For Israel and Ukraine, U.S. support proves unreliable and inadequate

by Jonah Goldberg

After Iran’s massive drone and missile attack on Israel Saturday, President Biden reportedly told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “You got a win. Take the win.” Most of the weapons, the first Iran had ever fired on Israel from its own territory, were successfully intercepted.

“From its own territory” is a very loaded qualifier. It speaks to both the complexity and the stupidity of the situation.

Iran has been attacking Israel for decades, but not from its own soil. Instead, Iran has given Hamas and Hezbollah weapons, training and other support to do its dirty work from Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Indeed, it’s clarifying to think of Hamas and Hezbollah as Iranian drones in human form. If your neighbor hired and equipped agents to throw Molotov cocktails into your home and worse, you probably wouldn’t think it was a particularly meaningful distinction that they didn’t do so from his property. And if you prevented the Molotov cocktails from doing much damage with the help of other neighbors, you might not regard “Take the win” as the soundest advice.

Geopolitical deterrence is often a stupidity agreed on with sophistication. That’s because perception — of strength, resolve and so on — is an essential part of statecraft.

Iran felt it had to retaliate following an Israeli strike on its consulate in Syria this month. Among those killed in that attack was Gen. Ali Reza Zahdi, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard leader who, according to Israel, played a key role in the “planning and execution” of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

That’s part of the stupidity of deterrence doctrine. Every rung on the escalatory ladder may be treated by one side or the other as the beginning or end of hostilities. (That’s partly why so many enemies of Israel started calling for a cease-fire before Israel had even responded to Oct. 7.)

Even before the Iranian attack hit Saturday, Iran’s U.N. delegation announced, “The matter can be deemed concluded.” But from Israel’s perspective, firing some 300 drones and ballistic missiles at its territory can’t go unanswered. Deterrence demands that Iran understand such aggression has consequences.

Biden disagrees. Because America and other allies helped Israel intercept the drones and missiles, he believes, Israel should stand down and “take the win.” “Our aim is to de-escalate regional tensions,” a senior Biden official told the Washington Post. It’s a reasonable desire but, for Israel, not necessarily a reasonable request.

What’s clearly unreasonable are the demands for restraint from opponents of U.S. military aid for Israel. Insisting that Israel shouldn’t retaliate because its U.S.-funded defense systems successfully blocked an attack is logically and morally incompatible with calling for an end to American aid. Without those defenses, thousands of Israelis might have died, and Israel would have no choice but to respond offensively, which could ignite the regional war everybody wants to avoid.

But the real problem isn’t with the perception of Israel’s willingness to defend itself. It’s with Biden’s — and America’s — willingness to deter our adversaries.

After Oct. 7, Biden had a one-word message for Iran and other bad actors seeking to take advantage of the situation: “Don’t.” Iran ignored that advice Saturday. But it also ignored it months earlier, when Hezbollah, Hamas and the Iranian-backed Houthis attacked Israel and Western shipping.

Moreover, regional and geopolitical instability didn’t start on Oct. 7. Biden’s early abandonment of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan arguably started this cascade of uncertainty. Vladimir Putin may have seen it as a sign of Western weakness contributing to his decision to invade Ukraine.

Biden’s subsequent vow to provide Ukraine with “whatever it takes, as long as it takes” to defend itself was realized too haltingly. Now, thanks to Republican opposition in Congress, it could be a dead letter.

Domestic politics have severely undermined the perception that America is a reliable ally. The war in Gaza is unpopular with the base of the president’s party, prompting his near-constant rhetorical undermining of Israel. And even as Ukraine’s front with Russia is buckling, the administration has told Kyiv that it shouldn’t attack Russian oil installations for fear of inflated oil prices in an election year.

It’s almost as if Biden’s “Don’t” doctrine gives allies just enough support to lose slowly.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief of The Dispatch and the host of The Remnant podcast. His Twitter handle is @JonahDispatch.