Reporting suggests that the hardline elements of Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition were openly hostile to warnings from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and security agency Shin Bet that settler violence would increase the security threat to Israel. One Likud member of parliament complained: “The ideology of the left has reached the top echelons of the Shin Bet. The deep state has infiltrated the leadership of the Shin Bet and the IDF.” Another Netanyahu coalition member stated, “We see there is confusion as to who is an enemy.”
Hamas’ surprise attack has highlighted further national security dysfunction within the Netanyahu government. There are confirmed reports that Egyptian intelligence directly warned Netanyahu that “something fierce will happen from Gaza.” Allegedly, Netanyahu was indifferent to the warning, explaining that the IDF was “swamped” with terrorism threats in the West Bank. Israeli critics have stated that his coalition repeatedly ignored earlier warnings from Arab allies regarding rising levels of Palestinian frustration. Haaretz editorialized this week that, “a prime minister indicted in three corruption cases cannot look after state affairs, as national interests will necessarily be subordinate to extricating him from a possible conviction and jail time.”
Israel is paying a steep price for its national security dysfunction right now in the form of hundreds dead, a planned siege of Gaza and an imminent ground invasion involving hundreds of thousands of Israeli soldiers that may accomplish little more than producing more bloodshed and grievance.
Here’s my question: Is Israel a harbinger for the United States? Are we getting a sneak preview of what will happen if Republicans succeed in their effort to exercise more control over the national security bureaucracy?
Bashing political polarization is the first thing they teach you in Centrist Punditry 101. Partisanship is not all bad, however, even in areas of foreign policy and national security. Different political parties will have different national security priorities and preferences. Sometimes an ideological hedgehog clearly sees a threat that no one else notices due to groupthink. Winston Churchill was an isolated political figure in the 1930s because of a series of high-profile policy miscues. Alone among British politicians, though, he correctly perceived the threat posed by Hitlerite Germany. Political ideologies are a natural source of supply for the foreign policy marketplace of ideas.
The problem comes when elected officials and political appointees decide that in order to achieve their desired ends, they need to reduce entire national security institutions to rubble. And let’s be very clear: In 2023, all of the U.S. partisans engaging in such behavior are Republicans. Former president and likely future presidential nominee Donald Trump has set the tone here. The number of instances that the former president sabotaged U.S. national security while in office and afterwards is too long to recount in detail. There’s the blabbing of secrets to Russian officials in the Oval Office, the tweeting of classified photos, the refusal to return national security secrets once he left office, and the fact that he shared extremely sensitive information about the capabilities of U.S. nuclear submarines to Mar-a-Lago members, who in turn blabbed it to everyone. His behavior was so egregious that multiple former cabinet members — most recently John Kelly, Trump’s former White House chief of staff — have gone on the record to discuss the danger he poses. Back in June his attorney general, William Barr, warned on Face the Nation, “He will always put his own interests, and gratifying his own ego, ahead of everything else, including the country’s interests.”
After losing the election in November 2020, Trump fired or demanded the resignation of several political appointees on his foreign policy team because of a perceived lack of personal loyalty. He replaced them with acting officials who had minimal qualifications for their jobs beyond abject fealty to Trump. If he wins the 2024 election, Trump’s stated policy positions will make his lame duck actions in 2020 seem tame by comparison. His campaign, in concert with the Heritage Foundation, has announced plans to convert tens of thousands of civil service employees into political appointees the president could fire at his whim. According to the New York Times, if reelected, Trump “plans to scour the intelligence agencies, the State Department and the defense bureaucracies to remove officials he has vilified as ‘the sick political class that hates our country.’” One Bush 43 official told the Atlantic, “I can’t overstate my level of concern about the damage this would do to the institution of the federal government.” The CEO of the Partnership for Public Service explicitly analogized Trump’s idea to Netanyahu’s controversial and unpopular efforts to constrain the Israeli judiciary.
Trump is the loudest but hardly the only Republican willing to sabotage the U.S. national security architecture. Other GOP presidential contenders have expressed an equally strident desire. Vivek Ramaswamy promised to “use executive authority to shut down the deep state.” His plans included firing 75 percent of the federal workforce and dismantling the FBI and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been even more violent in his rhetoric, promising one New Hampshire crowd that “all these deep state people … we’re going to start slitting throats on day one.”
The GOP caucus in the Senate has also been busy stymieing the foreign policy machine. The most obvious manifestation of this is Sen. Tommy Tuberville holding more than three hundred military promotions hostage unless the Pentagon stops funding travel for service women to receive abortions. This includes two selections for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as Middle East theater commanders for naval and ground forces. Though his Republican colleagues have expressed queasiness at Tuberville’s tactics, they have remained unwilling to intervene. Tuberville recently made it clear that his position was unchanged despite the return of Middle East turmoil.
While Tuberville might be the most obstructionist Republican senator, he is hardly alone. Marco Rubio has placed holds on multiple Biden nominees, as has Ted Cruz. The result is that, at present, the United States does not have confirmed ambassadors in Israel, Egypt, Lebanon and Kuwait. There has been no confirmed USAID official for the Middle East for close to three years, nor has there been a confirmed State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism for nearly two years.
The GOP caucus in the House of Representatives makes its Senate counterpart look like a model of bipartisanship. As the majority party, House Republicans have taken the most concrete efforts to stymie the foreign policy and national security bureaucracies. Upon taking office, then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy signed off on a new Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. That subcommittee has accomplished little beyond holding hearings aimed to fan the flames of dubious far-right conspiracy theories like the Twitter Files. Jim Banks, the chair of the House Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel, recently told evangelists: “‘Wokeism’ will eat our country inside-out if we let it, and we’ve got to stop it from taking over and transforming the military.” In response, Peter Feaver, a conservative expert on civil-military relations, noted, “We’ve reached the point where the concern is greater than the reality. No one has presented evidence that is commensurate with the amount of energy that is being devoted to it.”
Meanwhile, GOP infighting in the House already threatened to shut down the government once, and forced out McCarthy from the speakership immediately following his efforts to avoid that outcome. One of the sticking points for funding the government has been whether there would be supplemental aid for Ukraine to assist in its defense against Russia’s invasion. Until a new speaker is chosen, the House cannot authorize any aid to Israel as well. One of the leading candidates to replace McCarthy is the Trump-endorsed Jim Jordan. He is the House member most closely involved with Trump’s efforts to incite violence on Jan. 6, 2021. He is also the current chair of the weaponization subcommittee.
Outside assessments of the GOP’s ability to promote U.S. national security in the House have not been kind. One recent withering analysis noted, “For the better part of a month, House Republicans argued amongst themselves over whether it was necessary or even desirable to keep the U.S. government open if they failed to use leverage they did not have over Democrats to secure spending cuts. It was a conversation divorced from political reality, and it produced only one concession from the party in power — cutting off support for a U.S. partner that has been ruthlessly invaded by an overt American enemy.” Where was that lefty screed published? That would be the National Review.
None of this is to imply that the U.S. foreign policy and national security apparatus is above reproach. Bureaucrats are far from perfect, and civilian control of the military is essential for democracy to work. It is the job of elected officials to ask hard questions. What Republicans are doing right now, however, bears little resemblance to proper political oversight. It more closely resembles the kind of intellectual jihads that Republicans claim to abhor in their enemies. It is conservative political correctness run amok.
Some House Republicans have voiced concerns that their current dysfunction factored into the timing of Hamas’ surprise attack. That is highly unlikely — but it is encouraging to hear Republicans express concern that U.S. national security interests could be undermined by their own party’s extremism. Because it could be. Imagine, for example, what a second Trump term would actually look like. If he only appoints toadies to cabinet-level positions, there would be no adults in the room. His planned jihad against the permanent bureaucracy would trigger an exodus of the best, most independent diplomats, general officers and intelligence analysts. The ability of Trump’s weakened administrative state to accurately assess or respond to any national security threat would be suspect at best and incompetent at worst. The likelihood of a successful terrorist attack on U.S. soil, undeterred Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, or open war in the Pacific Rim would rise exponentially. The U.S. military would be too busy bombing Mexico or governing U.S. cities to respond. As chaotic as Trump’s first term was, his second term could set the world on fire.
The failure of Israel to accurately assess the threat posed by Hamas is a cautionary tale of what happens when elected officials view their own government as part of a “deep state” instead of professionals trying their best to provide useful intelligence and advice. If Republicans do well in the 2024 elections, Americans could view what is happening in Israel now as the same sneak preview that Brexit provided in 2016.