Hawks in Ukraine, Doves in Gaza: Joe Biden’s Strategic Confusion

May 24, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Global Tags: IsraelRussia-Ukraine WarHamasIranJoe Biden

Hawks in Ukraine, Doves in Gaza: Joe Biden’s Strategic Confusion

The White House is pursuing two divergent policies in Ukraine and Israel to the detriment of the U.S. global position.


Ukraine and Israel are both embroiled in wars to defend their national sovereignties. Each has its own distinct set of historical, political, and military strategic challenges and unique national interests. Yet, each is simultaneously an important concern for American foreign policy because both countries depend on American support, and, most importantly, they each face an American adversary. Fighting to regain its territorial integrity, Ukraine confronts America’s rival Russia, while Israel is battling the proxy forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran, where anti-Americanism is in the DNA of the regime.

From the standpoint of U.S. national interest, Ukraine and Gaza are two fronts of a single war in which the loose coalition of Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea hopes to degrade American power. Yet, in recent weeks, an asymmetry has crept into American policy regarding these two fronts. Until now, the Biden administration has tried to prevent Ukraine from taking escalatory steps that might provoke Russia, thereby willingly accepting Moscow’s red lines. However, a shift emerged when, on Secretary Bliniken’s recent visit to Kyiv, he suggested that Ukraine should be permitted to use American weapons to strike inside Russia in order to undercut supply lines to the front.


This potential enhancement of American support for Ukraine—which thus far appears to be only a trial balloon—follows a similar move by the United Kingdom and the increasingly hawkish tones from France. Some Europeans finally recognize the implications of a Russian victory in its war of aggression. While it is foolish to predict the outcome of the current Kharkiv offensive, American support for Ukraine, after much delay, may arrive just in time. Regardless, the Biden administration should prepare for a worst-case scenario, which might include scenes at the Kyiv airport reminiscent of what transpired in Kabul during the American departure. That outcome would be a tragedy for Ukraine and would also put an end to President Biden’s hopes for reelection. That prospect may explain the shift toward a more aggressive policy that leads Secretary Blinken to comment that “ultimately Ukraine has to make decisions of itself about how it is going to conduct this war.”

Yet, while the administration seems to be loosening its grip on Ukraine’s strategy, it has ratcheted up its efforts to micromanage Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza. In fact, Blinken’s statement to Kyiv is the exact opposite of his message to Jerusalem. President Biden, followed by Secretary Austin and spokesperson Kirby, indicated that the U.S. would withhold armaments for Israel if the country were to initiate a campaign in Rafah, where the remaining brigades of Hamas forces are ensconced. In the wake of vocal criticism from Congress regarding this potential cut off of arms to an ally at war, administration voices attempted to modify the threat. Nonetheless, the core of the message remains unchanged since the administration does not want Israel to eliminate Hamas’ residual military force. The same administration that is growing hawkish in Ukraine seems to prefer a dovish approach in Gaza.

Is it possible that the administration is offering Hamas a security guarantee? Electoral concerns are at play here since, to appeal to the Arab-American voters and hold on to Michigan’s Electoral College votes, the administration wants to appear to rein in Israel. Yet that domestic political calculation is hardly a sufficient explanation since the policy will undoubtedly alienate other voters who support Israel. There is greater explanatory power in recognizing how the administration remains committed to a version of the Obama-era policy of rapprochement with Iran. It is therefore inclined to protect Iran’s assets, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Thus, for this administration, appeasing Iran indirectly via the Hamas policy seems more important than achieving Israeli security.

Appeasing Iran is antithetical to American national interest in every conceivable way. A regime that was born in the embassy seizure of 1979 and continues to be guided by the principle of “death to America” cannot be considered a credible partner for stability. Yet, just this quixotic pursuit of cooperation with Tehran continues to direct the administration’s policy. It also explains the decision to refuse to enforce sanctions, which has fed the regime billions of dollars with which it can strengthen its proxies. 

The same agenda explains the sudden push to create a Palestinian state, which, at this historical juncture coupled with the absence of any serious preparations for structuring and staffing such a state, would result in another Iranian satellite. Hamas would play the same role that Hezbollah plays in Lebanon, and elections would result in a Hamas victory.

The plan is unlikely to succeed. Even though moderate Sunni states have to criticize Israel in order to accommodate public opinion, none of them want to strengthen Iran’s hand. They will not push hard for a Palestinian state if it serves as a vehicle for Hamas and Tehran’s quest for power. Furthermore, Israel remains of significant importance while its leadership, including Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rivals, appears committed to undermining Hamas. Therefore, the appeasement agenda promoted by the Biden administration is running into regional resistance and is unlikely to be implemented.

Whatever the next steps for the Middle East may be, we are witnessing another instance of Washington’s limited ability to influence events. Just as the Biden administration failed in its 2021 efforts to isolate Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, it is likely to run into an impasse in its efforts to mediate the Gaza War and its interventions to undercut Netanyahu. Meanwhile, with regard to the bigger picture of U.S. foreign policy at the moment, the contradiction between the appeasement in Gaza and the potential escalation in Ukraine testifies to the deep confusion in its overall strategy.

Russell A. Berman is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and previously served as a Senior Advisor on the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department. His views here are his own.

Image: Evan El-Amin / Shutterstock.com.