Joe Biden is about to learn that there’s no such thing as an empty threat from a U.S. president, because a threat that isn’t fulfilled won’t be remembered as a threat at all. In Biden’s case, it will be remembered as a pitiable attempt at pleading with America’s enemies to give him a break.
Biden faces this unforgiving reality as he contemplates a military response to the murder of three American servicemen by Iranian proxies in Jordan yesterday. “We shall respond,” the president said.
But the potentially empty threat I’m talking about isn’t his promise to respond. It’s something he said months ago. On the COMMENTARY podcast this morning, Abe Greenwald recalled Biden’s words—or word, really—after Hamas’s invasion of Israel sparked the current war and raised fears that regional actors (mainly Iran) would take advantage of the moment to spread the war to additional fronts: “Don’t.”
Here’s what Abe said this morning: “It was not only not heeded, but the whole framework was wrong from the beginning. This was, initially, a wider regional situation. The attack itself had Iranian backing. This was always a multi-front issue for Israel and for Israel’s allies and the U.S. What Iran doesn’t want, at this moment, is a direct conflict with the U.S. Which is why, if we finally went after some targets inside Iran, this would stop. But up until now, this has been entirely cost-free for Tehran.”
This strikes me as clearly correct. At the same time, one can at least understand, I think, the president’s desire to prevent a serious escalation even if it has meant over-crediting bad actors with restraint. But that failed, whatever his original intentions. And now he is face to face with a potential “red line” moment of his own.
The line in this case is not as explicit as the one President Obama drew when he infamously lost his nerve after Bashar al-Assad gassed Syrian civilians. Obama, in the end, feared upsetting the Iranians by carrying out his promised military response. But there is an “or else” implied by Biden’s “don’t.”
It’s always difficult even to attempt to quantify what we mean when we say a president “looks weak” or “projects weakness,” but seeing a pattern is easier than naming it, and Biden’s is visible. After the New York Times and Hamas falsely blamed Israel for striking a hospital, anti-Biden protests broke out in Arab capitals, and Jordan unilaterally canceled a visit from the president, where he was also expected to meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The Iranians also stepped up their attacks on U.S. troops around the region, without much pushback from Biden. The Houthis thus far have been undeterred from firing on commercial vessels in the Red Sea. And the pro-Hamas (and thus pro-Iran) protesters within Biden’s own Democratic Party follow him everywhere and use Iranian talking points to disrupt every speech he gives.
It isn’t a good look.
Also, there’s a bit of adding insult to injury here. Biden’s “Don’t” became a catchphrase. Israelis appreciated both its meaning and its simplicity. One would occasionally see a banner with the word and the president’s face over an Israeli roadway, and on Oct. 12, the workers who bagged the bodies of Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Be’eri arranged the bodybags to spell out DONT.
In other words, it came to symbolize a commitment from the president, who now faces the worst of both worlds: enemies abroad calling his bluff while his own party’s voters at home protest the fact that he made the commitment in the first place.