unreliable votes of Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, they believe that Biden’s political and legislative record breaks from the prevailing orthodoxy of neoliberalism of the past half century as well as holds up pretty well against earlier Democratic administrations, including LBJ and FDR. Both of the latter had the advantage of large Congressional majorities and surging popular movements in their first terms.
Moreover, fully aware of the existential danger of another Trump presidency, their accent for the next nine months – and they make no apology for this – will fall on what Biden is doing right, what they hope a second Biden term would look like, and, above all, getting out the vote.
I’m not naive enough to think that some on the left or the social justice movement or whatever we call it these days will embrace such an methodology. Criticism of Democratic administrations and Congressional leaders, no matter what they do, is embedded in their dna. And if that is so in “normal times,” it is by an order of magnitude in this moment when Gazans are dying every day, while Biden refuses to publicly demand a ceasefire.
Admittedly, it is outrageous that he doesn’t, but like everything else at this moment, it’s part of a larger story which tells us, if we listen, that homegrown facism could happen here. Whether it does or not, I’m sure you agree, turns in large measure on the outcome of the November election. Let’s hope that such a perspective informs the calculus and, above all, the actions — none more important than mobilizing the vote — of the country’s main political constituencies as well as everyone stretching from Lynn Cheney to Angela Davis.
15. As for an “insurgent” candidate, I don’t believe that such a candidate is going to jump out of the woodwork to challenge Biden for the Democratic nomination.
The feeling at most levels of the party and its affiliated constituencies, I suspect, is that such a challenge would likely have disastrous consequences in November rather than lift the party and its nominee to victory. If history is any guide, such a concern isn’t surprising.
The only way that Biden won’t run for a second term, as I see it, is if he decides against it on the advice of Jill Biden and his closest circle of advisors. And there is no evidence so far that it is under consideration, although I have to think on the heels of last night’s press conference, the conversation got some new wind.
He was awful. He challenged the claim of the special counsel whose from Trump’s stable that he had memory problems and acted like an old man and then he acted and spoke like an old man with memory problems
If he did decide to step aside, he would be hard pressed not to pick his vice president, Kamala Harris, to take his place. I don’t think she would be the best candidate, in large measure because she is vice president and thus would be hard pressed to distance herself from the mistakes and miscues of Biden as well as side step the tag of a “Washington insider.”
I like Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan for various reasons, including that she isn’t a member of the administration or a Washington insider. She would be a striking contrast to Trump. And she is from the Midwest where the outcome of the elections will largely be decided. But this would only work if Kamala persuasively gave her approval. Otherwise the most dependable and politically astute constituency in the party, Black women, among others, would be very unhappy.
Another option would be a Harris-Whitmer ticket. Wes Moore, Maryland’s first term governor would be a good running mate with Whitmer. Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvannia governor, is vice presidential material too in my opinion.
16. We don’t have to take the anti-maga movement into the mainstream. The mainstream is the core and power base of the anti-maga coalition. The challenge is for the reality-based left to fully enter and connect to these streams of struggle, with its own distinct politics, an appreciation of the unity imperative, and an ear that listens to and engages with all the voices in the room.
17. I find the phrase, “bring pressure from the left,” problematic. In current circumstances, it can too easily be interpreted in a narrow, go it alone way. It also suggests the left has more political weight than it does.
In an alternative way of framing, the left in its less dogmatic iterations isn’t independent of the main political and social constituencies in the country that constitute the power base of the anti-MAGA coalition that possesses a center of political gravity leaning in a progressive direction. In this framing, the left is an organic part of and embedded in these larger constellations of politics and power. Critical at times, but always collaborative.
That doesn’t preclude its own independent bases of organization, education and initiative, but they aren’t things in themselves nor in contradiction to a left politics that accents, not critique, but common ground, coalition, unity, and a larger footprint in the main organizational formations of the anti-Maga coalition, including the Democratic Party.
What some left activists forget is that the power and degree of organization of the left, while greater than a decade ago, is still circumscribed. But in association with larger political and social constellations its ability to influence people and politics will be greatly enhanced as well as its potential to grow quantitatively and qualitatively.
18. Within the Democratic Party, fluidity, hybridity and a center of gravity trending in a progressive direction capture the dynamics and dialectics within the party better than old static and rigid categories that hang around and permit no new patterns of thinking.
19. One of these is “Establishment Democrats.” It is more trouble than it’s worth. And I have been of that opinion for a long time. Quite a while ago I thought it had died a quiet and dignified death, but I was wrong. In recent years, it caught a second wind and is happily wreaking political confusion on our side of the political divide. None more so than in the presidential elections of 2016.
If you get this far, you’ve reached the end.