Why Henry Kissinger’s career is a masterclass in diplomacy and statecraft

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Revered by many and loathed by some, Kissinger came to personify American power at its peak, casting the long shadow of Pax Americana across the world and becoming synonymous with Cold War America. (AFP/Getty Images)
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Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger attending an award ceremony honoring his diplomatic career in Washington, D.C., on May 9, 2016. (AFP file)
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US State Secretary Henry Kissinger with Saudi Arabia's King Faisal (R) in Riyadh in 1973. On the left is then Prince Salman, now the King of Saudi Arabia. (AN archive)
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US President Jimmy Carter (R) consults with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on August 15, 1977 at the White House on Middle East peace proposals. (AFP)
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Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger meets with French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac (R) at the hotel Matignon on March 26, 1986 in Paris. (AFP)
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US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger walks in the street in Paris on February 19, 1975. (AFP)
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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger participating together in "Conversations on Diplomacy, Moderated by Charlie Rose," at the Department of State in Washington on April 20, 2011. (AFP)
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Updated 27 May 2023
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Why Henry Kissinger’s career is a masterclass in diplomacy and statecraft

  • Centennial turns spotlight on the imprint of the German refugee turned America’s chief diplomat on the post-war world war
  • The architect of Pax Americana under Nixon continues to wield influence as an informal adviser to the global great and good

LONDON: Anwar Sadat, Mao Zedong, Richard Nixon, and King Faisal are some of the leaders who defined the 20th century. What their stories and legacies have in common is the impact of the efforts of one diminutive but nevertheless immensely consequential figure: Henry Kissinger. German, American, soldier, intelligence officer, Harvard academic, statesman and businessman rolled into one, this geopolitical oracle turns 100 on May 27.

Revered by many and loathed by some, Kissinger came to personify American power at its peak, casting the long shadow of Pax Americana across the world, at times advocating US values and, at other times, snuffing out revolutionary movements and propping up military juntas.




US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with meeting with Saudi Arabia's King Faisal in 1973 in Riyadh. (AFP)

Any article would struggle to summarize such a long and eventful life. Born five years after the abdication of Germany’s last emperor, Kissinger’s own archive material is estimated to consist of 30 tons of documents.

Though he became synonymous with Cold War America, the instantly recognizable Bavarian traces to his gravelly voice gave away his origins. Born to German-Jewish parents on the outskirts of Nuremberg, the young Kissinger displayed an audacity that would later come to embody his swagger on the international stage, as he defied local Nazis to attend football matches and rebelled at their restrictions.

His real mettle, however, began to show when, as a refugee in America in the 1930s, he attended school at night and worked in a shaving-brush factory during the day.




US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger meeting with China's Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing on February 17, 1973. (AFP file)

Continuing to work through his senior studies, Kissinger saw his education cut short by the onset of the Second World War. Seeing action at the Battle of the Bulge, his wartime service culminated with the administration and denazification of liberated German sectors under his control.

Kissinger’s enthusiasm for his adopted country was to grow; he later recalled that the experience made the uprooted young man “feel like an American.”

Kissinger’s career is often looked at in detail following his appointment as the US national security adviser in 1969. However, his post-war years as an academic laid the foundation for his later association with, and application, of realpolitik.




US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in Cairo in May 1974. (AFP)

Kissinger’s worldview, or weltanschauung, has been typified by sound bites such as “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.” This particular understanding of the world through the prism of empires and great power politics is founded in a 19th century understanding of the world.

It is therefore unsurprising that his Harvard doctoral dissertation was titled “Peace, Legitimacy and the Equilibrium (A Study of the Statesmanship of Castlereagh and Metternich).”

This academic study of the period between 1815 and 1914 is known as the Concert of Europe, when the Great Powers sought to maintain a certain balance of power and supported world peace. Notable for figures like Otto von Bismarck whose political philosophy is frequently inseparable from his own, it is this period that Kissinger sought to mirror, replacing the historical role of Great Britain with the unparalleled superpower of 20th century America.




Henry Kissinger and US President Richard Nixon in 1973. (AFP)

As Kissinger became known to power brokers in Washington, his move toward a political career was inevitable. Unlike his peers, his solid academic foundation furnished him with an ability to act as in-house counsel on the political challenges of the day.

If the jet engine came to symbolize US military and cultural dominance in the post-war era, Kissinger employed international travel to the same effect to overhaul American diplomacy. His appointment to secretary of state in 1973 was in many ways merely the formal ratification of an increasingly international role he had been playing.

That year saw Kissinger at the forefront of efforts at shuttle diplomacy to reshape the world to advance American interests. Having already paved the way for the groundbreaking 1972 summit between Nixon, Zhou Enlai and Chairman Mao, Kissinger brought China in from the cold, leading to the formalization of relations between the two countries, and crucially brokered an anti-Soviet entente between the two powers.




As US President Richard Nixon (2nd left) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, Henry Kissinger (3rd left) deals with other Israeli officials in Washington on November 1, 1973. (AFP)

As the world looked on following the Yom Kippur War, Kissinger, directly following his involvement in a coup in Chile the previous month, shuttled between Arab capitals while also organizing an unprecedented airlift of weapons to Israel, tipping the regional balance of power to the point that Israel has never faced an Arab invasion since.

With the year culminating in a pact to end the Vietnam war, Kissinger’s hyper-diplomacy was recognized with a Nobel Peace Prize, his international activities becoming a blueprint for American diplomacy to his peers and a stain on his career in the eyes of his detractors.

FAMOUSQUOTES

You can’t make war in the Middle East without Egypt and you can’t make peace without Syria.

Accept everything about yourself — I mean everything, You are you and that is the beginning and the end — no apologies, no regrets.

Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation.

The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer.

Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Kissinger is often viewed as having been the unsentimental dispenser of American power in the developing world. Though he succeeded in pursuing its interests, his zero-sum worldview — of a vast global jigsaw puzzle consisting of pieces that needed to be moved to fit America’s emergence as the world’s supreme power — did cause controversy.

Having once stated that “I am not interested in, nor do I know anything about, the southern portion of the world” and “What happens in the south is of no importance,” it is now clear that a certain ignorance of the wider world underpinned the more decisive political and military interventions which he supported to extend America’s reach.




Demonstrators gather at the Place des Nations in Geneva on September 10, 2010 to protest against the presence of former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his alleged role in the 1973 military coup in Chile. (AFP)

His involvement in the Chilean coup, Bangladesh, Pakistan, East Timor and the bombing of Cambodia continue to be subjects of great debate, summarized in the 2001 treatise by Christopher Hitchens, “The Trial of Henry Kissinger.”

Speaking later in life, Kissinger would argue that the bombing of Cambodia was essential to stopping raids into South Vietnam. Truth be told, the focus on the subsequent widespread US bombing of Khmer Rouge is a lot less controversial now compared with the crimes of the Cambodian regime’s own genocide in the 1970s.

Nevertheless, Kissinger’s intercontinental politicking was true to the Bismarckian mold from which he emerged, faintly masked by his use of the first German chancellor’s famous maxim, “politics is the art of the possible.”




African National Congress President Nelson Mandela (R) greets former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger upon his arrival for their meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, on April 13, 1994. (AFP)

When all is said and done, it is still remarkable that Kissinger, a man who retired 50 years ago, has remained politically relevant. Leading Kissinger Associates, he has continued to have remarkable influence and reach, as the global great and good’s consigliere par excellence.

Kissinger’s long political goodbye has given him the opportunity to have the final say on many of the important moments of his career, a luxury not enjoyed by his late peers. His relevance, however, persists, his advocacy of coexistence with China and detente with Russia making his expertise much sought after amid efforts by one to disrupt America and by the other to altogether displace it.




Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) welcomes former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on June 06, 2006. (AFP)

However, the constant rebalancing of global power is not where Kissinger’s principal interests lie today. He has spent the last decade warning about the rise of artificial intelligence, which threatens to rewrite the diplomatic rulebook, especially for a man who was born at a time when armies still deployed cavalry.

Warning most recently in a book on the issue last year that the AI arms race is a “totally new problem” “with as yet no plausible theories on how states can prevail,” the centenarian continues to turn heads.

There is no doubt that Kissinger, for his many faults, remains a public figure who shaped an era. He is, however, an infinitely more complete character than the scheming master of realpolitik that his critics make him out to be.




Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger meeting with US President Donald Trump (R) at the White House in Washington on October 10, 2017. (AFP)

This career of immense achievement and relentless controversy was made possible by a talent who was as brilliantly educated as he was discreet, both qualities that are sadly missing from present-day political life.

It is not unlikely that as just Kissinger plotted the extension of American dominance, as a student of imperial history he also expected to observe its decline. But it is unclear whether this is attributable to the speed with which this has taken place or how long Kissinger has lived. In any case, he probably has the answer.

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Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid

 


Ukrainian and Western leaders laud US aid package while the Kremlin warns of ‘further ruin’

Updated 21 April 2024
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Ukrainian and Western leaders laud US aid package while the Kremlin warns of ‘further ruin’

  • US House of Representatives swiftly approves $95 billion in foreign aid for Ukraine, Israel and other allies in a rare Saturday session

KYIV: Ukrainian and Western leaders welcomed a desperately needed aid package passed by the US House of Representatives, as the Kremlin claimed the passage of the bill would “further ruin” Ukraine and cause more deaths.
The House swiftly approved $95 billion in foreign aid for Ukraine, Israel and other US allies in a rare Saturday session as Democrats and Republicans banded together after months of hard-right resistance over renewed American support for repelling Russia’s invasion.
With an overwhelming vote, the $61 billion in aid for Ukraine passed in a matter of minutes. Many Democrats cheered on the House floor and waved Ukrainian flags.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who had warned that his country would lose the war without US funding, said that he was grateful for the decision of US lawmakers.
“We appreciate every sign of support for our country and its independence, people and way of life, which Russia is attempting to bury under the rubble,” he wrote on social media site X.
“America has demonstrated its leadership since the first days of this war. Exactly this type of leadership is required to maintain a rules-based international order and predictability for all nations,” he said.
The Ukrainian president noted that his country’s “warriors on the front lines” would feel the benefit of the aid package.
One such “warrior” is infantry soldier Oleksandr, fighting around Avdiivka, the city in the Donetsk region that Ukraine lost to Russia in February after months of intense combat.
“For us it’s so important to have this support from the US and our partners,” Oleksandr told The Associated Press. He did not give his full name for security reasons.
“With this we can stop them and reduce our losses. It’s the first step to have the possibility to liberate our territory.”
Ammunition shortages linked to the aid holdup over the past six months have led Ukrainian military commanders to ration shells, a disadvantage that Russia seized on this year — taking the city of Avdiivka and currently inching toward the town of Chasiv Yar, also in the Donetsk region.
“The Russians come at us in waves — we become exhausted, we have to leave our positions. This is repeated many times,” Oleksandr said. “Not having enough ammunition means we can’t cover the area that is our responsibility to hold when they are assaulting us.”
Other Western leaders lauded the passing of the aid package.
“Ukraine is using the weapons provided by NATO Allies to destroy Russian combat capabilities. This makes us all safer, in Europe & North America,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg wrote on X.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that “Ukraine deserves all the support it can get against Russia.”
In Russia, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov called the approval of aid to Ukraine “expected and predictable.”
The decision “will make the United States of America richer, further ruin Ukraine and result in the deaths of even more Ukrainians, the fault of the Kyiv regime,” Peskov was quoted as saying by Russian news agency Ria Novosti.
“The new aid package will not save, but, on the contrary, will kill thousands and thousands more people, prolong the conflict, and bring even more grief and devastation,” Leonid Slutsky, head of the Russian State Duma Committee on International Affairs, wrote on Telegram.
The whole aid package will go to the US Senate, which could pass it as soon as Tuesday. President Joe Biden has promised to sign it immediately.


From Karachi to Mumbai, 130-year-old Indian restaurant traces history to pre-partition era

Updated 21 April 2024
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From Karachi to Mumbai, 130-year-old Indian restaurant traces history to pre-partition era

  • Opened in 1895 in Karachi, Bhagat Tarachand has over 25 branches in India
  • Founder’s family migrated to Mumbai upon the partition of British Raj in 1947

New Delhi/Karachi: Some of the first dishes cooked at the Bhagat Tarachand restaurant were the potato curries that Prakash Chawla’s grandfather prepared at a small eatery in 19th-century Karachi. Nearly 130 years later, they are still on the menu, albeit across the border in Mumbai.

Established by Tarachand Chawla in 1895, the restaurant started in the seaside megalopolis and the capital of what is now the Pakistani province of Sindh.

It served simple meals of Sindhi roti — wheat-flour bread spiced with onions and ghee — and seasonal vegetables.

Initially nameless, Chawla’s eatery soon became known by his name and the honorific “bhagat” (a noble man) that people added to it in reverence.

“My grandfather was a generous man, and he wouldn’t let anyone go hungry, whether that person had money or not. That way ‘bhagat’ was added to his name,” Prakash told Arab News.

Bhagat Tarachand died in Karachi in 1942, a few years before the partition of the British Raj.

In 1947, when it was split into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, his sons, including Prakash’s father, Khemchand, moved to Mumbai on the Indian side — some 900 km away.

The family became part of one of the biggest migrations in history, which forced about 15 million people to swap countries in a political upheaval that cost more than a million lives.

“It was not an easy beginning after moving to India, with my father struggling to establish the restaurant in Zaveri Bazaar,” Prakash said. “It was just a six-table eatery.”

Since then the restaurant has been officially known as Bhagat Tarachand, in memory of its founder.

The undated file photo shows popular items from the menu of Bhagat Tarachand restaurant. (Bhagat Tarachand)

Once the business started to flourish, Khemchand’s brothers opened other branches. He remained at the original location in the historical Mumbai gold market, where Prakash started to work at the age of 19.

Nearly half a century later, he is still leading the business, having expanded it into a four-story restaurant and added new dishes to the menu.

Now one of India’s leading vegetarian restaurants, Bhagat Tarachand has 25 branches led by Prakash and his cousins across the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

The most popular meal at his outlets is a vegetarian platter.

“In the veggie platter, we give three types of vegetables, lentils, chapati, rice or pilav, as per your choice, one sweet dish, one crispy item, and a pickle,” he said. “It is sufficient for two people”.

Some other flavors have been there since the Karachi times: aloo matar — potato and pea curry; and aloo methi — potato and fenugreek curry.

“Those are some of the oldest dishes that we’ve been serving since at least my father remembers,” said Vishal Chawla, Prakash’s son, who helps him run the business.

“When my great-grandfather ran the restaurant, my grandfather, and even to a certain extent my father, there was no menu card. They used to write just the dish of the day ... It depended on, you know, what were the fresh vegetables available in the market.”

Setting sights on expansion to the UAE and Singapore, both of which have significant Indian diasporas, Vishal has also been thinking about his ancestral city.

But as long as India and Pakistan have a complicated relationship, even obtaining a visa is not easy. One of his uncles has already tried, but to no avail.

“I hope that our countries have better relations in the future, at least in my lifetime ... And if that becomes a possibility, I would love to reconnect with the roots of this restaurant,” he said.

“From the perspective of our restaurant and family, they are all proud that they are able to continue this legacy.”


Maldives election day draws attention of India, China in Indian Ocean power play

Updated 21 April 2024
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Maldives election day draws attention of India, China in Indian Ocean power play

  • Muizzu's presidency heightened the India-China rivalry as he leaned towards China, leading to the removal of Indian troops from a Maldivian islet

MALE: Maldivians voted in parliamentary elections Sunday, in a ballot crucial for President Mohamed Muizzu, whose policies are keenly watched by India and China as they vie for influence in the archipelago nation.
Both countries are seeking a foothold in the Maldives, which has a strategic location in the Indian Ocean.
Muizzu's election as president last year sharpened the rivalry between India and China, with the new leader taking a pro-China stand and acting to remove Indian troops stationed on one of the country's islets.
Securing a majority in Parliament will be tough for Muizzu because some of his allies have fallen out and more parties entered the race.
Six political parties and independent groups are fielding 368 candidates for 93 seats in Parliament. That is six more seats than the previous Parliament following adjustments for population growth.
About 284,000 people were eligible to vote and tentative results were expected to be announced late Sunday.
Muizzu's election campaign theme for president was “India out,” accusing his predecessor of compromising national sovereignty by giving India too much influence.
At least 75 Indian military personnel were stationed in the Maldives and their known activities were operating two aircraft donated by India and assisting in the rescue of people stranded or faced with calamities at sea. Muizzu has taken steps to have civilians take over those activities.
Relations strained further when Indian social media activists started a boycott campaign of Maldives tourism. That was in retaliation for three Maldivian deputy ministers making derogatory statements about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for raising the idea of promoting tourism in Lakshadweep, India's own string of islands similar to the Maldives.
According to recent Maldives government statistics, the number of Indian tourists has fallen, dropping that country from being the top source of foreign visitors to No. 6.
Muizzu visited China earlier this year and negotiated an increase in the number of tourists and inbound flights from China.
In 2013, Maldives joined China's “Belt and Road” initiative meant to build ports and highways to expand trade — and China’s influence — across Asia, Africa and Europe.


Biden avoids further Mideast spiral as Iran, Israel show restraint but for how long?

Updated 21 April 2024
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Biden avoids further Mideast spiral as Iran, Israel show restraint but for how long?

  • Israel’s retaliatory strikes against Iran and Syria this week caused little damage
  • Middle East remains a delicate situation for Biden as he gears up for re-election 

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden can breathe a bit easier, at least for the moment, now that Israel and Iran appear to have stepped back from the brink of tipping the Middle East into all-out war.

Israel’s retaliatory strikes on Iran and Syria caused limited damage. The restrained action came after Biden urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to temper its response to Iran’s unprecedented direct attack on Israel last week and avoid an escalation of violence in the region. Iran’s barrage of drones and missiles inflicted little damage and followed a suspected Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus this month that killed two generals.
Iran’s public response to the Israeli strikes Friday also was muted, raising hopes that Israel-Iran tensions — long carried out in the shadows with cyberattacks, assassinations and sabotage — will stay at a simmer.
The situation remains a delicate one for Biden as he gears up his reelection effort in the face of headwinds in the Middle East, Russia and the Indo-Pacific. All are testing the proposition he made to voters during his 2020 campaign that a Biden White House would bring a measure of calm and renewed respect for the United States on the world stage.
Foreign policy matters are not typically the top issue for American voters. This November is expected to be no different, with the economy and border security carrying greater resonance.
But public polling suggests that overseas concerns could have more relevance with voters than in any US election since 2006, when voter dissatisfaction over the Iraq War was a major factor in the Republican Party losing 30 House and six Senate seats.
“We see this issue rising in saliency, and at the same time we’re seeing voter appraisals of President Biden’s handling of foreign affairs being quite negative,” said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “That combination is not a great one for Biden.”
Biden has staked enormous political capital on his response to the Israel-Hamas war as well as his administration’s backing of Ukraine as it fends off a Russian invasion.
The apparent de-escalation of tensions between Israel and Iran also comes as the House on Saturday approved $95 billion in wartime aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, a measure that Biden has pushed for as Ukrainian forces run desperately short on arms.
House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, pushed the package forward after months of delay as he faced the threat of ouster by his party’s right flank. The legislation now awaits a vote in the Senate. The new money would provide a surge of weaponry to the front lines, giving the White House renewed hope that Ukraine can right the ship after months of setbacks in the war.
Biden also has made bolstering relations in the Indo-Pacific a central focus of his foreign policy agenda, looking to win allies and build ties as China becomes a more formidable economic and military competitor.
But Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, have an argument to make that Biden’s policies have contributed to the US dealing with myriad global quandaries, said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Washington think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Republicans have criticized Biden’s unsuccessful efforts earlier in his term to revive a nuclear deal with Iran brokered by the Obama administration and abandoned by Trump, saying that would embolden Tehran. The agreement had provided Iran with billions in sanctions relief in exchange for the country agreeing to roll back its nuclear program.
GOP critics have sought to connect Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and they blame the Obama administration for not offering a strong enough response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 seizure of Crimea.
“You can make an intellectual case, a policy case of how we got from Point A to B to C to D and ended up in a world on fire,” said Goldberg, a national security official in the Trump administration. “People may not care about how we got here, but they do care that we are here.”
Polling suggests Americans’ concerns about foreign policy issues are growing, and there are mixed signs of whether Biden’s pitch as a steady foreign policy hand is resonating with voters.
About 4 in 10 US adults named foreign policy topics in an open-ended question that asked people to share up to five issues for the government to work on in 2024, according to The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll published in January. That’s about twice as many as mentioned the topic in an AP- NORC poll conducted in the previous year.
Further, about 47 percent of Americans said they believe Biden has hurt relations with other countries, according to an AP-NORC poll published this month. Similarly, 47 percent said the same about Trump.
Biden was flying high in the first six months of his presidency, with the American electorate largely approving of his performance and giving him high marks for his handling of the economy and the coronavirus pandemic. But the president saw his approval ratings tank in the aftermath of the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in August 2021 and they never fully recovered.
Now, Biden finds himself dealing with the uncertainty of two wars. Both could shadow him right up to Election Day.
With the Israel-Hamas war, Republicans pillory him as not being adequately supportive of Israel, and the left wing of his party harshly criticizes the president, who has shown displeasure with Netanyahu’s prosecution of the war, for not doing more to force the Israelis to safeguard Palestinian lives.
After Israel’s carefully calibrated strikes on Iran, Middle East tensions have entered a “gray area” that all parties must navigate carefully, said Aaron David Miller, an adviser on Middle East issues in Republican and Democratic administrations.
“Does what has occurred over the last 10 days strengthen each sides’ risk-readiness or has it made them drop back from the brink and revert into risk aversion?” Miller said. “Israel and Iran got away with striking each other’s territory without a major escalation. What conclusions do they draw from that? Is the conclusion that we might be able to do this again? Or is it we really dodged a bullet here and we have to be exceedingly careful.”
Israel and Hamas appear far away from an agreement on a temporary ceasefire that would facilitate the release of remaining hostages in Hamas-controlled Gaza and help get aid into the territory. It’s an agreement that Biden sees as essential to finding an endgame to the war.
CIA Director William Burns expressed disappointment this past week that Hamas has not yet accepted a proposal that Egyptian and Qatari negotiators had presented this month. He blamed the group for “standing in the way of innocent civilians in Gaza getting humanitarian relief that they so desperately need.”
At the same time, the Biden administration has tried to demonstrate it is holding Israel accountable, imposing new penalties Friday on two entities accused of fundraising for extremist Israel settlers that were already under sanctions, as well as the founder of an organization whose members regularly assault Palestinians.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan and other administration officials met on Thursday with Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, Ron Dermer, and national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi. US officials, according to the White House, reiterated Biden’s concerns about Israel’s plans to carry out an operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where some 1.5 million Palestinians have taken shelter.
Ross Baker, professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University, said Biden may have temporarily benefited from Israeli-Iranian tensions driving attention away from the deprivation in Gaza.
“Sometimes salvation can come in unexpected ways,” Baker said. “But the way ahead has no shortage of complications.”


Biden avoids a further Mideast spiral as Israel and Iran show restraint. But for how long?

Updated 21 April 2024
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Biden avoids a further Mideast spiral as Israel and Iran show restraint. But for how long?

  • The situation remains a delicate one for Biden as he gears up his reelection effort in the face of headwinds in the Middle East, Russia and the Indo-Pacific

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden can breathe a bit easier, at least for the moment, now that Israel and Iran appear to have stepped back from the brink of tipping the Middle East into all-out war.

Israel’s retaliatory strikes on Iran and Syria caused limited damage. The restrained action came after Biden urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to temper its response to Iran’s unprecedented direct attack on Israel last week and avoid an escalation of violence in the region. Iran’s barrage of drones and missiles inflicted little damage and followed a suspected Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus this month that killed two generals.
Iran’s public response to the Israeli strikes Friday also was muted, raising hopes that Israel-Iran tensions — long carried out in the shadows with cyberattacks, assassinations and sabotage — will stay at a simmer.
The situation remains a delicate one for Biden as he gears up his reelection effort in the face of headwinds in the Middle East, Russia and the Indo-Pacific. All are testing the proposition he made to voters during his 2020 campaign that a Biden White House would bring a measure of calm and renewed respect for the United States on the world stage.
Foreign policy matters are not typically the top issue for American voters. This November is expected to be no different, with the economy and border security carrying greater resonance.
But public polling suggests that overseas concerns could have more relevance with voters than in any US election since 2006, when voter dissatisfaction over the Iraq War was a major factor in the Republican Party losing 30 House and six Senate seats.
“We see this issue rising in saliency, and at the same time we’re seeing voter appraisals of President Biden’s handling of foreign affairs being quite negative,” said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “That combination is not a great one for Biden.”
Biden has staked enormous political capital on his response to the Israel-Hamas war as well as his administration’s backing of Ukraine as it fends off a Russian invasion.
The apparent de-escalation of tensions between Israel and Iran also comes as the House on Saturday approved $95 billion in wartime aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, a measure that Biden has pushed for as Ukrainian forces run desperately short on arms.
House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, pushed the package forward after months of delay as he faced the threat of ouster by his party’s right flank. The legislation now awaits a vote in the Senate. The new money would provide a surge of weaponry to the front lines, giving the White House renewed hope that Ukraine can right the ship after months of setbacks in the war.
Biden also has made bolstering relations in the Indo-Pacific a central focus of his foreign policy agenda, looking to win allies and build ties as China becomes a more formidable economic and military competitor.
But Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, have an argument to make that Biden’s policies have contributed to the US dealing with myriad global quandaries, said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Washington think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Republicans have criticized Biden’s unsuccessful efforts earlier in his term to revive a nuclear deal with Iran brokered by the Obama administration and abandoned by Trump, saying that would embolden Tehran. The agreement had provided Iran with billions in sanctions relief in exchange for the country agreeing to roll back its nuclear program.
GOP critics have sought to connect Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and they blame the Obama administration for not offering a strong enough response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 seizure of Crimea.
“You can make an intellectual case, a policy case of how we got from Point A to B to C to D and ended up in a world on fire,” said Goldberg, a national security official in the Trump administration. “People may not care about how we got here, but they do care that we are here.”
Polling suggests Americans’ concerns about foreign policy issues are growing, and there are mixed signs of whether Biden’s pitch as a steady foreign policy hand is resonating with voters.
About 4 in 10 US adults named foreign policy topics in an open-ended question that asked people to share up to five issues for the government to work on in 2024, according to The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll published in January. That’s about twice as many as mentioned the topic in an AP- NORC poll conducted in the previous year.
Further, about 47 percent of Americans said they believe Biden has hurt relations with other countries, according to an AP-NORC poll published this month. Similarly, 47 percent said the same about Trump.
Biden was flying high in the first six months of his presidency, with the American electorate largely approving of his performance and giving him high marks for his handling of the economy and the coronavirus pandemic. But the president saw his approval ratings tank in the aftermath of the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in August 2021 and they never fully recovered.
Now, Biden finds himself dealing with the uncertainty of two wars. Both could shadow him right up to Election Day.
With the Israel-Hamas war, Republicans pillory him as not being adequately supportive of Israel, and the left wing of his party harshly criticizes the president, who has shown displeasure with Netanyahu’s prosecution of the war, for not doing more to force the Israelis to safeguard Palestinian lives.
After Israel’s carefully calibrated strikes on Iran, Middle East tensions have entered a “gray area” that all parties must navigate carefully, said Aaron David Miller, an adviser on Middle East issues in Republican and Democratic administrations.
“Does what has occurred over the last 10 days strengthen each sides’ risk-readiness or has it made them drop back from the brink and revert into risk aversion?” Miller said. “Israel and Iran got away with striking each other’s territory without a major escalation. What conclusions do they draw from that? Is the conclusion that we might be able to do this again? Or is it we really dodged a bullet here and we have to be exceedingly careful.”
Israel and Hamas appear far away from an agreement on a temporary ceasefire that would facilitate the release of remaining hostages in Hamas-controlled Gaza and help get aid into the territory. It’s an agreement that Biden sees as essential to finding an endgame to the war.
CIA Director William Burns expressed disappointment this past week that Hamas has not yet accepted a proposal that Egyptian and Qatari negotiators had presented this month. He blamed the group for “standing in the way of innocent civilians in Gaza getting humanitarian relief that they so desperately need.”
At the same time, the Biden administration has tried to demonstrate it is holding Israel accountable, imposing new penalties Friday on two entities accused of fundraising for extremist Israel settlers that were already under sanctions, as well as the founder of an organization whose members regularly assault Palestinians.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan and other administration officials met on Thursday with Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, Ron Dermer, and national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi. US officials, according to the White House, reiterated Biden’s concerns about Israel’s plans to carry out an operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where some 1.5 million Palestinians have taken shelter.
Ross Baker, professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University, said Biden may have temporarily benefited from Israeli-Iranian tensions driving attention away from the deprivation in Gaza.
“Sometimes salvation can come in unexpected ways,” Baker said. “But the way ahead has no shortage of complications.”