Pinning the Blame for the Hamas Attacks
The GOP case against Biden doesn't add up, but its own dysfunction isn't helping
As the declaration of war between Hamas and Israel was being made, and bloody images of violence in the region were inescapable, Republicans raced to take advantage of the opportunity to pin the blame on President Biden.
Former President Trump said: “The war happened for two reasons. The United States is giving — and gave to Iran — $6 billion over hostages.” (Second reason not specified it seems). He also claimed that “American taxpayer dollars helped fund these attacks.”
Other Republicans echoed Trump’s claim.
Wow. Sounds bad. Joe Biden took $6 billion of your dollars, and then gave it to Iran, who then used it to fund Hamas and their attack on Israel!
Of course, none of it is true. But within hours this became part of the far right mythology. Six billion became a figure of magical thinking on par with the 87,000 armed IRS agents that never were.
Here is what happened. The US has frozen tens of billions of dollars owed to Iran for oil revenues. Not US tax dollars. The Biden administration released $6 billion of that as part of a hostage swap to free a number of dual national citizens that Iran had unjustly imprisoned. The money did not go to the Iranian government. Instead, in a complex arrangement, it was diverted to third parties in Qatar who would oversee the spending, with additional US government oversight on where it goes. The money is reserved for humanitarian purposes like food and medicine.
Oh, and none of the money has been spent yet.
When these basic facts were pointed out, the Senators just…doubled down.
Again, Biden did not give the money to Iran! Yes, money is fungible, but only if you have access to that money!
Its true that Iran has supported Hamas, cheered these attacks, and has a strong motivation to disrupt Israel’s growing ties with other countries in the region.
But the fantastical logic here is that Iran funded a Hamas attack, whose scale suggests it was months in the making, because officials in Qatar will at some future point spend money in areas that the Iranian government doesn’t control. You might think the hostage exchange is a bad idea, but this sort of logic is an extraordinary stretch. Iran’s support for Hamas does not appear to be tied to economic conditions. Indeed, Iran’s engagement with Hamas increased during the Trump administration, under harsh economic sanctions.
In Israel, the accusations seem especially bizarre effort to impose US political logics on the event. Jacob Magid, the US Bureau Chief of the Times of Israel said the following:
Nevertheless, the attacks worked. Republicans persuaded the media to repeat the claim that it was Joe Biden’s fault the attack happened. To be sure, reporters also reported the rebuttals from the White House, but treated the story from a classic both-sides lens. Republicans say one thing, Dems something else, and whose to say which side is telling the truth?
Given the success of in converting the trail of lies into headlines, Republicans will be emboldened to keep it up.
If you want a more concrete example of how US policy actions might matter for the current conflict, I can offer two.
First, the House of Representatives does not have a Speaker, and it is unclear what can be done to pass new funding bills in response to the crisis.
Axios reported that:
Most business in the House has been at a standstill since Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was ousted as speaker last week in a move led by far-right Republicans. McCarthy's ouster has put Congress in uncharted territory. Scholars and lawmakers are divided on what the House can do and how much power Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) — who is not running for the job full-time — has to pass additional military assistance.
Second, Senate mismanagement of military and State Department leadership undermines US capacity to respond. Back in July, I warned that the Senate’s habit of allowing individual Senators to block all political appointees in an agency for reasons entirely unrelated to their qualifications might not be such a good thing.
The most obvious perpetrator is Tommy Tuberville and his blockade of uniformed military officers because of his concerns about abortion. His actions stood out because it broke a bipartisan norm that these promotions were off-limits.
Because of Tuberville’s blockade, the US does not have a Chief of Naval Operations in place, which seems like something that might be useful to have with a war breaking out in the Middle East. In the aftermath of the attack Senator Brian Schatz called for the position to be filled. (Senators can hold a hearing and vote to overturn Tuberville’s blockade, but because it cumulatively involves hundreds of positions, it is impractical to do it one-by-one, and it is impossible to know which position might suddenly become very important). Tuberville has said he will keep the blockade in place despite the Hamas conflict.
Two days before the the Hamas attacks, Josh Hawley announced he would block civilian army promotions, joining Tuberville’s block on military officer promotions.
Hawley’s stated reason for his blockade are concerns about housing conditions on one military base. A worthy cause to be sure, but is crippling army leadership the right way to address it? Seems like there is a lot going o that those DOD leaders might want to pay attention to.
Among the other Senators using their power to block nominations is Rand Paul, who has been engaging in a wholesale blockade of State Department nominations, including Ambassadors. This has, again, nothing to do with the nominees, but the fact that Rand Paul is convinced the government is holding secrets on the origins of Covid, and wants the government to provide a report that confirms his theories. Paul had also blocked funding of Israel’s anti-missile Iron Dome defensive shield for several months.
Back in July, Secretary of State Blinken warned how the blockade was especially relevant to problematic given vacancies in ambassadorial appointments in a number of countries in the Middle East, including Israel.
As of today, with the outbreak of war in the Middle East, the US still lacks ambassadors to Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Oman and Kuwait. Our ability to have credible figures in place to mediate what is happening is undoubtedly hampered. Jack Lew, the former Secretary of the Treasury, is awaiting confirmation to be Ambassador to Israel.
It would be hyperbole to suggest the these actions, by themselves, had anything to do with the attack, or that they have a dramatic effect on the outcome. But they do hamper the ability of the US government to respond at this time. And they are all directly the result of the cavalier approach the Republican Party has shown to its job of governing.
The thing about state administrative capacity is that it you can chop away at it, without immediate effects. It tends to erode slowly. It might seem cheap to do the damage, a reasonable exchange for the spotlight. Until it turns out that having that capacity really does matter.
Of course, if that happens, you can always just try to pin the blame on someone else.
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