When Foreign War Policy Becomes Domestic Electoral Policy

It is a basic tenet of American politics that foreign affairs do not decide presidential elections, but that is not to say that foreign affairs do not play a role in elections. In Miami we would always see the candidates come down, do a photo op at a local Cuban restaurant and mouth the appropriate platitudes about the Castro regime. Irish, Armenian, Jewish, and Polish Americans – and many others – have their own vignettes.

But the wars still waging in 2023-2024 in Ukraine and the Middle East represent, if not a completely new challenge, a dilemma not seen for a very long time. The United States is and is seen as deeply involved in both wars, almost as a belligerent. Not only are tens of billions of dollars being sent, along with entire weapon systems, American soldiers were killed by Iranian-controlled militias in Syria while American warships regularly bomb another Iranian proxy in Yemen.

In both wars an American ally faces up against an unsavory (to say the least) adversary who began the war in a naked act of aggression, but after that the analogy breaks down. Because it has been clear almost from the beginning that the Biden Administration sees the two wars very differently. Reduced to their basic elements, the war in Ukraine against nuclear power Russia is a war that should continue, while the war Israel is waging against Hamas (according to the U.S., a terrorist group) is a war that should end.

While Washington has loudly voiced support for both Ukraine and Israel, the Biden Administration has done all it could to constrain Israel as much as possible, almost from the beginning. Pro-Palestine critics of the administration do not see it as nearly enough, but Biden’s “bear hug” of Israel has sought to limit its actions almost from the start. Meanwhile in Ukraine, the Americans signal that their support is “unwavering,” and that the war can only end on Ukraine’s terms.

What explains what seems these very different ways at looking at the two conflicts? First of all, we have to admit that there is no law or rule that says nations have to treat conflicts in the same fashion. Inconsistency and hypocrisy are standard elements in the foreign policy of most states, including the United States of America. Some might say that Ukraine is more at risk from Russia than Israel is from Hamas, but that does not seem quite right. Hamas is allied with other terrorist groups like Hezbollah and backed by Iran, Turkey, and Qatar, a substantial combination of forces. Others might note that, while the current Gaza War is particularly destructive, there have been many other Arab-Israeli conflicts, and this is just one more. That reasoning would say that the Ukraine War is more unique, disturbing the peace of Europe and the world rather than just another conflict in a series of wars in the perpetually disturbed Middle East.

But there are other ways of looking at the two conflicts. Certainly, as far as domestic impact, there is no comparison. Tens of thousands of angry people are still marching for Palestine/Gaza/Hamas in Western capitals months after the war began. There certainly was plenty of enthusiasm for Ukraine in the West in 2022 but those marches and that enthusiasm ended long ago. And as far as most Western capitals are concerned, there were not two sides marching on Ukraine – there were no rallies in favor of Russia on the campuses of the Ivy League. No one set himself on fire in Washington for the sake of Russian Donetsk and Luhansk.

Looking at Ukraine and Gaza as condensed symbols gives us some additional insight in the disparity of treatment. Such symbols, as defined by political scientist Doris Graber, are short phrases or words that can convey levels of meaning that evoke strong feelings or that “supply instant categorizations or evaluations.”[1] We are dealing here with cues or meaning, rather than mere facts.

For the Biden Administration and its fellow travelers, “the war in Ukraine” is – among other things – a war against Trump, with Putin as a symbolic stand-in for the main domestic political opponent to the Democrats. U.S. support for Ukraine was sold initially as part of a grand crusade against authoritarianism worldwide, including against it inside the United States.[2] As Foreign Policy described it back then, “2022 was the year the good guys struck back.” Against whom? Against Putin, of course, but also against “rising authoritarianism and xenophobic populism, democracy is strengthening.”[3] Notice how “democracy” is arrayed against “populism,” a political phenomenon which can only take place where there is some sort of democracy in the first place.

In the Biden mindset, the war in Ukraine must continue because it is a righteous crusade not only against the Putin regime or Putin and other foreign authoritarians, but in a symbolic, emotionally charged way against domestic opponents practicing Thoughtcrime or “wrong think.” It is a struggle epitomized by the November 2024 election but also about both the type of power America is to be on the world stage and what America is to be at home.

If the Ukraine War is a kind of semantic substitute for the war against Trump and Trumpism, the condensed symbol of the Gaza War, a conflict with many complexities and subtleties, is a crude stand-in for that old chestnut of past years, “the war against Islam.” This is actually a cynical spin on the war used by Islamists and leftists both in the East and the West, but it is also something believed in at a certain gut level by policymakers in the West. We are told that the war must then end soonest and especially before Ramadan, in order not to upset the already injured sentiments of Muslims. This despite the fact that Ramadan is lauded by Muslims themselves as the month of wars and military victories (let alone the fact that Hamas began the war on a Jewish religious holiday).[4] As an article on Al-Jazeera’s website noted in 2021, “the Palestinian Resistance turned Ramadan into the season of attacks and victories.”[5] The irony is that there is more public anger in the streets of America about Gaza than now in the Middle East and that many Arab regimes actually want to see Israel win and Hamas (and Hezbollah) destroyed.

Both foreign wars have in a sense been “domesticated.” One as a kind of stalking horse for the struggle against the political right, the other as a stand-in for the passions and causes of a resurgent domestic far-left. In the end, it is very likely that this outcome – continued war in Ukraine and end of war in Gaza – will be achieved, not only because of the actions of the belligerents on the ground but because of how official Washington and its echo chambers have become invested psychologically, in radically different ways, in both conflicts.

[1] Tomshakely.com/2019/condensed-symbols, May 18, 2019.

[2] Washingtonpost.com/world/2022/04/20/democratic-decline-authoritarianism-ukaine, April 20, 2022.

[3] Foreignpolicy.com/2022/12/19/russia-ukraine-war-democracy-2022-authoritarianism-xenophobia, December 19, 2022.

[4] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6085, Ramadan – The Month Of Spirituality, Devotion, Jihad And Martyrdom, June 29, 2015.

[5] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 9316, Article On Al-Jazeera Website: Ramadan, ‘Month Of Jihad And Victories,’ Is The Season Of Palestinian Armed Operations, May 3, 2021.

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