Democratic primary voters who did not support Joe Biden during his bid for the presidential nomination in 2020 were never in any meaningful sense against him. We had our preferred candidates, based on policy views or other relevant considerations, but I never heard or read anything from anyone saying that they steadfastly opposed Biden, or even that they disliked him. His emergence as the nominee was disappointing to some of us, but there was consolation in the knowledge that he is a fundamentally decent person. That he has pleasantly surprised us on policy while in office is, of course, a bonus.
Indeed, it is only a mild rhetorical overstatement to say that Biden’s decency is his superpower. He positively exudes empathy, much of it drawn from his personal experiences with loss, pain, and adversity. And because the Republican Party has decided to try to hurt him by hurting his surviving son, Hunter Biden, the President has had to deal very publicly with one of the things that any parent—indeed, every person—most dreads: having to decide how (or even whether) to support a loved one who is in the midst of making decisions that damage himself and others.
The elder Biden has walked an excruciatingly fine line. Unlike the completely defensible, but surely anguished, choice made by the parents of many people struggling with addiction, Biden stood by his son and continually tried to support him. When his son was continuing to make iffy (at best) decisions during his recovery, Biden took his phone calls and tried to help. But when he became President, Biden did the opposite of enabling his son’s bad decisions by refusing to replace the Trump-appointed US Attorney in Delaware who was considering indicting the younger Biden. The President has stood by in sorrow while his son has been dragged through the mud for political reasons, refusing to intervene in his son’s legal case throughout.
I am opening this column with those observations to construct what I think is a useful analogy. To be clear, analogies are never perfect, but when two situations have analogous elements, it is often useful to focus on the similarities and not the differences.
Many people have looked at the horrors of the October 7 terrorist murders and kidnappings perpetrated by Hamas in southern Israel and asked, “Well, if it were my child, what would I do?” The people who are most eager to pose that question act as if the answer is so obvious that the question is rhetorical: I would want vengeance, they say, so we should allow the people who have suffered unimaginable loss to have their revenge.
Interestingly, the families of many of the dead and kidnapped are not in fact following that script, with some saying that they do not want the Israeli government to seek revenge by killing other innocents in a grisly exchange of never-ending violence. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently reported (emphasizing that this is a minority view in Israel), some grieving Israelis are “fearful that their suffering is being used to justify bombardments and a ground invasion of Gaza, killing innocents there and perpetuating bloodshed.”
Kristof quotes a man who lost both of his elderly parents in the attack as saying that “[s]omeone needs to be brave enough to stop the cycle of blood, dislike and violence that has been going on for a century.” Likewise, the nephew of another man who was murdered (and one of whose cousins is presumed kidnapped) said, “I’m full of rage. But rage is one thing, and policy and plan are another.”
I agree with Kristof’s assessment that it “may require Gandhian levels of inner fortitude” for a person who is experiencing unspeakable anguish to hold back and not call for violent retribution. And that is precisely why the families and friends of people experiencing the blindness of rage take it upon themselves to stop their loved one from acting upon instinct rather than reflection. We can think of scenes in which the father of a missing child sees someone who he thinks is the kidnapper, rushing with murderous intent toward that person but being held back by people who care about him and want to stop him from acting unwisely (though perhaps understandably). That the people holding the anguished father back are themselves in pain about the child’s fate does not stop them from holding the father in check, lest matters become even worse.
Countries are not individuals, but countries’ leaders are very much human beings. Leaders who are narcissistic in their personal lives would have no instinctual empathy in dealing with affairs of state, while those who embrace humanity every day cannot help responding based on their decency and personal histories. Watching (in my own grief and horror) as the situation in Israel and Gaza has developed over the past 26 days, I have found myself thinking that President Biden is guided in large part not only by his experiences of loss (his first wife and one-year-old daughter having been killed in a car accident, and his elder son having died of cancer years later) but by his experience of dealing with a loved one who is a fully formed adult who repeatedly makes poor, and sometimes impulsive, decisions.
Again, analogies are imperfect. Even so, we all can imagine seeing a loved one on the precipice of making a self-damaging and reckless decision that could hurt innocent people. What would we do if we saw someone we loved getting into a car while intoxicated, or saying that they are going to drive to buy a gun and get revenge on someone who wronged them? In Joe Biden’s case, he had to watch that happen over and over again to one of his sons, knowing that there is only so much that a father can do to keep even his closest adult family members from making regrettable decisions.
Just as we do not know what Biden (or any parent in his situation) said or did during the many trying times that his son was out of control, the conversations and decisions that leaders make in responding to foreign policy crises with massive humanitarian implications are necessarily opaque. And perhaps the most important disanalogous aspect of this situation, of course, is that Israel is a sovereign state, so the situation between the United States and Israel is not like a parent and child but more like two very close friends. Leaders in the US might want the government of Israel to act in one way or another, but they cannot force Israel’s political and military leaders to act (or not) in a certain way.
Or can they? There are many different ways in which family and friends can and do intervene. As I noted above, we affirmatively expect people to try to prevent their loved ones from doing the worst that they are capable of doing in their most angry moments. We would applaud someone who physically tackled a friend who was about to drive drunk, or another friend who would hide the car keys. We expect people to stop giving money to someone who uses the money to buy things that will make matters worse (drugs, guns, falling for scam investments). We even, as I also noted above, see people at some point give up and cut ties with someone whom they truly love but can no longer support or enable. There is a very wide range of possible reactions.
The US is almost certainly Israel’s staunchest supporter on the diplomatic, military, and foreign aid fronts. Indeed, “[t]he United States has given Israel more than $260 billion in combined military and economic aid since World War II, plus about $10 billion more in contributions for missile defense systems like the Iron Dome,” according to US News, an amount that is “around $100 billion more than Egypt, the second-highest recipient historically.” Yet for reasons of policy and politics (both domestic and foreign), US leaders would never consider treating Israel as a dependent state, which means that even the most minimal threats to impose consequences for what a President might view as an unwise decision will necessarily be carried out behind the scenes or in the veiled language of global diplomacy.
Having found myself viewing Biden’s statements and actions toward Israel through this framework, I think that I see what is happening in a somewhat unique (and, I hope, useful) way. Even so, because so much of what is happening is going on behind closed doors, we are still left to guess about what has been said, hinted at, threatened, and done.
Yet there are public words and actions that we can assess. Consider Biden’s decision to fly directly to Israel, even though that country’s political leaders had already begun a bombing campaign that made the situation on the ground and in the air potentially quite dangerous for a visiting President. Many—perhaps most—US politicians who wish they were President right now would have stayed home. Biden decided to go. Many of those other would-be Presidents might also, if they had made the trip, have chosen to show less personal warmth than Biden showed toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden hugged him and held him close.
This all fits into my framework, because it shows a man who responds to a crisis with empathy and the desire to support someone who is facing difficult times (and has shown a pattern of reckless behavior). That was especially notable in this case because Netanyahu is not only one of the more Trump-like world leaders in general but has been embroiled in controversy in recent years over his authoritarian efforts to neutralize the Israeli courts and other checks on his power. Biden, rather than allowing Netanyahu’s many downsides to deter him, said something roughly equivalent to what a person might say to a friend with whom he has a frayed relationship: “Whatever else I might think about what you’re doing right now, you’re the leader of Israel, and I want what is best for Israel. I simply cannot distance myself from you, even given all of the very important reasons that I have to be worried about your present judgment.”
In addition, Biden has made it clear publicly that he would like Israel’s government to take only measured (and legal) actions in response to being attacked. He reminded them that the US was once the equivalent of the aggrieved father who made decisions in anger and haste because it was seething with rage after having been attacked. He urged Israel’s current leaders (whom Biden surely views as flawed, if not at significant fault for what befell their country) not to repeat his country’s mistakes after the 9/11 attacks—mistakes that Biden himself supported and advanced at the time, as a powerful member of the Senate.
Seeing things through this lens brings into focus a number of additional questions. Given that the Israeli government’s response has led to a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and given that that government has moved forward with a ground invasion of Gaza without any indication that it has a plan for what to do next, has the US government already told Israeli leadership privately that they are risking a loss of US support (even a little)? Or is Biden telling them that he loves them no matter how many times they do what he says they should not do? If it is the former, at what point might we see this burst into public view?
After all, even though Biden’s position has been hawkish—and unprecedented—enough to cause a senior US diplomat to resign in protest, and even though Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has offered a false choice between supporting Netanyahu’s response or “letting Hamas continue to exist so that they can do it again,” Biden’s political allies in the US are becoming increasingly clear that they think the Netanyahu government’s response is problematic.
For example, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, who sits on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, recently pointed out that “Israelis urged Gazans—who are not the same as Hamas—to move into south Gaza to be protected; but once they’re there, you can’t choke them off,” adding that “the Israelis have to make sure that there’s a safe way to deliver food, medicine, household supplies, water to the Gazans, who listened to them and moved south.” Kaine further said that he is “not happy with the pace of” the plan to deliver aid to Gaza and that “Israel, according to the UN relief agency, has shut off water service into southern Gaza. Again, if you tell people to go there to be safe, you can’t then choke them off or target them.”
Those are not off-the-cuff remarks, and they indicate that the Democratic Party’s leaders in Washington are trying to signal support for the nation of Israel without signing a blank check for anything that the increasingly unpopular government there might do. And again, we by definition cannot know what kind of pressure is being applied out of the public eye.
Even so, I am one of the people who has been frustrated by the Biden administration’s apparent unwillingness to push harder against the Netanyahu government’s actions. When I say that I think I have found a way to understand how Biden’s unique personal history might cause him to be especially generous in supporting a friend (or in Israel’s case, the current leader of a friendly nation), that might also mean that that kind of personal experience could make him lean toward being too willing to say, “I support you and I love you,” rather than “You’re harming not only other people but your own interests, and you should stop.”
In the end, even though Biden’s empathy might be causing him to be inappropriately reticent (at least publicly) as a way of showing support, it is still better than having someone in the Oval Office who views everything through a lens that is personal — not in the “my experiences in life” sense but the “how it affects me personally” narcissistic sense. And it is certainly better than having a leader who would cheer on—or even assist—an ally in making matters much, much worse.
At some point, Joe Biden had to take a harder line with his son, even as he continued to love and support him. It is possible that Biden’s strategy regarding Israel is to show almost (though not quite) blind loyalty publicly in order to maximize his ability to change things privately. If so, I hope that it bears more fruit, very soon.