Can Hope Spring Eternal in Joe Biden’s Aging Mind?

Last week, US President Joe Biden looked into the immediate future with guarded optimism. He wanted the world to understand that his administration was busy seeking a swift solution to what the International Criminal Court a month ago termed a “plausible genocide.”

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March 06, 2024 02:50 EDT

Between licks of a gourmet ice cream cone in the presence of comedian Seth Meyers, US President Joe Biden appeared committed to a ceasefire in Gaza, after months of opposing the idea. Responding to reporters, Biden sought to sound in control and reassuring: “I hope by the end of the weekend. My national security adviser tells me that we’re close. We’re close. We’re not done yet. My hope is by next Monday, we’ll have a cease-fire.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:


In the context of a situation of desperation, a sentiment expressed by the powerless that points in the direction of potential relief. When expressed by the powerful, it indicates the refusal to take responsibility for events they might have the capacity to control if they were inclined to wield the power that is in their hands.

Contextual note

Reporting on this event, The New York Times offered its analysis of Biden’s thinking, asserting that “a halt in hostilities could open the door to a broader realignment of the region that he has been working toward, with Arab states like Saudi Arabia recognizing Israel. But while he has been pushing Israel to accept a so-called two-state solution in which the Palestinians would get a nation of their own, he pulled back a bit by describing that as more of a long-term goal.”

Most observers now believe that, though long-term goals are essential to finding a resolution, the sheer desperation of the situation requires a hard focus on the short term. When the parties concerned failed to respect Biden’s theoretical timeline as the weekend drew to a close with no hint of a ceasefire and indeed an intensification of the IDF’s attacks on Rafah, Biden’s Vice President Kamala Harris turned up the pressure as she expressed her impatience: ““Given the immense scale of suffering in Gaza, there must be an immediate ceasefire for at least the next six weeks, which is what is currently on the table.”

If the president can only hope for even a temporary halt to the massacre and an impending famine, is it reasonable to think the superior moral power of Kamala Harris will have an effect? Critics of the administration’s continue to express their astonishment at the apparent powerlessness of the world’s most powerful nation. 

Some commentators noticed the potential for grim irony concerning a US operation that CBS News described with this headline: “U.S. military aircraft airdrop thousands of meals into Gaza in emergency humanitarian aid operation.” “Thousands of meals” sounds impressive, but for hundreds of thousands facing starvation in an operation that only lasted hours? Does the limited scale of the airdrop define the status of US powerlessness? Can “three military planes” feed an entire population?

In its reporting on the event, the BBC mentions that it “was the first of many announced by President Joe Biden.” “The Beeb” failed, however, to ask a much more pertinent question: Wouldn’t it have been easier and less expensive to put pressure on the Israelis who have blockaded the Gaza strip, preventing thousands of trucks from entering and delivering the much-needed supplies?

Some have even noted that those three planes fulfilling their humanitarian duty can’t be working full time on dropping meals. They are needed for the regular delivery of bombs the Israelis require in the days ahead, targeting Gazans who will by then have digested their airdropped meals.

Many commentators have grappled with the quandary of the persistent powerlessness of Joe Biden, commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful army and designated “leader of the free world.” Some point to the power of the Israeli lobby that has managed to control domestic politics in the US by wielding its unlimited capacity to fund the political campaigns of those who follow its dictates and to punish those who have dared to disobey by funding the campaigns of their opponents. Others explain that Biden has always identified with Israel to the point of being voluntarily blind to its crimes.

There are others again who put forward a more complex thesis: that it isn’t the executive branch who decides. Nor is it Congress, even though the constitution empowers it alone to define foreign policy. Instead, it’s the “deep state,” built upon the military-industrial-financial complex, a protean network of interests that despite lacking a brain has a mind of its own.

According to this logic, US foreign policy will systematically tend to support wars in which the citizens of other nations fight and die, while consuming US military technology. As James Carville once explained, “It’s the economy, stupid” — but in this case, a permanent war economy. The simple truth, as economist Michael Hudson explained in his 1972 book, Super Imperialism, all post-World War II governments discovered that the key to global success consisted in fostering a defense-oriented economic culture.

Historical note

In history courses we learn that European nations in the 17th and 18th centuries aligned on a system for managing national economies called mercantilism. Most modern economists have dismissed mercantilism as a flawed theory and claim it disappeared by the end of the 18th century, superseded by free market theory. But a close look at the trends in the global economy over the past eight decades suggests that the US government’s approach to the economy has come to resemble its discredited ancestor.

Intrigued by the possible parallels, I decided to consult ChatGPT and asked it this question: Are we justified in calling an economy in which defense manufacturing plays a dominant role an example of 21st-century mercantilism?” Somewhat to my surprise, the AI chatbot unhesitatingly agreed and offered a detailed account of why this might be true.

Certainly! An economy in which defense manufacturing holds a dominant position can indeed be seen as an example of 21st-century mercantilism Let’s break it down:

1. Mercantilism

  • Historically, mercantilism was an economic theory prevalent in Europe during the 16th to 18th centuries.
  • Key tenets of mercantilism included:
    • Export-Oriented Policies: Nations aimed to maximize exports while minimizing imports.
    • Accumulation of Wealth: The focus was on accumulating precious metals (gold and silver) through trade surpluses.
    • State Intervention: Governments actively regulated trade, imposed tariffs, and promoted domestic industries.
  • Mercantilism aimed at enhancing a nation’s power and wealth through economic policies.

2. Defense Manufacturing in the 21st Century:

  • In the modern context, defense manufacturing remains a critical sector for many countries. Here’s how it aligns with mercantilist principles:
    • Export-Driven: Defense manufacturers often rely on exports of military equipment, technology, and services. These exports ontribute to national revenue and influence global power dynamics.
    • Strategic Importance: A strong defense industry enhances a nation’s security and geopolitical standing.
    • Government Support: Governments actively support defense manufacturers through contracts, subsidies, and research funding.
    • Trade Balance Considerations: Like mercantilists, countries may prioritize defense exports to maintain a favorable trade balance.
    • National Security and Independence: A robust defense manufacturing sector ensures self-sufficiency in critical technologies and reduces dependence on foreign suppliers.

3. Challenges and Ethical Considerations:

  • While defense manufacturing can boost an economy, it also raises ethical questions:
    • Arms Sales: Exporting weapons can contribute to conflicts and human suffering.
    • Resource Allocation: Heavy investment in defense may divert resources from other sectors like education, healthcare, and infrastructure.
    • Global Stability: Striking a balance between national security and global stability is crucial.

In summary, the prominence of defense manufacturing in an economy reflects a blend of strategic interests, economic goals, and historical echoes of mercantilism. However, policymakers must carefully navigate these complexities to ensure a balanced approach that benefits both national security and overall well-being.

The new mercantilism grew from the discovery by economic experts that weapons manufacturing was the most stable sector of the capitalist economy. It was also the easiest for a national government to manage, while still claiming to believe in free markets. Furthermore, in the dawning age of high tech, it proved to be the principal source of new generations of consumer goods, a fundamental necessity to keep the “consumer society” happy.

So, to hijack John Kennedy’s wisdom: “Don’t ask what wars can do for you, but what wars can do for your country.”

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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