Biden Doesn’t Have a Real “Red Line” for Horrors in Gaza

Joe Biden declared an invasion of Rafah a “red line” that Israel could not cross, then allowed Netanyahu to invade anyway. Why is Biden allowing Israel to openly defy the United States and repeatedly commit war crimes with almost no consequences?

US president Joe Biden meets with his military advisers at the White House on May 15, 2024. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

A little more than a month ago, President Joe Biden very publicly and explicitly identified the point that he would not allow Israel’s war on Gaza to reach: an offensive on the city of Rafah, where 1.4 million Palestinians had been corralled after months of war.

“It is a red line,” he told MSNBC when asked about a potential Israeli invasion of Rafah.

Though he instantly tried to wriggle out of the commitment he had just made, the headlines the statement produced ensured that the public’s main takeaway was that this was where the president was finally putting his foot down.

That impression was solidified by further public comments from White House officials in the following weeks, with both National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling the invasion a “mistake.” They continued to warn right into this month that an invasion of Rafah “risks doing terrible harm to civilians” and causing “really significant civilian casualties,” not to mention possibly scuttling the prospects of freeing Israeli hostages and signing the Israel-Saudi deal that’s the centerpiece of the administration’s Middle East policy. Biden himself went on CNN this month and said, “I made it clear that if they go into Rafah . . . I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically.”

Despite all this, in keeping with the pattern throughout this war, Israel has simply ignored Biden’s threats and gone into Rafah anyway. What has the president done, in the face of yet another show of defiance from an Israeli government that is more or less openly rooting for him to lose this November, to enforce a red line he had publicly roped himself into? His administration has simply manufactured a series of unbelievable excuses to avoid acting on his threat.

“There hasn’t been an assault or an attack in terms of a ground operation at this time, so let’s not get ahead of where we are,” national security communications advisor John Kirby said earlier this month as Israeli missiles rained down on Rafah, when asked what the definition of an impermissible attack on the city was.

Various US officials have claimed the Israeli assault on Rafah has been “limited” and not a “major” one, so that Biden can simply continue to send Israel weapons, including ones specifically meant for a ground invasion. “Israel’s military operations in that area [have] been more targeted and limited,” Sullivan said this past Wednesday.

This is blatantly untrue.

“There has been nothing limited about the suffering and misery that Israel’s military operation in Rafah has brought to the people of Gaza,” United Nations (UN) emergency relief coordinator Martin Griffiths said yesterday. “As feared, it has been a tragedy beyond words.”

“We are running out of words to describe what is happening in Gaza,” one UNICEF official commented earlier this week. “We have described it as a catastrophe, a nightmare, as hell on Earth. It is all of these, and worse.”

Another UNICEF official called the Rafah invasion “potentially the darkest chapter in this horrendous war that started seven months ago.” UN Security Council members have similarly described the offensive as “the darkest moment in the seven-months nightmare” and beyond catastrophic, with another UN official warning that “there is no safe way to conduct a military operation in Rafah without killing civilians and causing huge human suffering.”

The Israeli attack on Rafah has “systematically paralyzed” the already meager distribution of aid in the territory, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council. With the Rafah border crossing closed and humanitarian aid impossible to access or hand out due to bullets flying and bombs dropping, there are two thousand trucks and eighty-two thousand metric tons of aid, including food and medicine, stranded in Egypt and slowly turning unusable. The absurd “floating pier” that the Biden administration announced months ago as a solution to what was already a severe humanitarian crisis has not succeeded in delivering an iota of aid after finally being completed earlier this month.

This is while, as a UN humanitarian affairs officer, Yasmina Guerda, said upon recently returning from Gaza, “there is lack of everything.” “Full-blown famine” in northern Gaza had already been declared by World Food Programme director Cindy McCain (the former wife of one of the US Senate’s more implacable Israel allies) earlier this month, and famine has now almost certainly spread to the south, where Rafah is located. It has already displaced 800,000 people — roughly the ninth time Palestinians in Gaza have had to evacuate and relocate — to “safe zones” in the territory that observers say don’t actually exist. All the while, Israel is continuing its unprecedented parade of war crimes, destroying hospitals and other remaining infrastructure, and bombing civilian shelters, killing women, children, and other civilians as it indiscriminately attacks the territory.

Maybe most damning: Israeli ground operations in the city, the exact thing Biden and his officials said distinguished an unacceptable attack on Rafah from an acceptable one, started weeks ago, at the exact time Biden reiterated that he would cut off weapons if this condition were violated.

That Biden and his underlings would respond to this blatant flaunting of the president’s own red line by meekly avoiding having to act, and simply pretending that what everyone knows is happening isn’t actually happening, isn’t surprising. The White House’s willingness to allow the United States to be disrespected and humiliated by Israel has been a consistent through line of this war.

But what explains the lack of media and political outrage over this show of weakness by the president? Typically, there’s no shortage of voices obsessed with US “prestige” and “credibility,” warning that a failure by the United States to make good on even its implied threats could have disastrous consequences by emboldening enemies and undermining the country’s global stature.

Just look at the last time a president publicly set a red line, then refused to act on it: Barack Obama’s refusal in 2013 to attack Syria following allegations that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons. Former Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass called it “the most undisciplined stretch of foreign policy of his presidency.” Then Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose described it as a “case study in embarrassingly amateurish improvisation.” A variety of critics (including Cindy McCain’s late husband) mockingly attacked Obama for demurring, saying his red line had been “apparently written in disappearing ink” and that it “conjures up the thought of the uncertain trumpet or the trumpet that provides an uncertain sound.”

The press was similarly scathing. The Wall Street Journal termed it “not only tragically indecisive and irresponsible but self-absorbed to the point of moral insensateness.” The New York Times warned it put “his credibility at stake.” It was one of several “harried, serial about-faces on Syria,” said Politico, that “have combined to highlight some enduring limitations of Obama’s approach to decision-making” and prompted both “anxious friends and chortling enemies” to wonder, “What’s wrong with Obama?”

Even some of Obama’s own allies piled on. “Once the commander in chief draws that red line, then I think the credibility of the commander in chief and this nation is at stake if he doesn’t enforce it,” his own former CIA director and defense secretary told the Atlantic. “If you say you’re going to strike, you have to strike. There’s no choice,” his former secretary of state and future Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton reportedly said privately.

You will struggle to find anything approaching this level of derision and condemnation for Biden’s own embarrassing failure to enforce the red line he had set. Red lines, credibility, decisiveness, leadership — it turns out these things only matter when it means the president isn’t allowing something to be bombed. Since, in this case, Biden’s failure of leadership is actually facilitating the bombing and slaughter of an Arab population somewhere in the Middle East, his humiliating retreat is entirely acceptable.

Few things better illustrate the warped nature of establishment thinking on foreign policy: the fecklessness both of this administration’s backing of what is now undeniably a genocide, and of a Washington media and political class that can hardly bring itself to care.