Joe Biden’s gaffes on his Middle East tour are a symbol of modern America

The US President managed to offend both Jews and Arabs on his visits to Israel and Saudi Arabia


US President Joe Biden disembarks from his plane upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport in Lod near Tel Aviv, on July 13, 2022, as he starts his first tour of the Middle East since entering the White House last year. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

July 21, 2022 13:08

It is hard to walk a diplomatic tightrope, harder still if you insist on putting your foot in your mouth.

Joe Biden’s Middle East tour was padded with afternoon naps but he still couldn’t perform elementary tasks like reading from the autocue and not insulting his hosts. The State Department is always big on “evenhandedness”, and Biden’s blend of toe-curling malapropism, off-the-cuff musing and belligerent denial was certainly that. He managed to offend both Jews and Arabs.

No sooner had Biden landed in Israel than he insulted Jews living and dead by promising to “keep alive the honour of the Holocaust”.

He meant “the horror”, of course. This malfunction is normal service for Biden. A week earlier, he’d read the instructions on his autocue aloud: “End of quote. Repeat the line.”

He was only getting started. After his motorcade had swapped out the Israeli flags for Palestinian ones, Biden went to a hospital in East Jerusalem.

His remarks began: “I — my background and the background of my family is Irish American, and we have a long history of — not fundamentally unlike the Palestinian people with Great Britain and their attitude toward Irish Catholics over the years, for 400 years.”

The Jews are not colonisers in Israel, as the British were in Ireland. We are indigenous to the Middle East. Even the Saudis recognise that these days. Biden’s defenders will say that he’s been a lifelong supporter of Israel. This is not true. He has been a lifelong follower of the Democratic Party consensus. That he would say something so dim and false aloud tells us everything about where that consensus has drifted.

And no, I don’t think that Biden kneeling to speak to Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem somehow makes up for it.

He’s shameless and we should have more self-respect. While he hammed it up in Jerusalem, his negotiators were desperately trying to restart negotiations over reviving the Iran deal, even as the regime in Tehran boasts of the advance of its nuclear programme. I’d rather he showed concern for living Jews than dead ones.

No one forced Biden to promise that if he won the 2020 elections, he’d make a “pariah” of Saudi Arabia and its heir-apparent, Mohammed bin Salman, for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. MBS once imprisoned several of his relatives in the Riyadh Ritz on suspicion of embezzlement, so he knows a hostage to fortune when he sees one. He made Biden pay and he will continue to make Biden pay.

Biden claims that, having dispensed a punitive fist-bumping for the cameras, he “indicated” to MBS that he held him “personally responsible” for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. “I didn’t hear that particular phrase,” the Saudi foreign minister said afterwards. Biden called him a liar.

Biden also claimed that he convinced the Saudis to turn on the oil spigot so that prices at the pump would fall back home.

Several Saudi ministers have bluntly denied this. Saudi output, they say, will not be altered until OPEC meets in early August. And if output rises, it will not happen this year.

Russia, incidentally, is an OPEC member. Why should Putin do Biden and the Democrats a favour before November’s midterm elections?

Biden has a long record of making false claims. The man who plagiarised Neil Kinnock’s biography claimed he “had the honour” of being arrested in apartheid-era Soweto on a mission to meet Nelson Mandela. He wasn’t.

He claims he told the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic that “you’re a damned war criminal and should be tried as one”.

No one else who was there recalls that. He claims that in 2011 he told Putin: “I don’t think you have a soul.” No one else recalls that one, either.

“Mr. Biden is by nature a storyteller with a penchant for embarrassment,” the New York Times admitted as the attempted reset with the Saudis spiralled into mutual insult. This is how bad it’s got.

Even Biden’s most fervent supporters are panicking, and finally admitting what was blatantly obvious when he ran for the White House: he’s mentally and physically past it. No American president in the history of polls has such bad numbers and no president has been so keen to pass the buck.

The Israeli government, or at least this week’s iteration of it, is pleased at pocketing the defence commitments in the Jerusalem Declaration, named for the city that Biden won’t recognise as Israeli, and the opening of Saudi skies to Israeli flights (civilian ones, that is). But the US is now playing catch-up in a region where it used to set the pace.

Biden’s ineptitude and debility are symbolic of that imperial decline. He cannot walk the walk. He cannot be trusted to talk the talk even with an autocue in front of him.

His promises are worthless, his policies incoherent. Like the British as their empire unravelled, he blames his unforced errors on Johnny Foreigner and makes promises his nation can no longer afford to honour. And that, coming from the “leader of the free world”, is the biggest worry of all.

Dominic Green is a historian living in Boston. He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

July 21, 2022 13:08

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive