Biden and the free word on the brink

The President’s trip to Europe was marred by unforced errors, a lack of any coherent strategy, no new and creative plans, and a general sense that trying hard is good enough.  Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg Biden certainly is not.  Instead, it seems he’s angling for the first Presidential Participation Trophy.

Last week, President Biden traveled to Europe for a meeting with our NATO allies in response to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and accomplished absolutely nothing of substance.  The increasingly brutal war has been ongoing for a month, but the President has yet to even share what we consider an acceptable conclusion to the conflict, much less lay out anything resembling a coherent plan. This didn’t prevent him from opening a press conference after the summit by claiming he accomplished all three of his goals in typically stumbling fashion, declaring that his original intention was not to stop the war in the first place.  Instead, the goal was “to have absolute unity on three key important issues among our NATO and European allies.”  These issues include what should be considered the bare minimum for a functioning superpower in the midst of an almost 80 year old alliance, so pathetic we shouldn’t call them goals at all, most of which have been ongoing for years now.  First, President Biden wanted to “to support Ukraine with military and humanitarian assistance,” something we’ve been doing since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.   The second “was to impose the most significant — the most significant sanctions — economic sanction regime ever, in order to cripple Putin’s economy and punish him for his actions.”  Except, we’ve been sanctioning Russia since 2014 as well with no real effect.  President Obama issued 4 Executive Orders covering some 480 entities, 253 individuals, 7 vessels, and 3 aircraft, and all for nothing.  Third, “was to fortify the eastern flank of our NATO Allies, who were obviously very, very concerned and somewhat at — worried what would happen.”  Likewise, we’ve been fortifying Poland and other Eastern European countries for years.

None of this is new, innovative, creative, or has any chance of solving the problem. The President admitted this himself later in the same press conference, but not before bragging that “Putin was banking on NATO being split.  In my early conversation with him in December and early January, it was clear to me he didn’t think we could sustain this cohesion.  NATO has never, never been more united than it is today.  Putin is getting exactly the opposite of what he intended to have as a consequence of going into Ukraine.”  First, what else did he expect NATO to do, side with Russia?  Putting this another way, perhaps NATO is united because this is the first time in its history there has been a war on this scale in Europe and Biden has nothing to do with it?  Second, it seems bizarrely obtuse to declare that Russian President Vladimir Putin is getting “exactly the opposite of what he intended.”  At a minimum, he will annex two provinces in eastern Ukraine, if not the entire country, which given that he invaded for that purpose was clearly his intent.  What does he care if NATO is united yet completely unable to stop him? Ultimately, the vaunted unity of NATO is irrelevant unless it helps achieve our objectives.  The alliance is a tool, not an end of itself, but when those ends remain completely unknown, glossed over with what should be foundational axioms rather than achievements, it’s impossible to judge success or failure.

This strikes me as purely intentional:  In Biden’s formulation, success or failure is predicated not on expelling Russia from Ukraine or disgracing Putin on the world stage, but instead on holding summits, issuing sanctions, and shipping arms, meaning our goal is not to defeat the enemy but to say we tried.  Perhaps needless to say, that is not the way this works:  No President has ever stood before the American people in anything except disgrace while admitting impending defeat yet insisting we did our best, and that should count for something.  We can imagine a new Gettysburg address: 

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  If we don’t win, however, they can rest easy knowing I gave this speech and we really, really tried, hard.  Did I say how hard?”

Abraham Lincoln

Sadly, I’ve covered the good news in the press conference following the NATO summit.  The rest was almost universally bad:  We would respond if Russia uses chemical weapons, caveated with “The nature of the response would depend on the nature of the use,” so perhaps we can expect a minor use like a “minor incursion” to be acceptable.  The President then moved onto potential worldwide food shortages, warning that “it’s going to be real” and suggesting he had no plan to deal with it.  Instead, they had a “long discussion” and “talked about how we could increase and disseminate more rapidly food” while “urging all the European countries and everyone else to end trade restrictions on — on sending — limitations on sending food abroad.”  Incredibly, they are “in the process of working out, with our European friends, what it would be — what it would take to help alleviate the concerns relative to food shortages,” meaning they have done absolutely nothing.  The President did, however, manage to lie once again about former President Trump’s statements from 2017, claiming he decided to run after the white supremecist rally in Charlottesville turned deadly, claiming Trump said “There are very good people on both sides.”  What he actually said was “you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”  Then, he continued, clarifying who precisely he was talking about, “You’re changing history. You’re changing culture. And you had people — and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists — because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists.”  So much for politics stops at the water’s edge.

All this would be bad enough, but what follows is far, far worse.  CBS’s Christina Ruffini pointed out the obvious, saying. “Sir, deterrence didn’t work.  What makes you think Vladimir Putin will alter course based on the action you’ve taken today?”  The President responded by claiming nothing we have done so far was ever intended to deter anything.  It needs to be quoted in its entirety to understand how futile he believes his own policy to be, “Let’s get something straight: You remember, if you’ve covered me from the beginning, I did not say that in fact the sanctions would deter him.  Sanctions never deter.  You keep talking about that. Sanctions never deter.  The maintenance of sanctions — the maintenance of sanctions, the increasing the pain, and the demonstration — why I asked for this NATO meeting today — is to be sure that after a month, we will sustain what we’re doing not just next month, the following month, but for the remainder of this entire year.  That’s what will stop him.”  Of course, President Biden doesn’t say precisely what the full year of sanctions will stop Putin from doing.  Ukraine, or at least a part of it, will be in Russia’s hands by then.  Is he suggesting Russia will give it back?

The President is also either misinformed or lying.  Members of his own administration said repeatedly that the mere threat of sanctions would serve as a deterrence.  Here’s National Security Advisor Daleep Singh, “Sanctions are not an end to themselves.  They serve a higher purpose.  And that purpose is to deter and prevent. They’re meant to prevent and deter a large-scale invasion of Ukraine that could involve the seizure of major cities, including Kyiv.”  Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “The purpose of the sanctions in the first instance is to try to deter Russia from going to war.”  Pentagon Secretary John Kirby, “We want them to have a deterrent effect, clearly.”  Amazingly, it gets worse when Ms. Ruffini asked again,  to her credit as a journalist, “Do you believe the actions today will have an impact on making Russia change course in Ukraine?”  Rather than directly confront the sad reality he has wrought, the President promptly accuses her of playing a game, “That’s not what I said.  You — you — you’re playing a game with me,” before admitting the pathetic truth.  “The answer is no.  I think what happens is, we have to demonstrate — the purpose — the single-most important thing is for us to stay unified, and the world continue to focus on what a brute this guy is and all the innocent people’s lives that are being lost and ruined, and what’s going on.  That’s the important thing.”

It’s difficult to overstate how radically insane a notion this is.  Apparently, the President doesn’t believe that expelling Russia from Ukraine or even deposing Russian President Vladimir Putin is the most important thing.  Instead, he thinks we should be focused on singing kumbaya and making sure everyone knows Putin is a big meanie while people die by the thousands.  Nor did the President make things any clearer at a much vaunted speech in Poland on Saturday, when he said that Putin “cannot remain in power,” only to have his White House say that’s not actually his own policy.  Secretary of State Blinken offered this nonsensical explanation the following day, “I think the President, the White House, made the point last night that, quite simply, President Putin cannot be empowered to wage war or engage in aggression against Ukraine or anyone else.”  This misstatement was after the President seemed to suggest US troops would be sent to Ukraine and we might use chemical weapons against the Russians, a trifecta of gaffes on the biggest stage in the world. All while President Biden was attempting to gird America and the world for a long conflict, saying “This battle will not be won in days or months.  We need to steel ourselves for a long fight ahead,” without actually saying who this fight is with.  Putin?  If so, why aren’t we advocating regime change?  It’s also worth noting that the Russian economy is smaller than Texas.  Are we truly supposed to believe the entire world is going to engage in a prolonged fight against a backwards, relatively minor power?  If not, Russia, who else?  China?  

Of course, the cynic in me is inclined to believe these statements are driven by the lack of any real, coherent strategy to address the crisis.  They’re focused on trying, or at least appearing to try, and spinning wild ideas about long, unclear, unending wars, rather than attempting to achieve a meaningful strategic objective in the short or medium term.  This way they can say they succeeded even if Russia succeeds in annexing the entirety of Ukraine.  The long war will just have to go on, a minor setback and nothing more.  In the meantime, the mainstream media can continue to broadcast the ridiculous notion that the United States is once again the leader of the free world under President Biden, even as the free world is smaller, beset by war and besieged by ever more aggressive enemies, and he wants to lead us into an incoherent struggle, indefinitely.  One can only imagine what the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party think watching this doddering, borderline nonsensical display.  Either way, this is the ultimate win-win for Biden in the short term:  He can claim success in the midst of abject failure, independent of any actual result.  Call it a participation trophy for Presidents.

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