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Will GOP conclude Joe Biden, proxy war president, needs a House partner?

Keeping Israel well-armed would help prevent direct U.S. involvement in Israel war

A missile explodes in Gaza City during an Israeli air strike on Sunday.
A missile explodes in Gaza City during an Israeli air strike on Sunday. (Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden apologized Wednesday to a Rose Garden audience for being late to a midday speech on so-called “junk fees.” The schedule of any wartime president could understandably slip by minutes or even hours.

Biden is not exactly a wartime commander in chief. He has, in some ways, an equally tricky job as a U.S. president overseeing multiple proxy wars that pit Washington indirectly against enemies like Russia and Iran.

House Republicans are trying to elect a speaker who can get the floor moving, and possibly pass a version of Biden’s coming emergency military aid request to assist Israel in its war with Hamas. But House GOP members are not exactly apologizing for their plodding process to elect a new speaker, who, like it or not, immediately would become tied to Biden’s proxy wars.

The United States has provided military hardware to help Ukraine repel the invasion from Russia. It provides billions annually to Israel, and Biden said Tuesday he intends to formally ask Congress soon for more. But the situation in the House has muddied the question of whether the same anti-government bloc, with its “America first” isolationist views, would even allow a GOP speaker to pass an Israeli aid package without at least threatening to oust him.

Part of the proxy wartime president’s top tasks, once there is a speaker, will be trying to work with that person to secure funding to send new Iron Dome missile interceptors, ammunition and other combat hardware to Israel. Republican members continued this week to talk about passing a “resolution” to express the chamber’s support for Israel. But, legally, resolutions are just words — they do not allocate funds nor authorize weapons transfers.

Biden, unlike a true wartime president, must depend on his Ukranian and Israeli counterparts to make the final calls on operational matters — but with ample political fallout back home when those missions go wrong or fall short of bringing victory for U.S. allies.

Any country’s leader will say it is his or her primary responsibility to defend their own turf. But when Israel is attacked, any American president also is going to take some political blowback. Biden found that out this week, as Republicans — without presenting evidence — contended $6 billion in Iranian assets that were unfrozen under a recent prisoner swap deal helped finance the Hamas operation.

Administration officials quickly countered that those funds remain in an account in Qatar, but that did not stop Biden’s most likely 2024 general election foe from repeating the line all week.

Donald Trump wrote Wednesday morning on his social media site, using all capital letters to drive home his misleading claim: “CROOKED JOE BIDEN MUST TAKE BACK AND FREEZE THE 6 BILLION DOLLARS RIGHT NOW, BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE. HOW COULD ANYONE BE SO INCOMPETENT AND STUPID? BIDEN CAUSED THIS WAR, AND IT WILL ONLY GET WORSE!!!”

One watchdog group this week called such claims false a few days before the administration reportedly moved to freeze those funds anew.

“Contrary to claims by some Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, U.S. taxpayers did not indirectly fund the recent Hamas attack on Israel with Iranian money unfrozen as part of a prisoner swap with Iran in August,” FactCheck.org said in a summary of its assessment of the claim.

Trump got some blowback from GOP rivals, including former Vice President Mike Pence, for calling Hezbollah “smart” and criticizing Israeli officials this week. But don’t expect that to lead those candidates or Trump’s supporters in Congress to drop the attack lines on Biden.

The U.S. typically rallies around wartime presidents — consider that George W. Bush, for instance, won reelection even as two wars he ordered were unpopular. But what about this proxy wartime president, with a more polarized country and dismal poll numbers? And what if more direct American involvement becomes necessary — especially if House Republicans cannot agree on some kind of military aid package to help replenish Israel’s arsenal?

Should the Israel-Hamas conflict spread beyond the Gaza region in the Jewish nation’s south, Biden — who has managed to keep the U.S. out of direct involvement in the Ukraine war — could feel pressure from influential pro-Israel camps to get more directly involved.

Alexander Palmer and Daniel Byman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies warned in a Q&A posted on the think tank’s website of a “threat of escalation in two key arenas.”

“The first is [Israel’s] northern border with Lebanon and Syria, which has already witnessed one major crisis this year. Hezbollah already appears to be testing Israel’s limits in the area, firing missiles and artillery in the Golan Heights on Sunday,” the duo wrote. “The second is the West Bank, where Hamas has explicitly called for militants to take up arms. The area is ripe for major unrest. Even before this weekend’s attacks, violence in the West Bank was increasing to the point that analysts were speaking of a Third Intifada.”

Biden has delivered remarks several times since last weekend’s surprise attack, making clear he is staunchly standing by Israel. But that support has understandable strategic limits.

While U.S. Navy assets in the Mediterranean Sea were moved into the area, not even the staunchest of Israel hawks in Washington are calling for American boots on the ground, even if Hezbollah opens a northern front in the war. But the buck stops on Biden’s Resolute Desk, so it ultimately will be up to him and his national security team to manage a proxy war with some of Washington’s top foes, one that is already bloody and deeply rooted in religion, distrust and retaliation.

Still, administration officials have signaled they understand the dramatic escalation that would be the Israel-Hamas war becoming more than a proxy fight for Washington.

“At this point, we are not contemplating U.S. boots on the ground,” echoing other administration officials, Jon Finer, principal deputy national security adviser, told MSNBC.

But note Finer’s “at this point” caveat.

“There’s absolutely no intention, no plan, to put American boots on the ground in this conflict in Israel,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, a retired Navy rear admiral, told Bloomberg TV this week. But he then went on to add that “we do have serious national security interests that we have to make sure we have the options to protect, if we need to.”

Repeating that message Thursday, he added another qualifier by saying the administration would do “whatever” is necessary to rescue American hostages in Gaza.

National security officials are wise to not rule out the unthinkable — direct U.S. involvement, at some point — since this is a war in a region that again is a tinderbox, with one of Washington’s closest allies feeling threatened. Keeping Israel well-armed and well-equipped would help prevent the unthinkable.

Will House Republicans conclude the same?

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