NYT: Biden confronts the limits of U.S. leverage in two conflicts

11:29 08.11.2023 •

President Biden’s influence over Israel and Ukraine seems far more constrained than expected, given his central role as the supplier of arms and intelligence, writes ‘The New York Times’.

After four weeks of terror and retaliation in Israel and Gaza, and 20 months of war in Ukraine, President Biden is confronting the limits of his leverage in the two international conflicts defining his presidency.

For 10 days, the Biden administration has been urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow for “humanitarian pauses” in the bombing of Gaza, hoping that the $3.8 billion a year in American security assistance would carry with it enough influence over the Israeli leader’s tactics.

It has not. Mr. Netanyahu rebuffed Mr. Biden’s push for greater efforts to avoid civilian casualties in a phone call on Monday. And he has pushed ahead with what he has called “mighty vengeance” for the Oct. 7 attacks, using huge bombs to collapse Hamas’s network of tunnels, even if they also collapse whole neighborhoods in Gaza.

In Ukraine, the country’s most senior military commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, uttered the word last week that American officials carefully avoided for the better part of a year: stalemate. Many of Mr. Biden’s aides agree that Ukraine and Russia are dug in, unable to move the front lines of the battle in any significant way.

In both cases, Mr. Biden’s influence over how his allies prosecute those wars seems far more constrained than expected, given his central role as the supplier of arms and intelligence. But because the United States is so tied to both struggles, as Israel’s most powerful ally and Ukraine’s best hope of remaining a free and independent nation, the president’s legacy is tied to how those countries act, and how the wars end.

“There is a long history of U.S. presidents realizing they don’t have as much leverage over Israel as they thought,” said Representative Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat and former Marine who served four tours in Iraq. And he said the same applies to Ukraine, “where this is first and foremost their fight, even if we have huge stakes in the outcome…”

At the same time, the president is a cautious player, and in both conflicts he has repeatedly said American forces will not directly enter the battle, as long as Americans in the Middle East or NATO nations are not the subject of sustained attack. He entered politics when America was deep in the Vietnam War, a searing experience for him, and he spent much of the Obama presidency arguing, unsuccessfully, for a much faster American drawdown in Afghanistan.

He is determined not to let the United States get sucked into direct combat with a nuclear-armed Russia, and spent the first two years of his presidency trying to pull back from the Middle East and focus more on the Indo-Pacific.

And so while American weaponry and intelligence are central to both wars, Mr. Biden is living with the reality that the military decisions must be made in Israel and Ukraine, not the United States. That often leaves Washington in an odd position, able to suggest techniques for collapsing the huge tunnel networks in Gaza or poking through Russian defensive lines, but distancing itself from the decisions and their aftermath.

When not speaking on the record, some of Mr. Biden’s aides say the president has been taken aback by Mr. Netanyahu’s unwillingness to bend on the question of attacks on dense urban areas. When Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken (photo) arrived in Israel late last week and made the case again for humanitarian pauses — the best way to get aid into Gaza, civilians out of the line of fire and perhaps to facilitate the release of some prisoners — Mr. Netanyahu rejected the call out of hand.

But with each fresh batch of images of injured or killed children, the pressure on Mr. Biden is rising, with some members of his own party urging him to embrace a cease-fire — which is quite different, and more long-lasting, than episodic “humanitarian pauses.” Those calls are likely to accelerate after the Gaza health ministry estimated on Monday that Israeli strikes had killed about 10,000 Palestinian civilians, including roughly 4,000 children and teenagers. The ministry is controlled by Hamas, so the figures are impossible to confirm.

The challenge of the Ukraine war is quite different, but equally complex. Here the pressure on Mr. Biden is not from the left; even some of the most progressive members of his party support sending tens of billions of dollars more in arms and other support to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government.

But on the right, the support for that help is eroding quickly. And the administration is having a difficult time articulating what the next move is, after the long-promised “spring offensive” against Russia failed to move the battle lines more than a few miles.

So now, Mr. Biden is trying to channel fatigue and frustration with the war in Ukraine, born of the growing sense that billions of dollars in American arms, aid and intelligence collection has simply failed to overcome the assembled weight of the dug-in Russian army.


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