Biden’s health an international problem

Manal Lotfy in London , Tuesday 13 Feb 2024

The president of the most powerful nation on earth has been venting his anger at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in intemperate terms, fuelling speculation about his fitness for office, writes Manal Lotfy

Biden s health an international problem

 

No criminal charges were brought against US President Joe Biden after an investigation into his mishandling of classified documents found in a garage in his home in Delaware. Yet, the report by the special counsel for the Justice Department, Robert Hur, was a political bombshell.

In eight words, the report cast a heavy shadow over Biden’s mental capacity.

Explaining the reasons for not bringing formal charges against the president, Hur said that “because Mr Biden would likely present himself to a jury as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”

It couldn’t have been worse for Biden, whether in terms of timing or potential repercussions.

On the US president’s desk are complex issues, among them the devastating war on Gaza, the stalled Russian-Ukrainian war, and the challenges facing NATO. Internally, he has a Congress that refuses to pass much of the administration’s legislative agenda and presidential elections in November that could be a test of his physical and mental capabilities.

Aware of the repercussions that could result from being portrayed as an elderly man with a poor memory, Biden decided to fight back.

Shortly after the release of the US Justice Department report, the White House hastily called a press conference in which Biden stood up to defend his memory and his fitness for office.

It is bad enough for any US president to have to argue his case as fit for office, but on this occasion Biden made it even worse.

He was emotional and angry about his abilities being questioned. He also showed troubling arrogance by asserting that “I am the most qualified person in this country to be president of the United States and finish the job I started.”

But when talking about the administration’s policies in Gaza, Biden mixed up Egypt and Mexico.

The disastrous press conference prompted the New York Times to publish an editorial and two pages of opinion about Biden’s mental state and what it means for the Democratic Party and the country. It came after a week of lapses and missteps by Biden had cast a shadow on his memory.

In campaign events over the past few days, Biden has mixed up dead European leaders with their living counterparts, saying that he spoke to François Mitterrand, the former French president who died in 1996, when he meant French President Emmanuel Macron.

Biden also said that he spoke with Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor who died in 2017, while he meant former German chancellor Angela Merkel. He forgot Hamas’ name in a press conference a few days ago.

Liberal newspapers in the US, usually supportive of the Democrats, panicked. The coverage reflected this and lamented what many commentators have described as “the worst day in the Biden administration,” dreading that the Justice Department report has given Trump the attacking line against Biden “on a silver platter.”

Many liberal commentators were alarmed by Biden’s emotional state even more than his mental state.

Columnist Maureen Dowd in the New York Times wrote that “when the president rushed out Thursday night to show he was compos mentis, rebutting what special counsel Robert Hur said, he was peevish with the media and blamed his staff for mishandling classified documents.”

“Petulance is never a good look. Biden should have taken a breath… Pushing back at the image of a crotchety grandpa, he came across like a crotchety grandpa.”

The intensity of the US media coverage of Biden’s fitness for a second term was interrupted only by former president Donald Trump’s statement during an election rally in South Carolina, where he said he would not defend America’s allies in NATO but instead would encourage Russia to attack them if they did not pay their full share of the NATO budget.

Trump, already ahead in US national polls as well as in the swing states, is Europe’s nightmare.

In his first term, Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Agreement, entered a trade war with China and the EU, and threatened to withdraw from the UN and NATO.

Although Europe during Trump’s presidency was stronger economically, politically, and in terms of security, coexistence with Trump was very difficult. Today, Europe is weaker than ever due to radical changes in the security and strategic landscape in the wake of the Russo-Ukrainian war.

Biden’s fitness doubts are very troubling news from a European perspective, especially because there are questions regarding the Biden administration’s ability to deal with many complex and simultaneous crises, from the bloody Israeli war against the Palestinians in Gaza and the Russian-Ukrainian war to the Red Sea tensions and the possibilities of combustion in the Middle East.

Regular telephone calls between Biden and European leaders have decreased significantly in recent months. Communication and coordination may become even more difficult in the future between European leaders and Biden as he becomes immersed in his re-election campaign and as the circle of protection around the US president intensifies in anticipation of any new stumbles.

So far, Biden has conducted the lowest number of interviews and press conferences since late US president Ronald Reagan. Compared to his two predecessors, Barack Obama and Trump, Biden has conducted only 86 interviews, while Trump conducted 300, and Obama conducted 422.

All of this makes it difficult for European leaders to rely on Biden’s leadership or read the US position due to conflicting statements from the administration that hinder Europe’s ability to develop coherent foreign policies.

There is already anger in some European capitals over the way Washington rushed to freeze funding for the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA after Israeli accusations that some of its workers participated in the 7 October attacks on Israel.

So far, Israel has not provided any evidence to the Europeans or the UN regarding these allegations, which have put the Western countries that froze their funding to UNRWA in a difficult position due to the unprecedented and catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

There is European reluctance to talk publicly about Biden’s health and what this could mean for the presidential race, transatlantic relations, and the crisis in the Middle East.

There are also fears that one of the reasons for the apparent disregard for Biden’s advice to Israel is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu realises that the US president is frail and may not be able to withstand a marathon election campaign that is usually tiring physically and mentally.

“I do not know if Biden’s failure to pressure Netanyahu to change course in Gaza is due to his health and perhaps his inability to focus for a long time on this complex issue with its many moving details. But it is possible to imagine that Netanyahu is using Biden’s frailty to do whatever he wants, knowing that the US president cannot pressure him too much, which contributes to making Biden appear even weaker,” a Western diplomat based in London told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“Biden also could be unwilling to pressure Israel or publicly criticise Netanyahu because he realises that this is a risky strategy in a presidential election year and thinks that if he pressures Israel, the main beneficiary will be Trump. There are ministers in the Israeli government like Itamar Ben Gvir who openly say they would prefer Trump as the next president because Biden has not supported Israel enough in their view.”

Transatlantic coordination is currently being tested due to the discrepancy between the Europeans and the US regarding the planned Israeli ground invasion of Rafah in the south of Gaza on the Egyptian border.

Most European capitals have called on Netanyahu to exercise restraint. British Foreign Secretary David Cameron has urged Israel to reconsider the attack on Rafah. EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell has asked sarcastically “where do the people of Gaza go? To the moon?”

The UN has refused to cooperate with the Israeli authorities in any forced evacuation of more than 1.3 million Palestinians in Rafah.

Francesca Albanese, UN special rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, said the “atrocities” in Gaza were reaching “a new level of horror.”

Posting on X, Albanese said that “the present is painfully revealing. I refuse to be intimidated by those complicit in the perpetuation of the #Nakba – forced displacement, killing & grave harm aimed at preventing return. Denial won’t erase the tragedy, as history repeats with even greater ferocity.”

UK former foreign secretary William Hague called for the removal of Netanyahu, arguing that the decision to go into Rafah “represents the most crucial strategic moment since the war” started.

However, across the Atlantic, the White House and the State Department reiterated the administration’s refusal to stop economic and military aid as a way to pressure Israel, while the Senate voted in favour of sending $14 billion to Israel as part of a wider $95 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

Moreover, the Biden administration used ambiguous language by calling on Israel not to launch a military operation in Rafah “without a credible and executable plan”.

In recent days, US media outlets have been full of stories about how frustrated Biden is with Netanyahu, stating that Biden insulted Netanyahu in private, calling him names and complaining that the Israeli prime minister is “giving him hell.”

The problem is that when the president of the most powerful country in the world has no choice but to use intemperate language to describe a close ally who relies on the US military and financial support, this casts further doubt on US power and on the US president’s mental and physical ability.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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