Opinion: Friend and foe alike are realising one thing about the US

Image by Brett Sayles from Pexels
Sunday 17 March 2024

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

Heartening though it was on Friday to see Australia jump before the US to uncork $6 million worth of aid pledged to the United Nations Relief Works Agency, the seven-week strike by rich Western nations was a dark chapter.

One historians will chart as obsequiousness by Western nations for whom no level of Palestinian civilian carnage had warranted clear rebuke, let alone interruption to the enabling of Israel.

The suspension of promised humanitarian funds had cleared a low bar - the mere assertion of UNRWA complicity in the atrocities of October 7.

Some deaths - including the reported starvation of 20 children - may well prove attributable to UNRWA's neutering. Who will be held accountable for that? For accepting as credible the still unverified claims from a combatant which itself has been found by the International Court of Justice to be, prima facie, at a "plausible" risk of committing genocidal acts?

The record will show the ICJ's preliminary ruling has caused little friction for Tel Aviv with its powerful rule-of-law friends who are also signatories to the court.

Further, it will show the bullish Netanyahu government insisted on the defunding of UNWRA and was speedily obliged by the US, UK, European countries, and Australia.

Such double standards abound in this space. Despite the court's procedural thoroughness and the overweening caution of its enunciation, its finding was brushed off while the allegation of UNRWA involvement in Hamas's October 7 rampage was treated as if it were established fact.

Ever Israel's defender, the US will await the outcome of a UN investigation into UNRWA before validating the agency again.

While Australia has moved ahead of that outcome, following the EU, Canada and Sweden, Canberra's obvious reluctance to significantly depart from Washington's line had been ringing alarm bells given the towering obligations and integrations of the colossal AUKUS plunge. But that's another story.

American mismanagement of this crisis is rooted in decades of asymmetric policy marked by generous military aid and hollow tut-tutting over illegal settlement expansion and settler violence in the Occupied West Bank.

Nowhere is this dysfunction better demonstrated than in the fact that Gaza is the only known example of a people being simultaneously rained on with deadly American bombs and with American aid packages designed to save their lives.

Washington's waning influence has become so faint that even as it keeps Israel in weapons, its humanitarian supplies can only be delivered to the besieged strip by way of indiscriminate air-drop - a method resorted to in the absence of safe passage through the territory being "rescued".

One media report recently attributed five Palestinian deaths on the ground to an incident when the parachute from an aid palette failed. There have been others.

Such fatalities reflect Washington's failure to convince Israel to allow adequate aid in by land.

In desperation, a floating sea-port will be constructed by the Americans off the Gazan coast but it will take up to two months to build.

Recent days have seen a series of interesting developments in the framing of this conflict.

Democratic Senate majority leader and America's most senior elected Jewish official, Chuck Schumer, broke ranks with the Biden administration to describe the Netanyahu government as one of the "major obstacles" to peace in the region.

Speaking in the United States Senate, the previously hawkish Schumer, who has defended Netanyahu in the past, said: "We should not let the complexities of this conflict stop us from stating the plain truth: Palestinian civilians do not deserve to suffer for the sins of Hamas, and Israel has a moral obligation to do better ... the United States has an obligation to do better."

The severity of the crisis in Gaza may be pushing it towards an inflection point where Israel's previously unshakable defenders begin to falter, embarrassed by how gratuitously the current hard-line leadership continues to overplay its hand.

Last week a group of Democratic senators wrote to President Biden insisting he enforce a condition of US aid set out in the Foreign Assistance Act. Section 6201 stipulates recipient countries must not frustrate humanitarian assistance.

"The Netanyahu government is in violation of this law," they wrote, urging Biden to tell the Israeli PM that "failure to immediately and dramatically expand humanitarian access and facilitate safe aid deliveries throughout Gaza will lead to serious consequences, as specified under existing US law".

Of course, the question arises, why would Netanyahu believe that threat or indeed Biden's recent hardening language of an attack on Rafah being a "red line?" He's seen this movie before.

Around the world, adversaries have been coming to the view that if Washington cannot even stand up to its most militarily enmeshed and dependent friends, why should they fear its resolve?

It's a realisation being grasped by friend and foe alike.

A meeting overnight of the Weimar Triangle - Germany, France and Poland - pledged to step up its support for Ukraine aware America can no longer be trusted.

Comments by Viktor Orban, Hungary's autocratic leader, that Donald Trump would not give a penny to Ukraine if elected have only reinforced this assessment.

French President Emmanuel Macron said "if Russia wins this war, Europe's credibility would be reduced to zero".

Vladimir Putin is banking on this decline and with America's fecklessness in the Middle East, he no doubt likes what he sees.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  19 March 2024/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications