President Biden flew into multiple headwinds on his risky trip to show solidarity with Israel on Wednesday. Even before his plane landed at Ben Gurion Airport, several allied Arab leaders announced they would not see him. He won a limited agreement from Israel to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, but secured no promises that Israel would follow his urgent request to respond to the terrorist attack by Hamas with deliberate care and concern for the preservation of civilian life, rather than rage. He offered a small aid package for residents of Gaza and the West Bank, but can’t do much more until Congress functions again.
Rocket and shell fire from Gaza and Lebanon resumed within two hours after his plane left Israel.
But the trip was still worth making, as much for what went unspoken as for any tangible goals that were achieved. His decision to enter a war zone, in a country full of destruction and rage and the smoke of explosives, made it clear that the United States still has a vital role to play in defusing international crises and protecting democracies.
And that’s especially true given the dysfunction on display back in Washington during his visit. While Mr. Biden met with Israeli first responders and the families of the victims of Hamas, Republicans in the House were distinguishing themselves by not electing a speaker, by not doing their jobs in passing spending bills and military aid packages, and by not demonstrating that the legislative branch of government has its act together.
In the Senate, a single Republican member, seething about abortion, is preventing the promotion of hundreds of military officers at a time when American military expertise could be extremely useful around the world. Jack Lew, as strong a supporter of Israel as anyone ever nominated for the position of ambassador to that country, faced a torrent of opposition to his nomination Wednesday from a group of Republican senators are still annoyed that he helped put in effect the Obama administration deal that required Iran to limit its uranium enrichment.
The contrast could not be more clear. An increasingly isolationist Republican Party is nursing old ideological grievances and trying to disengage with the world, pulling back on our commitment to protect Ukraine from Russian aggression, while Donald Trump calls Hezbollah “very smart” and refers to Vladimir Putin as a “genius.” The disorder caused by a few right-wing rebels in the House could prevent or delay the approval of a large military aid package to both Ukraine and Israel, even as Mr. Biden offered $100 million in humanitarian aid on Wednesday. Almost immediately, Senator Rick Scott of Florida and several other Republicans introduced a bill to prevent that aid from going to Gaza until Hamas’s hostages are released, which is another way of making sure it will never be delivered.
This is why Robert Gates, the secretary of defense under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, referred to the United States as the “dysfunctional superpower” in a much-discussed article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. Both China and Russia firmly believe the country is in irreversible decline, he wrote, as made evident by its “growing isolationism, political polarization and domestic disarray.”
He added, “Dysfunction has made American power erratic and unreliable, practically inviting risk-prone autocrats to place dangerous bets — with potentially catastrophic effects.”
Mr. Biden has devoted his life to the opposite vision of America’s role, and took some risk on Wednesday in demonstrating that vision in person.
“It’s kind of extraordinary to put a president in this position,” Dennis Wilder, a national security assistant to Mr. Bush and a former deputy assistant director for the C.I.A., told me in an interview. “I was very perplexed by this one. But Air Force One landing anywhere in the world is a big deal. It still carries with it an understanding of tremendous power and reach.”
It shows, in other words, that Mr. Biden still believes in an interventionist foreign policy, if that intervention is intended to thwart aggression and terrorism and violence. He might even have made that case face-to-face with the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, if those leaders hadn’t immediately taken at face value Hamas’s claims that Israel destroyed a hospital in Gaza on Tuesday at a cost of hundreds of lives. Both Israel and the United States say they now have preliminary forensic evidence that the hospital explosion was really the result of an errant rocket fired by a militia group in Gaza. That dispute will go on for a while, but the unshakable belief in the Arab world that it was Israel’s fault will be a setback for the diplomacy of Mr. Biden and his secretary of state, Antony Blinken.
But Israel won’t soon forget that Mr. Biden showed up in person. His re-election campaign may hope that voters remember the president’s physical steadiness and comforting words when he is accused over the next year of being too decrepit to lead. The more important audience, for the moment at least, may be that of other countries that wondered whether the United States could still be counted on, after Mr. Trump trampled on longstanding alliances and promises. As Mr. Wilder noted, China and Russia have taken advantage of that uncertainty and are trying to persuade nonaligned nations that the American model is worn out and rotting from the inside. In that effort, they are getting enormous encouragement from the Republican Party and its unwillingness to govern.
If Mr. Biden has to put himself in harm’s way to show that there is another path forward, it is a risk worth taking. And Air Force One may have to encounter a lot more turbulence before the air is clear.
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