A Test of Strength

Israel stopped an Iranian drone and missile barrage last night, with help from the United States Navy, Britain’s Royal Air Force, and Israel’s Arab allies.

Israel’s Arab allies is a strange phrase to write in the midst of the war in Gaza, but it’s important to understand. The Jordanian air force shot down many of the Iranian drones, Reuters reported—meaning Arabs flew and fought to protect Israel. The Economist speculated that Saudi Arabia may have provided surveillance and refueling assistance to the Jordanian planes. Alliances are a powerful asset. They also come with a price, which is that allies’ views need to be consulted. Those allies, especially the United States, are saying: Pause here. That’s advice Israel may not like but would be wise to ponder.

Early in April, Israel scored a big win against Iran. It struck the Iranian consulate in Damascus and killed important figures in the Iranian terror system. Iran acknowledged the death of two top commanders and five other senior officers.

Last night, Iran struck back with a lot of noise and commotion but impressively little result.

Iran attacked Israel directly from its own national territory—a risky escalation from Iran’s past practice of striking by proxy. That escalation should not get a pass because Israeli defensive technology—and the solidarity of the international community—together outgunned the Iranian missiles. Iran struck Israel to maim and kill and terrorize. Those malign intentions mostly failed, but not because Iran was merciful or restrained—only because of the limits of Iranian power. Israel has an open account with Iran. But that account does not need to be settled immediately.

Every item in the ledger of Iran’s offenses against peace should be carefully preserved for future repayment: the missile attacks on Red Sea shipping by Iran’s proxies in Yemen; the Hezbollah missiles against Israel’s north; and the Iranian role in the Hamas massacre of October 7. But the repayment can wait until the right time and then be settled in the right way.

Iran put on a big show for the world. Like the sword-waving warrior in the first Indiana Jones movie, Iran made a spectacle of its weapons. Indiana Jones did not perform an equal show. He simply shot the swordsman. In the same way, Israel does not need to meet like with like. It needs only to inflict an appropriate cost that Iran will feel. The less fuss, the better. Maintaining Israel’s network of regional and international partnerships matters as much for Israel’s security as a conspicuous retaliation.

The action that most urgently needs to follow this Iranian attack is not action in the Middle East. It is action in Washington. The drones fired at Israel are the same drones terrorizing Ukraine: an Iranian design originally exported to Russia, now manufactured in Russia. Ukraine’s self-defense against Russian aggression has been sabotaged by Trump-loyal Republicans in Congress.

In 2022, Congress approved four aid packages to Ukraine totaling about $75 billion. Republicans took control of the House in January 2023. Since then, Congress has refused any further aid to Ukraine. President Joe Biden asked for a fifth package in August 2023. No action. Biden asked again in October 2023. Again, nothing. Over the winter, Ukrainian forces ran short of ammunition and other military supplies. Ukraine’s successes in 2023 are fading in 2024 because congressional Republicans are blockading Ukraine into defeat.

Anti-Ukraine Republicans offer many excuses for their refusal to assist a friendly democracy under attack. One by one, each of those excuses has been discredited. Aiding Ukraine did not provoke nuclear war with Russia. The European allies are not freeloading—in fact they have provided more than twice as much as the United States. Aid to Ukraine does not distract the United States from commitments in Asia: This past week, the prime minister of Japan addressed a joint session of Congress to insist that the defense of Asia begins in Ukraine, saying, “Ukraine of today may be East Asia of tomorrow.”

When each story collapses, Trump Republicans replace it with a fourth or sixth or eighth. The rationalizations shift and twist. The anti-Ukraine animus remains fixed.

Pretty obviously, some deeper motive is at work.

Iran’s attack on Israel has—at least temporarily—complicated the political calculus for Republicans in Congress. Republicans want to sound strong, to criticize President Biden as weak. But when Trump Republicans thwarted aid to Ukraine, they also stalled Biden’s request to help Israel bear the immense costs of its self-defensive war after the Hamas terror attack. Last night’s defense will be expensive: Hundreds of interceptors must now be replaced; fighter-jet operations burned fuel and weapons.

Because of Trump, Republicans are now the party of foreign-policy weakness, passivity, and surrender—and not only to Russia. Trump accepted an invitation from the billionaire donor Jeff Yass, who holds a large stake in ByteDance, and then flip-flopped on TikTok, one of the firms in which Yass holds an interest. The Republican refusal to aid Ukraine has also denied Israel money to replenish its Iron Dome defenses. Biden’s October 2023 request included funds to add 100 new anti-missile launchers to reinforce or replace the existing 30 to 40. Israel is still waiting for that assistance. Ukraine is waiting—and bleeding. The border is waiting too, because Trump Republicans first demanded a border deal as the price of Ukraine aid—then rejected the toughest deal in a generation because they feared Biden might get credit for it.

After months of nonaction, House Republicans have now proposed to schedule next week a vote on aid to Israel—separate from the requests for Ukraine aid and border security that President Biden combined in his October 2023 request. A vote on only the Israel portion of Biden’s defense program does too little of the job of defending America’s allies and honoring America’s promises.

So far, the Biden administration has not made much of an issue of Republican weakness. Biden’s superpower is his ability to work with unlikely people. His administration continues to hope that Speaker Mike Johnson will someday allow a vote on Ukraine aid.

After the Iran attack, now is the time for Biden to make Trump’s foreign-policy weakness painful and personal to Trump’s party. Say: “Trump’s not even for ‘America Second,’ never mind ‘America First.’”

In June 1994, President Bill Clinton traveled to Normandy to commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Imagining a more triumphant ceremony would be hard. Leaders of the former Allies attended to honor the day. Yet the president also paid tribute to former adversaries, and above all to the newly reunified Germany. “Liberated by our victory,” he said, the former Axis states now ranked with “the staunchest defenders of freedom.” Clinton offered words of praise, too, for a long-estranged ally: Russia, the president said, had been “reborn in freedom.”

Three decades after Clinton’s 1994 speech, a dictatorship is again waging a war of atrocity in Europe. And although a long queue of Republicans will be eager to travel to Normandy for the 80th anniversary of D-Day, their voting record is on the other side of the great issues at stake, then and now.

On social media, on cable news, in speeches to security conferences, Republicans are pretending that they still live in the bygone world in which they were the party of Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and John McCain. When it comes time to schedule and cast votes, however, they reveal the new reality in which they are the party of thugs, dictators, and aggressors from Tehran to Beijing to Moscow to Palm Beach.

Ukraine is one casualty. Israel could be the next. President Biden should make it clear, make it hurt, and make it change.


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