Picture credit: Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Joe Biden needs a Reagan moment

It is time not just for strong words but for serious demands

Watching Joe Biden address the American people the other night, it was hard to avoid the memory of another ageing president promising wise global leadership. Yes, it reminded one of Ronald Reagan — as well as those images from Gaza showing kids so emaciated that no side to the conflict can deny the reality of children starving to death.

Biden’s speech ended with the president caught by a hot microphone telling a friendly senator, who had been urging an end to such suffering and a tough line towards Israel’s Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, that just such a conversation was looming. Biden could be heard saying: “I told Bibi, and don’t repeat this, that you and I are going to have a Come to Jesus meeting.”

If so, Biden would do well to remember the decisive role that Reagan played in ending a devastating war between the Israelis and the Palestinians during his time at the White House, and the manner in which Reagan used his muscle with the Israeli leadership to put a stop to the bloodshed of war and the suffering of the innocent. The lesson is stark. An American president ordered the most hard-line leader Israel had ever had to listen and do as he was told. Within minutes, the fighting stopped. Within hours, progress was being made towards a ceasefire. Within days a solution, of sorts, was underway. 

Oh, and at that point there had been thousands of deaths, and there was starvation — specifically among kids, all too evident to those of us reporting on that war.

It was August 1982. Back in June that year the Israeli army had invaded Lebanon to force fighters from the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) out of that country, to stop them terrorising and killing on Israel’s northern border. After two months, the conflict had become a daily, aerial bombardment of the last Palestinian stronghold — in the Muslim western half of the capital, Beirut. We woke up at 5am to the first round of Israel’s American-made F-16 fighters honing in on PLO targets, knowing that up to 8-10 hours of such sound ‘n fury lay ahead.

Then came August 12, a day when that bravest of war photographers, Don McCullin, reminded all us correspondents in Beirut that that day in Scotland was “the glorious 12th, first day of the shooting season, Gentlemen!” That day was unforgettable. Some 12 hours of bombardment, so intense that even the McCullins stayed off the streets.

But at 5pm Beirut time the most extraordinary silence descended, and we could venture out to glimpse the human cost — the city eerily at peace. Soon, we learned why. Ronald Reagan had phoned Menachem Begin, Prime Minister of Israel, after he and Mrs Reagan had woken up to see the morning news in Washington DC, live from Beirut. Reagan would later recall, “I used the word holocaust deliberately & said the symbol of war was becoming a picture of a 7-month-old baby with its arms blown off.”

It would be naive, four decades later, to think Joe Biden has one such call to make. Yet the interim measures smack of an American President with the right instincts yet inadequate conviction. First came the dispatching of Vice President Kamala Harris to read Netanyahu the riot act at a security conference in Munich attended only by those who nodded in approval. Air-drop of relief supplies came next — inefficient and accidentally disastrous when the tonnage falls on buildings and people. Then followed the announcement of a temporary port for Gaza, to be built by the US military.

What President Biden needs, understandably, is muscle

Ambassador Mark Green, once head of the US Government’s USAID programme, concluded it would be weeks before the pier into Gaza worked, and said damningly: “such a port is no substitute, and no answer, to the desperate need now to get hundreds of trucks into Gaza every day.” To which ageing Senator Bernie Sanders, a supporter of Biden, noted the irony of an “incredible situation,” adding : “now US taxpayers have to pay to build a port to get aid into starving people … because a US ally is using US weapons and equipment to block US humanitarian aid.”

What President Biden needs, understandably, is muscle. Those within his own circle acknowledge that means threatening to withhold weapons, ammunition and the billions the United States gives Israel routinely. The supply chain from Washington to Jerusalem involves everything from small diameter bombs, to tanks, to artillery rounds, and it’s been guaranteed ever since the war with Hamas started. It is part of a 3.8 billion dollar package to Israel last year — an element of a 10-year, 38 billion dollar programme that represents by far the biggest US aid programme to another country.

“The President has to put that military aid, and the open cheque-book that goes with it, on the chopping-block, to make Netanyahu listen,” said a Middle East adviser who worked with Biden as Vice-President during Barack Obama’s administration. “We can all understand the President’s long-standing relationship with Israel, and respect that, but we have to consider now the damage done to any sense of US primacy in the Middle East, the longer this crisis goes.”

Tellingly, he invoked Ronald Reagan’s memory repeatedly the other day

And there, perhaps, lies a major reason for this President to act. Tellingly, he invoked Ronald Reagan’s memory repeatedly the other day — remembering when he said, “Tear down that wall, Mr Gorbachev.” He fast-forwarded to the confrontation of late with Xi Jinping’s China and the fear of another Cold War, and insisted: “the goal for the second cold war, as Reagan said about the first one, should be: ‘we win, they lose’.”

Point taken, and strong words from a President who has started making his case persuasively for re-election. But even his own advisers have observed that the Chinese, the Iranians and the Russians have been watching the power vacuum in the Middle East and have sensed an opportunity. Just listen to the latest strategic assessment from US Intelligence, citing “an ambitious China, a confrontational Russia, and regional powers, such as Iran, challenging long standing rules of the international system and US primacy within it.”

The time is now, Mr President. Follow your instincts. Make that call to Bibi Netanyahu and tell him cards in play. In doing so, save humanity — so obvious when you glimpse those kids in Gaza — from itself.

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