How Foreign Policy Became a Campaign Issue for 2024

Presidential elections rarely hinge on issues of foreign policy, yet candidates delight in them. The lure is the scale. Spot a political pattern emerging across the globe, pin its fortunes to yours (Clinton’s Third Way neoliberalism, Reagan’s cheerily fierce anti-Communism), and your legacy might reach far beyond Washington, your ideas imprinted in the hearts of

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Presidential elections rarely hinge on issues of foreign policy, yet candidates delight in them. The lure is the scale. Spot a political pattern emerging across the globe, pin its fortunes to yours (Clinton’s Third Way neoliberalism, Reagan’s cheerily fierce anti-Communism), and your legacy might reach far beyond Washington, your ideas imprinted in the hearts of billions. Donald Trump praised foreign autocrats so frequently (Xi Jinping is “smart, brilliant, everything perfect”; Kim Jong Un is “a tough, smart guy”) that he seemed to envision them as strongman pals. John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff, recently told CNN’s Jim Sciutto that the ex-President had mused repeatedly that Adolf Hitler “did some good things” and commanded “loyalty.” Kelly had to break the news that the Führer’s own officers tried, on several occasions, to disloyally assassinate him.

But, this year, what happens in the rest of the world seems to matter a bit more than usual to Americans. A recent A.P.-norc poll found that, compared with a year ago, twice as many voters—taking in the grinding war in Ukraine and the ferocious Israeli military offensive in Gaza—see foreign policy as a top national priority. Trump has been largely quiet on Israel, drawing a sharper contrast with Biden over Ukraine. He played host at Mar-a-Lago to Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister and Vladimir Putin ally, and told the crowd at a New Hampshire rally that he’d encourage Putin’s Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to any NATO member that, in his estimation, didn’t pay a sufficient share for mutual defense. As Trump’s influence has grown and Senator Mitch McConnell’s has waned, the Ukraine issue has become polarized: a majority of Americans support giving further aid, but more than half of Republicans think we’ve given enough. At Trump’s behest, House Speaker Mike Johnson is refusing to bring to the floor Senate-approved weapons funding that Kyiv badly needs. Putin has noticed the delay, saying, last week, “It would be ridiculous for us to negotiate with Ukraine just because it’s running out of ammunition.”

Given all this, the White House has been working assiduously to make foreign issues the accelerator pedal for its idling reëlection campaign. Biden opened his widely praised State of the Union address by linking the military defense of Ukraine against Putin to the electoral defense of American democracy against Trumpism: “What makes our moment rare is that freedom and democracy are under attack, both at home and overseas, at the very same time.” The Ukraine issue has tended to show Biden at his best, since it at once demonstrates the necessity of his anti-authoritarianism and showcases his sometimes sentimental idealism. His best line in the address took aim at Trump: “You can’t love your country only when you win.”

But efforts to position Biden as a champion of democracy have been complicated by his support of Israel’s war in Gaza, whose opponents have followed him on the campaign trail. Two days after the State of the Union, at a Georgia rally intended to build on the momentum, Biden had barely begun his remarks when a man in the audience shouted, “You’re a dictator, Genocide Joe! Tens of thousands of Palestinians are dead! Children are dying!” Biden’s supporters tried to drown out the protester with boos, while the President tried to keep the peace. (“Wait, wait, wait,” he said, motioning for calm.) But the point had been made. It has been made elsewhere even more emphatically. Last month, in the Presidential primary in the crucial state of Michigan, thirteen per cent of Democrats—including majorities in three heavily Arab American cities—voted “uncommitted,” reminding everyone that defections by voters over the issue of Gaza could tip the race toward Trump.

Biden’s foreign-policy approach has been centrally about friends—about backing our allies—and, after the horrifying attacks of October 7th, the President travelled to Israel, where he embraced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and told the Israeli people, “You are not alone.” The idea, Biden’s advisers made clear, was to keep Netanyahu close enough to restrain him. So Biden chose to continue sending military aid to Israel, rather than condition or restrict it, and to veto a U.N. resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. The offensive in Gaza has been unstinting, killing upward of thirty thousand Palestinians, more than ten thousand of them children, and the deaths have had an effect in the U.S. According to Gallup, half of Americans think that the offensive has gone too far, and the number who view Israel favorably (though still high, at fifty-eight per cent) is at its lowest in more than two decades.

Biden himself seems to be growing more disturbed by the crisis—in particular, by Israel’s threat of an imminent invasion of Rafah, the city in southern Gaza where more than a million Palestinians are sheltering. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for an “immediate and sustained ceasefire” of at least six weeks, and Biden directed the Pentagon to begin building a floating pier in the eastern Mediterranean to try to get aid supplies to Palestinians. Caught on a hot mike after the State of the Union, Biden said he’d told Netanyahu that they would soon have a “come to Jesus” moment. Perhaps the persistence of “uncommitted” votes (eight per cent of Democrats in Washington State’s primary, nineteen per cent in Minnesota’s, and twenty-nine per cent in Hawaii’s caucuses) is helping nudge the Party toward a new view. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor that Netanyahu had become an “obstacle to peace.” It is time, he said, for new leadership in Israel.

The challenge for Biden in this conflict has been understood as one of balance, of not tipping too far either toward the pro-Israeli center or toward the pro-Palestinian left, and thus alienating the other. But perhaps the bigger risk, especially acute for an eighty-one-year-old President, is the perception that he is losing control of a situation overseas. During the pullout from Afghanistan—perhaps the moment when Biden’s approval ratings began to tip in the wrong direction—Republicans effectively attacked him as being asleep at the wheel of a chaotic world. They are now trying the same maneuver with the southern border.

A spring of disorder looms, not only in Gaza but also in Ukraine, with concerns that Russia is positioning for a renewed offensive, and in Haiti, whose Prime Minister has announced his resignation, unable to return to a country largely controlled by gangs. In the fall, voters will have their say. Biden and the Democrats seem to be coming to the view that, by then, they will be judged not just on where their affinities lie but on how effectively they can safeguard order. ♦

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