Rudderless, incompetent and complicit

A man gestures during a press conference

“There’s no mathematical formula.” US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan during a White House briefing on 22 May. 

Yuri Gripas CNP

Little illustrates Washington’s diplomacy on Israel’s genocide in Gaza better than the temporary pier the US military constructed at great cost to bring aid to the territory’s 2.3 million people suffering an engineered famine that is nearing catastrophic levels.

Announced in early March – and always a ludicrous idea when the US could have simply insisted that Israel keep land crossings open, saving the $320 million construction cost – the pier finally became operational on 17 May.

For its first five days, no aid that arrived there was distributed.

Then high waves washed away some of the vessels meant to deliver aid, causing further disruption.

Finally, the pier itself broke apart on 28 May, just 11 days after it was deemed operational. The entire structure will now be removed and taken to Ashdod port for repairs.

Costly and incompetently executed, the pier was a direct result of a pronounced unwillingness in Washington to directly confront Israel over its gross restrictions on aid into Gaza. Doctors Without Borders says those restrictions have reduced the delivery of humanitarian aid to nearly nothing after the Israeli military seized control of Gaza’s border with Egypt in early May.

And the administration’s latest ceasefire proposal is already going the same way as the last one, and will simply founder unless the US is prepared to give it teeth with sanctions and an arms embargo.

That would seem highly unlikely given the US administration’s timid approach and its wholesale support for Israel’s genocidal violence in Gaza so far.

Saudi dead end

Diplomatic cowardice is just one side of the coin. Constant dissembling from US spokespeople to cover Israel’s many and obvious war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank – even though it is inconceivable that Washington does not know exactly what is happening on the ground – has made it clear that the Biden administration is willingly complicit with Israel’s actions.

The pier is not the only example of Washington’s inability to do the obvious.

For the second time in the space of a month, US attempts to revive a Saudi-Israel normalization deal foundered on Israel’s refusal to countenance even the thought of Palestinian statehood.

Despite headlines that accompanied US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s visits in mid-May to Riyadh and Tel Aviv suggesting a deal was close, a deal in fact appears just as far away as when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his own abject pitch in early May.

Sullivan himself all but conceded as much, telling reporters in Washington that Saudi Arabia had been clear “what is possible if Israel moves down that [two-state] path.”

Israel has been clear it has no such intention.

The US tried to entice Riyadh anyway. Reports suggest that Washington is ready to lift its ban on offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia, a 180-degree turn in policy on a country US President Joe Biden, when on the campaign trail, vowed to treat as a “pariah” following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

But Riyadh has appeared impervious to such attempts at bribery. Indeed, if anything, the Saudi position has hardened, denouncing in no uncertain terms Israel’s bombing of displaced people sheltering in tents in Rafah on 26 May and demanding an end to Israel’s “continuous genocidal massacres” in Gaza.

Not only that, both the UAE – which has already starting sourcing military hardware from China after growing impatient with the unfulfilled promise of US-made F-35 fighter jets as a reward for its 2020 normalization agreement with Israel – and Saudi Arabia are fostering stronger ties with Beijing.

China was instrumental in brokering the reestblishment of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran in 2023.

No red lines

The US-Saudi-Israel agreement is openly meant to forestall China’s growing role in the region, as part of a global and growing superpower rivalry that is intensifying and to which Washington has devoted more and more resources over recent years.

But Washington’s reckless devotion to Israel and its inability to bring the country to heel is turning heads China’s way.

Israel has repeatedly ignored US promptings over its Gaza assault from as long ago as December, when the US said it wanted Israel to wind down its assault by mid-January.

The US has said it opposed the creation of a buffer zone in Gaza, to no effect.

In March, the US abstained when the UN Security Council voted to demand an immediate ceasefire, normally a signal that a US ally would take seriously.

Israel carried on regardless.

And Biden is on record as saying that a Rafah invasion would see him suspend weapons supplies to Israel, a threat that was also ignored and resulted in the temporary halt to a single shipment of munitions.

One week later, and after Israel’s Rafah operation began, the US administration announced its intention to deliver a further $1 billion in new arms to Israel.

The truth is, there are no red lines.

Sullivan himself said as much when telling reporters on 22 May that he had delivered Biden’s “clear position” to Israel.

Which is?

“There’s no mathematical formula. What we’re going to be looking at is whether there is a lot of death and destruction from this operation or if it is more precise and proportional. And we will see that unfold.”

So much for clarity.

Though there was enough clarity that the US did not consider the 46 people killed in the tents they were sheltering in on Sunday night – with US-made bombs – to meet this non-mathematical formula of “a lot of death and destruction,” as made clear by White House spokesperson John Kirby on 28 May.

The flippening

Constantly moving its own goalposts is not a good look for a superpower because it makes it look feckless.

But it is only part of the reason countries of the region are turning to China, where last week, Beijing hosted Arab leaders for trade talks (and where President Xi Jinping has called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and pledged more aid for Gaza and more funding for UNRWA).

Washington’s diplomacy on Gaza is also held hostage by a domestic political narrative on Palestine that has long been divorced from reality and reason, and has disappeared entirely down the rabbit hole in the past eight months.

US support for Israel has moved past “normal”strategic interest into the realm of devotional fervor, or “biblical admonition” in the words of Mike Johnson, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives.

Thus the reaction to the announcement by International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Karim Khan that he is seeking arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant, as well as three Hamas leaders, for war crimes.

Republican senator Tom Cotton called the ICC “a farce.” Democratic representative Debbie Wasserman Shultz concluded the announcement showed the court’s “gaping moral failure.”

Secretary of State Blinken suggested he would work with Republican representatives to impose sanctions – not against the people accused of war crimes, but against the ICC (though the administration has since let it be known it would not support such a bill).

And even before the announcement, 12 Republican senators had threatened sanctions – “target Israel and we will target you” – against ICC prosecutors and their families.

Add the unhinged rhetoric of some US politicians, like that of Michigan congressman Tim Walberg, a former pastor no less, who in March effectively urged Israel to nuke Gaza, saying “it should be like Nagasaki and Hiroshima” to “get it over quick.”

Or the antics of erstwhile Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley, who this week spent time in Israel signing missiles destined for Gaza.

Combine with a November election pitting an incumbent president whose cognitive abilities are of longstanding concern against a challenger who is now a convicted criminal.

And it becomes easy to see why countries in the region can no longer look to the US as a “responsible actor.”

In the chaotic and murky world of crypto, there is much talk of the flippening, the moment when the second largest cryptocurrency, Ethereum, surpasses Bitcoin on a number of measures, including market capitalization and sentiment.

Something similar seems to be happening now on a geopolitical level as China – whose economy is widely forecast to surpass America’s in size in anywhere between five to 30 years, “when,” not if – is looking the ever more attractive strategic partner for countries looking for diplomatic clarity and consistency.

Stepped in so far

Washington’s rudderless diplomacy shows no sign of finding direction any time soon, despite Biden’s latest ceasefire gambit.

Until and for as long as the US is not willing seriously to hold Israel accountable, it simply holds little sway with Netanyahu and his war cabinet.

Administration spokespeople are still busy parsing whether Israel’s most recent outrages cross the White House’s “clear position” of “a lot of death and destruction.”

Perhaps clarity might dawn with a quick look back over what the US has supported over the past eight months:

  • Israel has damaged or destroyed more than 70 percent of Gaza’s housing.
  • Israel has damaged or destroyed more than 80 percent of schools.
  • Israel has damaged or destroyed every university or institute of higher education in Gaza.
  • Israel has leveled “vast areas” of agricultural land and orchards.
  • Of Gaza’s 36 hospitals, just four remain operational.
  • Israel has destroyed more than 500 mosques and reduced three churches to rubble.
  • Israel has intentionally cut off food, water, electricity and fuel supplies to Gaza.
  • All of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are suffering an engineered famine and catastrophic levels of hunger.
  • Israel has forcibly displaced 1.7 million people in Gaza, many of them repeatedly.
  • Without access to clean water and forced into overcrowded conditions, rates of infectious diseases are soaring, with 90 percent of children under five in Rafah infected with one or more diseases.
  • Israel has killed at least 266 aid workers.
  • It has killed more than 700 healthcare workers.
  • Israel has made Gaza the deadliest place in the world to be a journalist, an aid worker, or a child.
  • In all, Israel has killed or wounded nearly 120,000 people, with the real number likely to be much higher.
  • This is what Washington supports. And while US officials have yet to locate a “mathematical formula” to put two and two together, others have less trouble with the algebra:

    The question is not about complicity with Israel’s genocide. The question is given US complicity, will administration officials simply conclude that they are “in blood stepped in so far” that there is no point in changing course?

    Or will there come an inflection point when the US finally realizes that in order to rein in its genocidal ally, it must apply real pressure and be ready to follow up with real consequences?

    In which case, what fresh horror will it take?

    Omar Karmi is associate editor of The Electronic Intifada and a former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.

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    Comments

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    well done. the article pretty much sums up the situation. but every aspect of us-israeli relations concerns military ordnance production and sale. this only ends when the us leans on israel a bit hard and the latter takes the opportunity they have possibly long sought, i.e., to 'switch sides'. china will shrink wrap israel as needed.

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    I believe there is something more nefarious going on than strictly incompetence. They are willing to appear stupid as a cover for murder and other war crimes.

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    committing murder and war crimes both conceivably fall into the category of stupidity. there is no other way to behave when committing stupidity other than stupid. hence, i'm not sure i can discern the difference between incompetent stupidity and stupid incompetence. in short, i agree, but with sublime qualifications.

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    According to Jake Sullivan, "precise and proportional" death and destruction is acceptable. Apparently, it didn't occur to him that "proportional" implies a ratio between two numbers; that means that there IS a mathematical formula. He just didn't bother to specify it.

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    The horrific genocide that is being allowed to go on for 8 months was always the Zionist State's intention, prior to the Nakba in 1948 and coming to completion now. All the colonial entities from the US and UK to the EU , Australia and Canada are complicit and together with Israel are a danger to the world's survival. This is deeply frightening time.

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