Why do America’s liberal hawks attack Russia while giving Israel a free pass?

Liberal hawks like Michael McFaul, Max Boot and Anne Applebaum are quick to denounce Russian aggression but ignore Israeli crimes

On 7 January, Anne Applebaum, a historian and a staff writer at the Atlantic, retweeted a video of Russian missiles striking a Ukrainian hospital. Three days later, former US ambassador Michael McFaul, a Stanford professor and contributing columnist at the Washington Post, approvingly tweeted a sign demanding that Vladimir Putin be sent to The Hague. On 15 January, Post columnist Max Boot reminded readers that, according to the United Nations, Russia has killed more than 10,000 civilians in Ukraine.

These expressions of outrage were entirely justified. What makes them odd is that more than three months into the war in Gaza, Applebaum has still not acknowledged on X (formerly known as Twitter), where she comments frequently, that Israel has attacked hospitals there. She has not done so despite a Washington Post investigation in December that found that Israel has “conducted repeated and widespread airstrikes in proximity to hospitals”, thus contributing to a public health catastrophe in which, according to the World Health Organization, only 15 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals remain even partly functional.

Nor would a reader know from following McFaul on X that Israel is currently on trial at The Hague, accused by South Africa of committing genocide in Gaza. Boot has addressed Israel’s war more forthrightly: he largely defends it. One of the conflict’s lessons, he argued on 20 December, “is the need for a robust defense-industrial capacity, because high-intensity conflicts always consume vast quantities of ammunition”.

Applebaum, McFaul and Boot are liberal hawks. They claim to support a foreign policy devoted to defending democracy and human rights whenever possible, sometimes even at the point of a gun. (The line between liberal hawks and neoconservatives can grow fuzzy, but liberal hawks are more sympathetic to diplomacy and international institutions, and generally favor Democrats, not Republicans.) Not long ago, liberal hawks were considered a casualty of America’s military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, wars advertised as bringing freedom to longsuffering populations, which brought chaos and destruction instead. (I myself identified as a liberal hawk until those wars forced me to alter my worldview.)

But in recent years, liberal hawks have regained much of their respectability and power. Their resurgence has been fueled by Washington’s turn away from the “war on terror”, which for many Americans ended when the US withdrew troops from Afghanistan in 2021, and its focus on a new cold war. Because dictatorships rule Russia and China, and because Moscow and Beijing menace vulnerable democracies on their border, liberal hawks argue that preserving freedom requires deterring America’s great power adversaries.

Their argument has gained particular force since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, which they see as a test case for the global struggle to come. “Liberals who once protested the Iraq War now urge Washington to dispatch more rocket launchers to defeat Russian imperialism,” the Atlantic declared in a September 2022 essay entitled The Rise of the Liberal Hawks. Last February, Britain’s the Critic argued that the “Russian invasion of Ukraine has sealed liberal hawk ascendancy”.

Liberal hawks often profess their commitment to human rights. Yet they haven’t called to end a war killing more people per day than any conflict this century

Liberal hawks enjoy particular influence in Washington because their worldview closely aligns with the Biden administration’s. It’s no surprise that both Applebaum and McFaul have been invited to private, off-the-record discussions with the president. Biden and his top foreign policy advisers share Applebaum’s belief that today’s great power contest pits the “democratic world” against the “autocratic world”. As Biden put it in a 2022 speech about Ukraine, the United States and its allies must “put the strength of democracies into action to thwart the designs of autocracy”.

This worldview contains important truths. Russia and China are far more authoritarian than the United States and many of its key European and Asian allies. They’re also far more authoritarian than Ukraine and Taiwan, imperiled democracies that deserve to chart their own path free from imperialistic aggression. Whether or not one agrees with the policies that Applebaum, Boot and McFaul advocate in eastern Europe and east Asia, they’re aimed at defending liberal democracy – a commitment that extends to the United States, where all three writers staunchly oppose Donald Trump.

But liberal hawks have a problem: the borderlands of Russia and China are not the entire world. In the global south, especially, the geopolitical boundaries between the US and its adversaries don’t map easily on to the moral boundaries between freedom and tyranny. When discussing countries outside Europe or east Asia, liberal hawks often strain to shoehorn them into a worldview that associates America and its allies with democracy’s cause.

In March 2022, for instance, when Applebaum delivered Senate testimony about what she called “the new autocratic alliance”, she included in its ranks China, Russia, Belarus, Venezuela and Cuba, all US adversaries, along with Turkey, an American frenemy. She never mentioned Saudi Arabia, a critical US ally that – awkwardly – scores lower in Freedom House’s most recent freedom rankings than all of the autocracies she denounced except Belarus, with whom it ties.

Never have these ideological contortions been as conspicuous as during Israel’s war in Gaza. Liberal hawks often profess their commitment to human rights. Yet they haven’t called for ending a war that is killing more people per day than any conflict this century. They haven’t done so because, like their allies in the Biden administration, they are wedded to a narrative about the moral superiority of American power that this war defies.

Liberal hawks want to preserve American primacy, which they associate with human progress. But Israel-Palestine reveals a harsher truth: that in much of the world, for many decades, the US has used its power not to defend freedom but to deny it. That’s why liberal hawks can’t face the true horror of this war. Doing so would require them to reconsider their deepest assumptions about America’s role in the world.

Since 7 October, liberal hawks have labored to analogize Israel’s war in Gaza to Ukraine’s defense against Russian invasion – a template that renders Israel an innocent victim of external aggression and places America on the side of human rights and international law. In his 19 October speech from the Oval Office, President Biden declared that “Hamas and Putin represent different threats, but they share this in common. They both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy.”

Liberal hawks in the media have offered similar comparisons. In a column on 9 October, Applebaum suggested that “The Russian invasion of Ukraine and Hamas’s surprise attack on Israeli civilians are both blatant rejections” of a “rules-based world order”. On 3 November, McFaul described Hamas and Russia as part of an “Illiberal International” – which also includes Iran, Hezbollah and sometimes China – that “has come together again to attack democratic Israel”. Boot added on 20 December that “the wars in both Gaza and Ukraine should remind complacent western leaders that our adversaries do not share our liberal values”.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say Israel practices apartheid and has for more than 15 years held millions of Palestinians in Gaza in what both organizations call an ‘open-air prison’

When Applebaum, McFaul and Boot call Hamas an illiberal movement that does not respect international law, they are correct. Its Islamist ideology is incompatible with individual freedom and equality under the law, and it blatantly violated the rules of war when it murdered civilians on 7 October. But to depict Israel’s war as another battle between a democratic, rules-abiding west and a lawless, illiberal axis that runs from Beijing to Moscow to Tehran to Gaza City, liberal hawks must ignore elementary facts about the Jewish state.

When detailing Russia’s crimes, Applebaum and Boot are fond of citing Human Rights Watch; McFaul boosts the work of Amnesty International. When it comes to Israel, however, the findings of the world’s leading human rights organizations become irrelevant. Israel is “democratic”, respects the “rules-based world order” and embodies “liberal values” – even though Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say it practices apartheid and has for more than 15 years held millions of Palestinians in Gaza in what both organizations call an “open-air prison”.

When discussing America’s adversaries, liberal hawks often warn Americans not to let their ideological preconceptions blind them to the harsh realities on the ground. But when it comes to Israel, they do exactly that. In recent years, Applebaum has written eloquently about the struggle between liberal democrats and populist authoritarians in Poland, Hungary and the United States. After traveling to Israel last summer, she projected a similar dynamic on to the Jewish state. Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempted judicial overhaul, she declared, risks creating an “undemocratic Israel, a de facto autocracy”. But this storyline only works if you ignore Palestinians. For more than 70% of the Palestinians under Israel’s control – those in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, who live or die based on the actions of a government for whom they cannot vote – Israel is an autocracy right now.

Among Applebaum, McFaul and Boot’s favorite epithets for Americans who disagree with them about Russia is “naive”. But when describing Israel, they conjure a fantasyland in which Palestinians either don’t exist or would soon have their own state if only they behaved themselves. On 4 November, McFaul suggested that if Hamas gave up power and released Israeli hostages it would “give new momentum to Palestinian sovereignty”. But Israel hasn’t elected a prime minister who supports Palestinian sovereignty in 15 years. And even Netanyahu’s leading centrist opponent, Benny Gantz, is careful to say that while he supports a Palestinian “entity” in the West Bank, it won’t enjoy the powers of a state.

On 17 October, Boot instructed Palestinians that “the most effective resistance against liberal democracies is the most nonviolent”. In so doing, he evidently forgot that the Palestinian Authority has been collaborating with Israel to prevent unarmed resistance in the West Bank since 2005, that Israeli sharpshooters and drone operators injured roughly 36,000 protesters in Gaza during the largely unarmed Great March of Return in 2018, and that Palestinians launched a nonviolent boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in 2005 – a movement Boot derided because it targets Israel, not China.

As the war in Gaza has ground on, depicting Israel as the embodiment of a rules-abiding, liberal democratic west has grown harder. But despite some initial warnings, Applebaum and McFaul have largely averted their eyes. On 13 October, Applebaum quoted her Atlantic colleague George Packer, who urged Israelis not to “assume that the world’s support will last a day longer if news emerges of mass civilian deaths in Gaza”. On 29 October, she tweeted a New Yorker essay about life in the Strip. But in the months since, as news has emerged of civilian deaths on a terrifying scale, Applebaum has said little. On 29 December and again on 7 January,she retweeted news that Moscow had struck civilian targets in Ukraine. Her feed contains no acknowledgment that Israel has done the same in Gaza.

Four days into the war, McFaul implored Israel to “abide by international law and minimize civilian casualties and civilian suffering”. In early November, he declared that the Biden administration was “right to pressure Netanyahu to take much greater measures to reduce civilian deaths” and even suggested that “future US aid to Israel should have conditions”. But since then, as civilian casualties have exceeded 20,000 and human rights groups have repeatedly accused Israel of violating international law, McFaul has used his X feed neither to endorse a ceasefire nor to endorse the actual legislation to condition aid voted on by the Senate.

Like Applebaum, McFaul has said barely anything. On 4 December, he applauded Senator Jim Risch for decrying “Russia’s brutality and continued war crimes against the Ukrainian people”. From McFaul’s online posts, however, you’d never know that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and even Israel’s own leading human rights organization, B’Tselem, have accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza.

As the war in Gaza has ground on, depicting Israel as the embodiment of a rules-abiding, liberal democratic west has grown harder

Boot has been more upfront. He hasn’t ignored the destruction of Gaza; he’s justified it. While acknowledging that “this is a great tragedy for the people of Gaza”, Boot alleged on 15 January that “primary blame must lie with Hamas, because it launched an unprovoked attack on Israel and uses civilians as human shields”.

Depicting Hamas’s massacre as “unprovoked” – and thus akin to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – requires ignoring that Israel has been occupying Gaza since 1967 and blockading it (with assistance from Egypt) since 2007. Justifying Israel’s destruction because Hamas embeds itself among civilians would justify the mass killing of civilians in most wars against a guerrilla foe because, as Mao Zedong famously declared, “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” Indeed, the United States in the 1960s and 1970s used Boot’s argument about “human shields” to justify bombing villages that sheltered the Vietcong and Russia has employed it repeatedly to justify murdering civilians in Ukraine.

Boot also dismisses South Africa’s charge that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza because, he argues, civilian deaths there “constitute less than 1% of the territory’s population”. He contrasts this allegedly baseless charge with the US government’s claim that China is committing genocide against the Uyghurs, which he cites with approval.

But when the state department in 2021 accused China of genocide, it didn’t allege that Beijing had killed any particular percentage of the Uyghur population. It didn’t discuss mass slaughter at all but rather “forced assimilation and eventual erasure of a vulnerable ethnic and religious minority group” through forced sterilization and abortion; forced marriage to non-Uyghurs; separation of children from their parents; denial of freedom of speech, travel and worship; and mass imprisonment and torture in labor camps. By Boot’s standard, these horrors – which some scholars have called “cultural genocide” – wouldn’t constitute genocide either. In accusing South Africa of a “double standard”, Boot inadvertently reveals his own: one definition of genocide for America’s foes, another for its friends.

Why do commentators who write so passionately about the human rights abuses committed by Russia and other US adversaries find it so hard to oppose a war that, according to the United Nations, is putting half a million Palestinians at risk of starvation? It’s not that Applebaum, McFaul and Boot believe America can do no wrong. To the contrary, they warn that under Donald Trump, the US could go over to the dark side and join the autocratic world.

But they tell a particular story about America, and about the last century, which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict turns on its head. The story is that America’s rise to global pre-eminence ushered in a freer and more law-abiding world. Applebaum has applauded the “Pax Americana that accompanied the rules-based world order”. Boot argues that after winning the second world war, the US avoided “pursuing our narrow self-interest” and instead created “lasting institutions such as Nato and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (forerunner of the World Trade Organization) to promote prosperity and security for all”. McFaul insists that “the US has not for many decades engaged in annexation or colonization, does not attack democracies, and does not use terrorism deliberately as a method of war”.

But there are many places, especially in the global south, that do not fit this story of American power producing moral progress. The story doesn’t account for the 62 times, according to the political scientist Dov Levin, that the United States intervened in foreign elections between 1946 and 1989, nor the fact that, according to Lindsey O’Rourke’s book Covert Regime Change, many of the leftist parties the US sabotaged had “repeatedly committed themselves to working within a democratic framework, and, in some cases, US policymakers even acknowledged this fact”.

The story doesn’t account for US complicity in Indonesia’s killing of roughly 1 million alleged leftists in the mid-1960s or the CIA’s role in helping apartheid South Africa arrest Nelson Mandela. It can’t be reconciled with the Nixon administration’s decision to keep arming Pakistan’s war in what became Bangladesh when America’s own chief diplomat on the ground told them that the Pakistanis were committing genocide or the Reagan administration’s insistence on supplying weapons to President Efraín Ríos Montt, whom a Guatemalan court later convicted of genocide for his effort to wipe out his country’s Maya Ixil Indians.

Israel-Palestine is part of a darker history about the era of American primacy that liberal hawks celebrate and wish to preserve

The story doesn’t explain the George HW Bush and Clinton administrations’ sanctions against Iraq, which the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in that country warned were “destroying an entire society” or the Obama administration’s participation in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ blockade and indiscriminate bombing of Yemen, which left 18 million of the country’s 28 million people without reliable access to food.

Israel-Palestine is part of a darker history about the era of American primacy that liberal hawks celebrate and wish to preserve. For decades, the United States has used its unparalleled military might and diplomatic muscle to ensure that Israel can deny millions of Palestinians the most basic rights – citizenship, due process, freedom of movement, the right to vote – with impunity.

In 2020, the United States froze the assets of the prosecutor of the international criminal court, partly in retaliation for her decision to launch an investigation into Israeli war crimes. At the United Nations general assembly, the entire world – including virtually all the democracies on earth – regularly vote to condemn Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The tally last November was 145-7. But the US renders this global human rights consensus impotent by again and again employing its veto at the security council. Many US states bar individuals or organizations that support boycotting Israel – or even merely boycotting Israeli settlements – from conducting business with state government.

These are not the actions merely of Maga authoritarians. This intensive effort to protect Israeli apartheid has been broadly bipartisan and spanned many presidencies. It includes many of the politicians that Applebaum, McFaul and Boot believe embody the best of America – those dedicated to supporting Ukraine and keeping Donald Trump from re-entering the White House – chief among them Joe Biden. And since 7 October, these decades of near-unconditional US support have culminated in Biden rushing weapons to Israel even as, according to Oxfam, Israel kills more than five times as many people per day as Russia is killing in Ukraine. All this gravely undermines the moral dichotomy that structures liberal hawks’ view of the world. The more honestly one faces the horror in Gaza, the harder it becomes to draw a bright line between the way America wields its power and the way its adversaries do.

In 2021, Applebaum bemoaned the fact that “a part of the American left has abandoned the idea that ‘democracy’ belongs at the heart of US foreign policy”. She speculated that the left’s emphasis on America’s sins – its alleged belief that “the history of America is the history of genocide, slavery, exploitation, and not much else” – had convinced many progressives that the US lacks the moral authority to aid people suffering “profound injustice” overseas.

But because Applebaum focuses on the oppression committed by America’s adversaries, she ignored the possibility that American progressives might rise up in solidarity with people oppressed by America’s friends, and that they might draw inspiration not from a celebration of America’s past virtue but from those in prior generations who struggled against American genocide, slavery and exploitation.

In her 2021 essay, Applebaum criticized progressives for not producing “something comparable to the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s”. They now have. If a new generation of Americans eventually turns US policy against apartheid in Israel-Palestine, as their forebears turned US policy against apartheid in South Africa, it won’t be because they extolled American power. It will be because they confronted the “profound injustices”, committed under America’s auspices, which liberal hawks so often obfuscate or ignore.

  • Peter Beinart is editor-at-large of Jewish Currents, professor of journalism and political science at the Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York, and author of The Beinart Notebook, a weekly newsletter