Joe Biden Still Thinks the US Can Be a “Beacon to the World”

Joe Biden had an immediate objective in his primetime foreign policy address Thursday evening: to build support for aiding Israel and Ukraine. But the president was also making a broader case to the public about the role the United States should play in world conflicts he sees as battles for democracy: “American leadership is what holds the world together,” Biden said from the Oval Office. “American alliances are what keep us, America, safe. American values are what make us a partner that other nations want to work with.”

“We are the essential nation,” Biden added, alluding to the Madeleine Albright line, the applicability of which has increasingly come into question as chaos consumes the American political system. “We have to remember who we are.”

It was an ambitious address—an appeal for the country to “get past” its divisions and to fulfill its “responsibilities as a great nation.” But it was also tinged with uncertainty. It’s hardly clear whether the US can actually maintain the international order it established in the middle of the last century, especially with Donald Trump still a major fixture in American politics. After all, the aid package Biden touted in his Thursday evening address is arriving on a Capitol Hill that’s still without a House speaker following the ouster of Kevin McCarthy and bitter feuding among the Republican majority—which has increasingly come to oppose additional Ukraine funding, anyway. There’s been more bipartisan support for Israel, following the devastating sneak attack by Hamas earlier this month. But the public has mixed views about the extent to which the US should be involved in the conflict, and Biden has faced mounting pressure—in Washington and beyond—to rein in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s retaliatory siege on Gaza.

Biden—who has pushed the Israeli government to allow aid to Gaza and warned against a ground incursion, even as he publicly supports the ally—did speak more directly Thursday about the plight of Palestinians and Muslim Americans than he had previously: He emphasized the “critical need for Israel to operate by the laws of war” and condemned the rise in Islamophobia, including the brutal killing last week of a six-year-old Palestinian American boy near Chicago in what authorities describe as a hate crime, motivated by the Israel-Hamas conflict. “We can’t stand by and stand silent when this happens,” Biden said.

But critics, including some in his own administration, say he has not spoken loudly enough about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and have called on him to de-escalate the situation. “The United States must help achieve an immediate ceasefire, or at minimum, a temporary cessation of all hostilities that stops the threats to civilians in Israel and Gaza,” Pramila Jayapal and a group of House progressives said in a statement as Biden visited Israel earlier this week. Biden, for his part, has declined to do so, instead calling Thursday for Americans to serve as the “arsenal for democracy.”

“We cannot and will not let terrorists like Hamas and tyrants like [Vladimir Putin] win,” Biden said.

The speech was a clear reflection of Biden’s somewhat hawkish approach to Israel policy. But more than that, it underscored his enduring belief in a kind of American exceptionalism: “America,” he said Thursday, is a beacon to the world—still.” He repeated that last word for emphasis—aware, it seems, that his audience may need more convincing.

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