One of Joe Biden’s top priorities has been convincing a skeptical world to buy into the “rules-based international order.” His backing of the war in Gaza is completely undercutting that effort.

US president Joe Biden after speaking in Tel Aviv, Israel, on October 18, 2023, amid the ongoing assault on Gaza. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images)

Since Joe Biden became president, you can barely navigate his administration’s rhetoric or media coverage of it without tripping over the phrase “rules-based international order.” It’s constantly invoked in speeches and major documents. The president is explicitly committed to rebuilding and upholding it, by persuading countries to buy into and abide by this global order. Meanwhile, the United States has pointed the finger at adversaries, like Iran, China, and Russia, that it charges with threatening or undermining it. It’s why the United States is so deeply involved in the war In Ukraine. It’s why it’s ratcheting up tensions with China over Taiwan.

All of that has gone out of the window with Biden’s virtually unconditional support for Israel’s military offensive in Gaza over the past two weeks.

Critics of US foreign policy have often taken a dim view of Biden, his officials, and his underlings’ use of this phrase. They ask what the “rules-based” order actually is, and charge that those “rules” were written by Washington to let the United States do whatever it wants. They question what, if any, relationship these “rules” have with the system of international law largely established after World War II that’s meant to govern states’ behavior, especially since the US government has often been the most serial violator of that system. And they conclude that it’s a vague and deliberately vapid concept that is constantly invoked precisely because it can mean, or not mean, anything.

The Biden administration’s decision to give a blank check to Israel’s far-right government to unleash hell on Gaza has served to vindicate many of these criticisms, while giving ample reason for the many who view the concept with suspicion or trepidation to think they were right. Just consider what Israel has done over the past two weeks, with full political, military, and rhetorical support from the US government.

The Israeli government is inflicting collective punishment on all Gazans for the terrible crimes of Hamas, the group that governs the territory. Israeli officials, current and former, have openly admitted their war is not merely against Hamas, but innocent Palestinians themselves, and that the brutal siege they’re imposing — cutting off food, water, and electricity to Gaza, so that hospitals are failing and people are starving and dying of dehydration — is aimed at making life intolerable for civilians. Israeli officials, the Western states backing their war, and Western media figures have all justified this policy by invoking World War II, in which the Allies inarguably carried out war crimes by indiscriminately firebombing civilians, and which in large part prompted the adoption of the Geneva Conventions after the war’s end that strictly distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Beyond “just” a siege, Israel has brought a mass bombing strategy into the tiny enclave of Gaza. The Israeli military boasted it had dropped roughly six thousand bombs in the first five days of the war. That’s more than the US military dropped on Afghanistan in most years of the Afghanistan war and more than it dropped in Iraq and Syria each month during the war against the Islamic State; the daily average (1,200) beats the highest daily total of the Iraqi invasion. Israeli military officials have publicly said they are not firing “surgically” and that “the emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy.”

Given that Gaza is only a fraction of the size of those countries, it’s not surprising this has already resulted in the deaths of nearly four thousand Palestinian civilians, more than 1,500 of them children. Both Human Rights Watch and the Washington Post concluded that Israeli forces are using white phosphorous as part of this campaign, even though deploying such munitions is internationally prohibited.

The Israeli military has also targeted nonmilitary infrastructure. In recent days, it has bombed and destroyed: a centuries-old Orthodox Christian church housing refugees, killing an estimated 150; a United Nations (UN) school where more refugees were sheltering, killing six, a little over a week after killing eleven UN workers; hundreds of residential buildings and thousands of homes; and an evacuation corridor it had itself designated a “safe route.”

Meanwhile, several days ago, the Israeli government issued a twenty-four-hour evacuation order to Palestinians in north Gaza to move to the south ahead of a likely ground invasion. Hundreds of thousands of Gazans fled to the south — which the Israeli military swiftly also bombed. There is a term for forcing people to flee their homes en masse at the point of a gun, or in this case, a fighter jet: ethnic cleansing.

Pretend for a second you’re a citizen of whatever part of the world the Biden administration is trying to convince to buy into its rhetoric about the “rules-based international order” and the desperate need to defend it. Given that Biden has specifically invoked that global order to justify his support for Israel, what conclusion could you come to other than that these “rules” allow states to inflict collective punishment, use starvation as a weapon, indiscriminately bomb civilians and the infrastructure they depend on, kill UN personnel, and carry out ethnic cleansing, all with total impunity?

That doesn’t seem like a particularly good world order, or one that you’d want to play any part in restoring, let alone upholding. All of these things, by the way, happen to be illegal under international law.

In short, by enabling this parade of atrocities instead of doing the responsible thing and pushing for a cease-fire (as even his Democratic predecessor did), Biden is not only leaving a moral stain on himself, his presidency, and the United States. He’s also undermining one of his own central foreign policy goals and effectively handing his critics ample ammunition, all while losing much of the world’s backing for his geopolitical strategy.

Worse, it all makes it far more likely that other aggressor states will flout such laws and norms in the future and carry out horrific abuses of their own. After all, they can always say they were simply following the leader of this “liberal order.”

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