Analysis | As Trump spooks Europe, Biden stirs global anger over Gaza war

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Former president Donald Trump’s latest rhetorical grenade shook the West’s preeminent military alliance. Over the weekend, he said he would encourage Russia to attack U.S. allies in NATO if they failed to invest enough on their national defense. The remarks, as well as separate comments about ending U.S. aid to foreign countries, “set off fresh tremors across Washington and in European countries already worried about America’s reliability as an ally in a potential second Trump administration,” my colleagues reported.

Trump has long grumbled about the United States’ outsize role in NATO and casts President Biden’s support for Ukraine’s struggle to resist Russian invasion as a costly drag on the U.S. taxpayer. The sentiment has captured a segment of the Republican Party, which has blocked the Biden administration’s attempts to earmark some $61 billion in fresh funding for Ukraine.

To European onlookers, Trump’s stated hostility is a line in the sand. “Everyone should watch this video from Trump and then understand that Europe may soon have no choice but to defend itself,” Norbert Röttgen, a senior German lawmaker and former chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the German parliament, wrote on his Facebook page. “We have to manage this because anything else would be surrender and self-abandonment!”

Trump, in the eyes of some European critics, is an existential threat to the Western alliance and its political ethos. “The current presidential campaign only confirms that he has not changed his reckless attitude towards allies,” Marko Mihkelson, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Estonian Parliament, told my colleagues. “Unfortunately, he is therefore a very convenient tool for Putin’s Russia, which is waging war against the West.”

“Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the U.S., and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.

Behind Biden’s Middle East crises is the long tail of Trump’s legacy

During his term, Biden reinvigorated the transatlantic alliance, assuring European counterparts about U.S. commitments to their security while coordinating a robust, collective effort to support Kyiv. European diplomats in Washington barely disguise their confidence and trust in the Biden administration, and their apprehensions of what may come should Trump defeat him in November.

But on the other key battlefront in the global conversation, Biden has unsettled myriad political elites with his perceived complicity in Israel’s relentless war against Hamas in Gaza. The Israeli campaign, which has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, many of whom were children, took another deadly turn Monday with the expansion of operations in Rafah, a southern city along the territory’s border with Egypt that’s now hosting more than a million cornered Gazan refugees.

Biden is reportedly frustrated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s uncompromising approach to the conflict. But has resisted internal pressure from aides and Democratic allies to do more to restrain the Israeli campaign — which came after militant group Hamas’s invasion on southern Israel on Oct. 7 — let alone condition future military aid to the Jewish state.

“Biden, who aides say has a visceral attachment to the Jewish state, has tended to view the prime minister and the state of Israel as one and the same, according to several people familiar with his thinking, and has struggled with the idea of criticizing a sitting prime minister, particularly during a time of war,” my colleagues reported.

Biden finds that ‘forever wars’ are hard to quit

Even Europe’s top diplomat offered a thinly-veiled rebuke of Biden’s muddled stance. “How many times have you heard the most prominent leaders and foreign ministers around the world saying too many people are being killed?” E.U. foreign policy Josep Borrell told reporters Monday, gesturing to Biden’s recent remarks that Israel’s conduct of the war was “over the top.”

“If the international community believes that this is a slaughter, that too many people are being killed, maybe we have to think about the provision of arms,” Borrell added.

But Biden and many of his European counterparts have largely ignored calls from protesters and some lawmakers in their own countries to force a cease-fire or take action to thwart Israel’s latest offensive in Rafah. Also unheeded was an injunction from the International Court of Justice, the U.N.’s highest court, requiring Israel to take steps to better protect civilian life in Gaza. Some U.N. officials already believe Israel is in breach of those demands.

According to a U.N. commission, one in every 100 people in Gaza was killed in the first 100 days of the war, a rate higher than any other armed conflict in the 21st century. “The ongoing war stands out as unprecedented in the scale of death, destruction, and suffering, with repercussions that will echo for generations to come,” noted the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia.

Rafah was Gaza’s last refuge. The overcrowded city is now a target.

The toll of the conflict has turned public opinion against Israel in much of the world. It has also sparked fury at Israel’s perceived Western enablers, chiefly the United States, for their selective approach to the “rules-based international order.” Biden has anchored this concept at the heart of why he claims the United States must defend Ukraine, arguing that Putin cannot be allowed to show that might makes right.

To onlookers outside the West, especially in the Middle East and the Arab world, the double standard has grown only more acute as the Palestinian civilian death toll rises.

“The Arab and Muslim world has lost faith in perceived Western norms: international law and institutions, human rights, and democratic values,” wrote Mohamed ElBaradei, former Egyptian diplomat and former head of the U.N.’s atomic agency, in a column last month. “In their view, the West itself is showing that brute force trumps all else.”

“When a less safe world becomes an acceptable price to pay for loyalty to allies, the West’s claim to authority as a political and military custodian of law and order looks increasingly tenuous,” wrote Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik.

The stakes are arguably as high, perhaps higher, than what Europe is weighing when it comes to its future collective security. If the rules-based international order “publicly fails once again,” suggested Renad Mansour of Britain’s Chatham House think tank, “by proving incapable of agreeing an end to the unprecedented bloodshed in Gaza, it will further undermine the world’s faith in the institutions that were built to serve it, and possibly contribute to its complete unraveling. Western leaders should think very hard about this historic moment and what might come next.”

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