Full Episode: Washington Week with The Atlantic full episode, 10/20/23

Oct. 20, 2023 AT 8:59 p.m. EDT

President Biden traveled to Israel to demonstrate U.S. support as the threat of full-scale war looms over the Middle East. This as Congress remains paralyzed with House Republicans unable to decide who should lead them. Join moderator Jeffrey Goldberg, Dana Bash of CNN, Franklin Foer of The Atlantic, Steve Inkseep of NPR and Nancy Youssef of The Wall Street Journal to discuss this and more.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Growing concerns that the Middle East is heading toward all-out war.

Joe Biden, U.S. President:  We cannot and will not let terrorists like Hamas and tyrants like Putin win. I refuse to let that happen.

Jeffrey Goldberg: President Biden tells Americans that our democratic allies faced the threat of annihilation and calls on Congress to send billions of dollars in aid to Israel and Ukraine.

One problem with all this, the House can't even pick a leader.
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC):  A speaker has not been elected.

Jeffrey Goldberg: The mess in the House comes at a bad time for the world, and there's still no speaker nominee in sight. As infighting continues, Congress is at a standstill, next.

Good evening and welcome to WASHINGTON WEEK. It's been another brutal week in the Middle East. In Israel, bodies burned beyond recognition by Hamas are slowly being identified and two hostages have just been released.

In Gaza, the humanitarian crisis worsens and anger simmers over the deadly explosion at a hospital, an explosion that is generally understood now to be the result of an Islamic Jihad missile, but is still blamed on Israel by many in the Arab world.

Earlier this week, President Biden traveled to Israel to demonstrate U.S. support and to also implicitly warn Hezbollah, Iran's proxy in Lebanon, not to make more trouble. Looming all of this is the threat of full-scale war across the Middle East.

It's not a great time for Congress to be paralyzed, but paralyzed it is. House Republicans continue to be unable to decide who should lead them.

Joining me tonight to discuss all of this, Franklin Foer is a staff writer and my colleague at The Atlantic, he's also the author of The Last Politician, Inside Joe Biden's White House and The Struggle for America's Future, Steve Inskeep, the host of NPR's Morning Edition, and author of Differ We Must. How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America. Nancy Youssef is the national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. And Dana Bash, CNN's Chief Political Correspondent and the anchor of Inside Politics with Dana Bash, and the co-anchor of State of the Union.

Thank you all for joining. You have a lot of jobs. That's a -- you have a -- thank you for being here.

Dana Bash, Chief Political Correspondent, CNN: And now I'm a guest on WASHINGTON WEEK.

Jeffrey Goldberg: That's the apogee of your career. This is the apotheosis. Thank you all for being here.

I want to get to everything tonight, and there's a huge amount to discuss.

Nancy, let me just start with you, and let me give you a broad and impossible question to answer. Are we on the cusp of a broader, more general Middle East war?

Nancy Youssef, National Security Correspondent, The Wall Street Journal: Well, it's funny up until this week, we were hearing that people wanted to avoid that very thing. But then we started hearing different rhetoric from Iranian leaders. We started seeing more drone attacks on U.S. bases, intercepted missiles over the USS Carney that was operating in the Red Sea. We saw crossfire on the northern border so much so that Israel had to evacuate the town. And so those things have raised concerns about whether this conflict could escalate and expand.

Why are these things happening? One could argue that the -- that part of the groups like Hezbollah and supporters of Hamas are trying to signal their frustration with the policies by the U.S., and that's why they're attacking some of those bases. It could be a way to signal that they want to distract Israel and say you might face a northern front. And so all of those things, I think, have raised the concerns.

For me, we won't really know. I mean, the short answer to your question is not yet. But we expect a ground incursion potentially in a matter of days and that could really change how we answer this question going forward. If it goes on for a while, if it's particularly ugly, we could see increased pressure on these groups to operate differently.

Jeffrey Goldberg: From based on your own reporting, what is the Pentagon advising Israel to do?

Nancy Youssef:  So, the Pentagon has put a massive amount of resources in the region. And what we've heard over and over again from them is that they are looking to make sure that things don't escalate. They're looking for -- essentially, what we hear from the Pentagon is we're looking for a response that is enough to address the threat to Israel, but not so much so that the second and third order effects make more complications rather than address the immediate threat to it.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Steve?

Steve Inskeep, Host, NPR's Morning Edition: Let me summarize the case for not going to war, the idea that we would not go to war without really forecasting. You'd have to ask, in whose interest would it be to escalate? Biden doesn't want that. That's very clear. The Israelis have plenty to do now. There is concern about what Iran is doing, and it would seem that Iranian proxies, at least, have acted.

But let's note the style of that action. Iran threatened some kind of preemptive action, and then these missiles were fired in ways that did not actually harm the United States, effectively harmless attacks. Certainly not nothing for the people who were carting (ph) it, it seems like symbolic gestures at this moment.

And you'd have to ask, what is in it for Iran to escalate? They are very vocally allies of the Palestinians and of various groups in the Middle East, but is it in their interest to really go to war? It's hard to see how so.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Frank, the Israelis, do you think that they are going to be susceptible to pressure from Joe Biden to limit their incursion?

Franklin Foer, Staff Writer, The Atlantic: Joe Biden, by going to Israel, by standing with Israel in the way that he did in that speech that was so moving to so many Israelis, earned himself enormous capital on the ground.

And then when he went to Israel this week, he joined a meeting of the war cabinet. He's very much tied to this in ways that are beyond the ways in which an American president has been normally tied to an Israeli war effort.

And I think with all of that capital and with Israel's reliance on him at this stage for his ability to explain to the world the justifications for what they're doing, I think he has a lot of ability to shape how their strategy unfolds.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Dana, there's a lot of love for Joe Biden in Israel right now, but you've covered Israel. Netanyahu, the prime minister, does what he wants to do, generally speaking. I mean, do you agree with Frank that Biden has broad influence over where this is going in the next two to five days?

Dana Bash: As much as the president of the United States has capital in Israel, Netanyahu doesn't.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right.

Dana Bash: Because of --

Jeffrey Goldberg: Biden could be -- Biden is much more popular in Israel than Netanyahu right now.

Dana Bash: Oh, by far. And, I mean, there was already before this happened, and we all know a very deep divide inside the electorate inside Israel.

But as the people in Israel are mourning, they're also very angry at the fact that Bibi Netanyahu, who was Mr. Security, on his watch, this happened. And that is a very real feeling on the ground.

I will also say that I agree with you about Iran and how they're playing and --

Steve Inskeep: Also disagree if you want to.

Dana Bash: No, I was going to say -- well, no, I'm going to disagree.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Hey, the morning, yes, you're in the morning. You're in the morning.

Steve Inskeep: No, go on.

Jeffrey Goldberg: No, that's a good idea.

Dana Bash: I think we need to be careful. Iran doesn't necessarily support the Palestinians. Iran supports the terrorist groups that are using the Palestinians.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Dana Bash: Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah in southern --

Jeffrey Goldberg: Which is a Lebanese, not Palestinian group.

Dana Bash: It's not. It's not. But these are all fair. But these are all groups that have one thing in common, and that is they want to eradicate Israel.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right.

Dana Bash: And that is one of the main reasons why Iran supports them.

Steve Inskeep: And they may be led along by their allies. I would agree with that. It's hard to predict what would happen.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Frank, I want to stay on the subject of Joe Biden, who's had an enormously consequential week as, to use an archaic expression, leader of a free world in a kind of way that. We haven't thought about presidents in that context very often. And I want you to listen to something that -- you know, from Biden's talk last night, just to have you comment on it, if you could play that.

Joe Biden: The risk of conflict and chaos could spread in other parts of the world, in the Indo-Pacific, in the Middle East, especially in the Middle East. Iran is supporting Russia in Ukraine and it's supporting Hamas and other terrorist groups in the region. And we'll continue to hold them accountable, I might add.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Very tough. You've also seen them be very emotional. How far does he go to protect Israel? I want to stay on this because this is the crucial -- Israel is an independent country. It's just the same way that Ukraine is an independent country. But they're both so reliant right now on this one man.

Talk about what's going on inside the White House and even inside his head. You're his biographer. We'll give you that.

Franklin Foer: It's so interesting. There was a report that when that very emotional speech was being written, Aides wanted to edit it or tone it down in certain ways and that he rejected their advice.

And there's a couple of things at work here. The first is that his Zionism is very deep felt. It extends deep into his biography. For him, it's part of his liberalism. He has relationships with Bibi Netanyahu, with Israelis, that extend back decades. A lot of his best friends are Jewish. So, that is all very real.

But the other part of Joe Biden is that he has a very psychological approach to foreign policy and he's thought so much about Bibi Netanyahu. He's thought a lot about the Israeli electorate, writ large. And his attitude is that at a moment of attack, both as an expression of his own love, but also an expression of their needs, he needs to express all of this friendship and he needs to wrap them in a hug. But he also is aware of the risks, as he communicated in that address.

And so when he went to Jerusalem and he was in the war cabinet, he used the Socratic method to ask very pointed questions, but in a friendly way. What is your objective? How are you going to achieve that objective? And the truth is, is that Israel, in the course of reeling from this attack, hadn't actually gone through that process of thinking through what its ultimate tactics and strategy would be with the ground invasion.

Dana Bash: And it is interesting to, staying on Biden, how he connects what he's seeing now in Ukraine and Israel, but mostly in Israel, with his own experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, about understanding the anger, the passion we're talking about, Afghanistan now, and wanting to just go do something but not having that plan. And the fact that he is bringing in both his experience, knowledge and passion for Israel with his mistakes that he understands that he made and others made in Iraq and certainly in Afghanistan.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Steve, I want to ask you, one of the most fascinating and complicated aspects of this last week has been the marriage in Biden's rhetoric and in actions of Israel and Ukraine. Israel is a very popular cause in Congress, more or less bipartisan still. Ukraine, as we've seen in recent weeks, doesn't have the same sort of Republican support. What's going on here? Explain why he's linked these two.

Steve Inskeep: Part of that seems to be obvious politics because it seems that the White House wants them to be linked in Congress so they will both pass, so, that Republicans who might like to sink the Ukraine aid can't get away with it because it's attached to Israel aid.

But I think this was a persuasive part of the speech simply because he repeated it so much. I began to think as I was watching the speech, he's going back over the same points again and again and again. But my 14-year-old, who was watching while also playing some video games, said, this is a persuasive speech. So, I think that sense got through. He was attempting to link them both to the battle for democracy.

And there is something to that. But, fundamentally, it's trying to get a thing through Congress, which is a mess. Nancy?

Nancy Youssef: Not only that, but he said that American leadership was required to defend democracy. He really put himself at the forefront of those battle and these two very different wars that demand two different kinds of U.S. support.

In Israel, it's as much political, less military, because they have a robust military. In Ukraine, it was continuous to support the military. If you look at that $105 billion aid package, $61 billion of it, it would be for Ukraine versus $14 billion for Israel. It gives you a sense in terms of how he sees the U.S. supporting those two countries.

Jeffrey Goldberg: I was going to ask you if the Republicans are going to go along with this.

Nancy Youssef: Well, I think it's, in some ways, hard to answer. I think on the Senate, you'll see -- we've already heard from about 20 who have said that they have concerns about it, want to make modifications to it. We're starting to see debates about how you sort of divide that pie. But at the center of it is one very practical problem in that there's not a speaker of the House. And until there is one, you can't get that legislation through. And so --

Jeffrey Goldberg: Thank you for pivoting. Yes, it was a little bit of a premature pivot, but let's go with that. We're going to go with that.

Dana, well, you know what, before we ask the sort of the what is going on with the Republican Party and can they figure out a leader for the House, I want to understand the consequences for Biden's foreign policy agenda of not having a speaker of the House. I mean, how -- we know that the House Republicans are paralyzed. Does this paralyze everything?

Dana Bash: Yes, it does. And the only thing that can get done right now, in theory, is Senate confirmations. And I say, in theory, because that's a whole other problem that's going on with the military. And I mean, there's no ambassador right now to Israel. But that's another problem.

The answer is, yes, there is the basics of funding the government, which isn't just funding the American government, it also has to do with funding America's interests abroad. That is all part of that. But there's no discussion that can be done when they're fighting over and over, taking vote after vote after vote on a speaker and they still don't have one 17 days in, 17 days after they threw out Kevin McCarthy. They had no plan and it's so painfully clear.

I've covered Congress on and off for three decades. Nothing even comes close to this.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Wait. I want you to just listen to something very brief that Kevin McCarthy said, which I think is a very honest statement.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA): We were in a very bad position as a party.

Jeffrey Goldberg: The win for understatement of -- why is this happening? You cover these guys.

Dana Bash: So, the short way of answering this is the battle that we have seen for the heart and soul of the Republican Party, which has been won in recent years by Donald Trump and his populist wing and his click-bait wing and the idea that you have to say the most outrageous thing in order to get small dollar donations, all of that, that has been the winning part of the Republican Party.

The problem is that idea collides with the notion of actually legislating and governing. And it was that wing led by Matt Gaetz that decided Kevin McCarthy is no longer appropriate to be speaker because he actually dared to talk to a Democrat, negotiate with the White House. And they realized that if they're going to be that pure, whatever that means, then they can't govern. And that's where they are right now.

Steve Inskeep: There is an idea of politics, apparently, that you get to be 100 percent right, 100 percent at the time, and get 100 percent of what you want, 100 percent at the time, and if not, you shut the whole thing down. Obviously, there's the reality that you need a majority, which means you would need to compromise. You would need to deal with people in some way. And Republicans are having trouble with that.

I think for some institutional reasons, the media infrastructure on the right especially, and we could talk about this to an extent on the left, but the media infrastructure on the right is about demanding the extreme things, demanding the 100 percent win, and no other win is acceptable. But you said something wise there when you said like whatever it is, it is hard to understand sometimes what it is that the 100 percent want would need. What do they want?

Jeffrey Goldberg: And, by the way, I know someone who could have fixed this problem.

Steve Inskeep: Go on.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Abraham Lincoln. But we're not going down that. I'm just preempting -- I'm preempting that rabbit hole.

Dana Bash: Well, we knew somebody who wrote a book about him.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Yes, yes, yes. But you were going to jump in. Yes.

Franklin Foer: Going back to the speech that he delivered about democracy, when Joe Biden came to office, his whole theory was that you needed to prove that democracy was effective in order to win this war against its authoritarian enemies abroad, who all, whether it's Iran or China or Russia, had this sense that the West had grown decadent and its institutions couldn't compare to the autocratic version of them.

And here in this speech, he wasn't able to articulate that he couldn't get his aid packaged through because of all this dysfunction in Congress because it would disprove his thesis because American democracy is broken.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. Nancy, sorry, another unfair question for you, it's an essay. The Biden doctrine, are we finally beginning to see the contours of what you might describe as a Biden doctrine?

Nancy Youssef: I think so. I think it's a sort of advance of what Frank outlined, because at the beginning it was sort of very binary, right, either you're a democracy or an autocracy. And we started to see a world order in which people were sort of gravitating towards something in the middle that you see this sort of in Singapore and Dubai where they take away some rights but give you some securities.

And now we're starting to see the Biden regime's position seems to be that when democracies are under threat, that it will throw as many resources as it can to back them, rather than trying to put countries in categories of autocracies and democracies, but rather to back those countries that are fighting to be democracies. And I think if there is a doctrine, that's the simplest way to sort of sum it up at this point in his presidency.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right. The big question that comes out of that is, are the American people with him on that?

There's a problem for the Biden administration and the Biden re-election campaign, which is that the American people are not with him at the numbers they would like. I don't know, Frank, if you have thoughts on that, but nothing seems to move the needle on that.

Franklin Foer: No, no. And I guess what they're hoping for at this point, he used the term inflection point in the speech, is that this is somehow an inflection point in the campaign. I think having an 80-year-old president go on a trip like this and demonstrate vigor and make and communicate directly to the American people, that's something that he's been loath to do for a whole variety of reasons. And I think it's interesting in the last week that some of the age discourse has faded away.

Dana Bash: Yes. And if you go back in time to when things started to turn in not a good way for the Biden administration, it was Afghanistan and the way that the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan. And that's when you started to see his numbers drop with independents, with suburban women.

Jeffrey Goldberg: It never actually recovered.

Dana Bash: And it never recovered.

And so the fact that here we are a year-and-a-half -- two years later. Wow, two years. Two years later.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Time flies when you're managing a world in chaos.

Dana Bash: Yes, that he has the chance to show his stuff as the guy who was the foreign relations chair and the guy who was the vice president who really understands the world.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right.

Steve Inskeep: There were things that he said in his speeches this week that not everybody could have said, when he gave that caution to Israel, saying, we were enraged after 9/11 and made mistakes. So, please don't make mistakes. That was a thing that he could say gently and yet with authority precisely because of his age and what he had done and where he had been.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Come back to the Republicans on the Hill, who are endlessly fascinating right now, because they have the majority, they could govern if they want to, and most want to govern. If you had to sort of find the center of Republican foreign policy right now, where would you locate it, with what people?

Dana Bash: You know, I think it still is with the actual people, Mike McCaul, who's the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I think that's probably still where the majority of the Republicans are. The louder Republicans sometimes tend to be in the more populist America first --

Jeffrey Goldberg: The J.D. Vance, more of that type.

Dana Bash:  The J.D. Vance, Donald Trump, wing of the party. But I think the answer is it is evolving and it is evolving -- changing very, very quickly.

And I covered John McCain, who already didn't recognize before he passed away his party and certainly wouldn't right now.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right, right. Where I was trying to cleverly inch this conversation to was this question of Donald Trump. And it's a very -- it's actually a very serious question. This has been a crazy week where we are on the precipice of either something really, really large. If Donald Trump were president right now --

Steve Inskeep: This is a serious question?

Jeffrey Goldberg: This is a serious question. Well, he's been president and he may be president again.

Steve Inskeep: Very well-made, absolutely.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Based on your collective knowledge of how Donald Trump managed crises, where would we be right now? I'm trying to ask this in a serious, analytic way. Don't all jump at once.

Steve Inskeep: It's hard to argue the counterfactual. I mean, I'll just fill the air while my colleagues here come up with something wiser to say.

But the one thing that's on my mind about Trump's governing style was turning attention back to himself and making himself the center of attention. Biden-style has been different, even this particular week when he has been out front more than almost ever before. And you would have to assume that that would be the dynamic of Trump.

Dana Bash: Yes, I mean listen, yes, it is always about him, but he moved the embassy in Israel from Jerusalem from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He boasted about how pro-Israel that he was, that he was the most pro-Israel, of course, in the history of --

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right, since Lincoln. Right.

Dana Bash: -- since Lincoln.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You're welcome.

Dana Bash: And so I think that that would be -- that wouldn't be different. What would be different, very different, is the approach.

And he did have relationships, or at least the people who work for him had relationships, in the Arab world. We had the Abraham Accords.

Nancy Youssef: I will say one difference that the Trump administration made that we're seeing play out today is when he entered only two Arab countries, had reached peace deals with Israel, that became six. And because of that, how this conflict moves forward is fundamentally different and more nuance because of those relationships and also because Saudi Arabia was beginning to have discussions with Israel. And so the impact of those agreements is going to play out on the weeks ahead.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Last word, last word to you.

Franklin Foer: I think that I agree with Nancy that there these trends in American economy and military power that point in one direction and there's more continuity, but he wouldn't have been consoling the Israelis in that sort of way because of this personal feat. He would not have a democracy frame and he would not be defending the war in Ukraine.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Well, thank you. We could talk about this for a long time, but, unfortunately, we need to leave it there for now. I want to thank our panelists for joining us and for sharing your reporting.

And for the very latest on Israel's war with Hamas, tune in to tomorrow's "PBS NEWS WEEKEND" and visit the atlantic.com.

I'm Jeffrey Goldberg. Good night from Washington.

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