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Biden’s Selective Outrage

Fintan O’Toole
The rhetorical choice to pair Israel and Ukraine has not created a common moral cause. It has exposed a double standard.

Miriam Alster/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

President Joe Biden joining Israel’s war cabinet for the start of a meeting, Tel Aviv, October 18, 2023

Joe Biden’s response to the Hamas attacks of October 7 was to fuse the wars in Israel and Ukraine into a single struggle. Immediately after he returned from his visit to Tel Aviv, where he had both literally and figuratively embraced Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden addressed the US public from the Oval Office. “You know,” he said, “the assault on Israel echoes nearly twenty months of war, tragedy, and brutality inflicted on the people of Ukraine.” Those echoes sound more and more discordant as Israel’s retaliation becomes ever bloodier. The accusations that Biden fired then at Vladimir Putin have been ricocheting back, damaging both his own moral authority and international solidarity with Ukraine.

Biden was not wrong to imply that what Hamas did to civilians in Israel was morally comparable to the atrocities the Russians inflicted on Ukrainians in Bucha and other towns they invaded. The president’s political calculations were also logical enough. Funding for Israel’s invasion of Gaza is a popular bipartisan cause. Support for Ukraine is not. Shortly before October 7, around half of the Republicans in the House of Representatives opposed the White House’s request for a minor supplementary aid package of $300 million for Ukraine. By linking Ukraine so closely to Israel, Biden was clearly hoping to use one political appeal to boost the other. The energy unleashed by a shared determination to rally around Israel would galvanize the right’s flagging enthusiasm for Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression.

The opposite is happening. The pairing of Israel and Ukraine has not created a single moral cause. It has exposed a double standard. From the early days of Putin’s war on Ukraine, as evidence began to emerge of the extensive war crimes committed by his forces, it was clear that there was a weak spot in America’s accusations of Russian depravity. The US has a history of deep ambivalence toward war crimes—evident in, for example, its refusal to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Its inconsistency on this score has long threatened to undermine the belief, so important to the struggle being waged by the people of Ukraine, that Putin is violating not just territorial borders but moral boundaries. For Putin it is good news indeed that the US, so fierce in its denunciation of his attacks on civilians, has been so forbearing in its attitude to similar assaults on Gaza. His cynical belief that ethical standards are just weapons in the propaganda war is being vindicated.

In the story that Biden wanted to tell in his TV address, Israel’s war against Hamas and Ukraine’s against Russia are equally intertwined with the interests of Americans at home: “Making sure Israel and Ukraine succeed is vital for America’s national security.” What makes them so important, he suggested, is not just reality but perception. The issue in both cases is not only what the US does but what it is seen to stand for: “Beyond Europe, we know that our allies, and maybe most importantly our adversaries and competitors, are watching.” One of the most gleeful observers must surely be the ruthless killer in the Kremlin, for what the world is seeing is a painful attempt to face in two directions at once.


There has been nothing secret about Israel’s intent to punish the whole population of Gaza by depriving them of electricity and water. On October 9 the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, announced a “complete siege” of the Strip. “There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel.” The following day the Israeli Army’s coordinator of government activities in the territories, Major General Ghassan Alian, addressed the population of Gaza in Arabic: “Human animals must be treated as such. There will be no electricity and no water. There will only be destruction. You wanted hell, you will get hell.”

We do not have to guess how the Biden administration would have responded to such statements had they come from Moscow rather than Tel Aviv. In November 2022 Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, spoke to the security council about Russia’s destruction of civilian infrastructure in Ukrainian cities, which had left millions of people without power or clean water:

It is hard to overstate how horrific these attacks are…. I felt that toll when I met a ten-year-old named Melina, who lived in a facility where displaced families were gathered to prepare for a bitterly cold winter. A facility which itself had once been hit and damaged by Russian missiles.

Later that month the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, used even stronger language to condemn Russian attacks on vital infrastructure: “Heat, water, electricity—for children, for the elderly, for the sick—these are President Putin’s new targets. He’s hitting them hard. This brutalization of Ukraine’s people is barbaric.”


When the target is Ukraine, the Biden administration has apparently endorsed efforts to prosecute Putin for attacks on civilian infrastructure. In March Biden explicitly supported the ICC’s decision to issue an arrest warrant against Putin on charges that he had committed war crimes, even though, as Biden acknowledged, the US itself refuses to be subject to the court. In July, when the US began to share evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine with the ICC, The New York Times reported that “American intelligence agencies are said to have gathered information including details about decisions by Russian officials to deliberately strike civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.” Assuming such reports are accurate, this means that the Biden administration has been actively helping the ICC prepare a possible indictment of Putin for deliberately depriving civilians of electricity and clean water. 

Ukraine has already convicted some captured Russian soldiers of war crimes. In January The Washington Post reported that these included “two who admitted shelling residential buildings in the first weeks of the war.” The US has repeatedly asked the international community to pay attention to the visual evidence of what bombs do to the places where ordinary people—and especially children—try to live their lives. In July, for example, Thomas-Greenfield told the UN security council that “Russia’s forces have rained missiles down on Ukraine causing unconscionable death and destruction. We have all seen the images of bombed-out homes and schools and playgrounds.”


The Biden administration has, moreover, gone further than accusing Russia of war crimes; it has suggested that countries supplying Russia with weaponry used against Ukraine may face the same charges. In January, while accompanying Biden on a state visit to Mexico, the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said that Iran had chosen “to go down a road where their weapons are being used to kill civilians in Ukraine and to try to plunge cities into cold and darkness, which from our point of view puts Iran in a place where it could potentially be contributing to widespread war crimes.”

In July Sullivan told NBC News where America’s “moral authority” in relation to Ukraine comes from. He implicitly conceded that it did not rely on international treaties, since the US has not signed some of them. It came, he suggested, from the obvious unacceptability of Russia’s decision to place Ukraine “under a brutal, vicious attack…with missiles and bombs raining down on its cities, killing its civilians, destroying its schools, its churches, its hospitals.” The implication is clear: the moral authority of the US rests on its opposition to certain kinds of violence, specifically the deliberate destruction of civil infrastructure and the killing of civilians with bombs and missiles. If this so, the foundations of American moral authority now seem very shaky indeed.

Each recorded fatal Israeli airstrike on Gaza since October 7 has reportedly caused an average of ten civilian deaths. The Biden administration has acknowledged that killing innocent people at this rate is unacceptable. As Blinken put it on a visit to India, “Far too many Palestinians have been killed; far too many have suffered these past weeks.” By the logic it applied to Iran, the US has to take responsibility for its indirect part in those deaths. Yet there is no evidence that it is willing to hold itself to the moral standards it insists on for others—and very little evidence either that the influence it seeks to wield behind the scenes in its dealings with Netanyahu has had much effect on the ground in Gaza. The administration’s tacit moral case—that its backing for Israel’s war allows it to save Palestinian lives by restraining what Biden, on his visit to Tel Aviv, called “an all-consuming rage”—seems more and more like wishful thinking.

Ukrainians must have a wish of their own: that Biden had left them out of it. He has done their cause no favors. The Gaza crisis has already knocked Putin’s war off the front pages and shoved it down the list of priorities for most Western governments. As the conflict in Ukraine looks increasingly attritional and settles into a bloody stalemate with no obvious endpoint, it has become harder for democracies to sustain the idea that this is not a proxy war between power blocs but a genuine struggle for decent values and an international order based on universal laws. What will those Western governments say this winter when Putin again tries to destroy Ukraine’s power grids? Can they say, as they have before, that these attacks are horrific and barbaric? Or must they now preserve an awkward silence because such language has lost the power to express a shared sense of revulsion at all inhumane acts, whoever perpetrates them?


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