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Can America Still Lead?
Israel, Ukraine, and what it will take for our deeds to match our words.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN wishes to be “crystal clear”: “The United States has Israel’s back.” His speech on Tuesday was—according to Michael Oren, a distinguished historian who served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States during the Obama administration—“the most passionately pro-Israel” speech ever delivered by an American president.
Biden has also said that America will back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to win its freedom from Russia. Last December, Biden told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, during Zelensky’s trip to Washington where he received a standing ovation from a joint session of Congress, that he and his people “continue to inspire the world” and it was “an honor to be by your side.”
Grand words. Very American words. But what do they—and what should they—mean in deeds? Is this the moment when the United States comes home from its holiday from history to reassert its power on behalf of peace, prosperity, and liberty?
There are many reasons to be skeptical, beginning with the character of the president himself. In his political maturity, dating back at least to his time as vice president, Biden has evinced a strong preference for diplomacy over the exercise of hard power. During the Obama years, his counsel was not that sage strategy should guide the use of military force, but that it could substitute for it. He advanced a scheme of partition for Iraq and he played a large role in undermining Obama’s time-limited—and hence self-defeating—“surge” in Afghanistan. And, lest we forget, Biden could not be talked out of abandoning the country to the Taliban two years ago.
Yet Biden is as much a trailing edge as a leading edge indicator of America’s strategic temperament in the 2020s. Preserving American strength in the world remains a rhetorical vote-getter. But at the same time, the spirit of retreat manifests itself distinctly in the two parties: Left-leaning Democrats think the United States is morally unfit to lead the world, while right-wing Republicans think the rest of the world is unfit for American attention. A McGovernite, come-home-America theme ran through the Obama and Trump terms. The Bidenites hanker to save the planet more than defend the free world.
Moreover, the Twitterization of politics all but precludes serious thought or discussion, particularly about international affairs. Are Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Nancy Mace the men and women for the moment? Can Pramila Jayapal and Jamaal Bowman contribute seriously to the nation’s foreign policy debates? Don’t even get me started on Donald Trump and RFK Jr.
THE 10/7 HAMAS ATTACKS were instantly characterized as “Israel’s 9/11.” But comparisons to al Qaeda or the Islamic State not only misrepresent the scale of the assaults but the nature of the threat to Israel. Hamas has de facto sovereignty and sanctuary that have made it far more resilient than the pre-9/11 version of al Qaeda or the Islamic State in Iraq. Hamas has allies and outside backers that have enabled it, may have helped plan this campaign, and can help it reconstitute. The Israelis left Gaza in 2005 and came to accept Hamas as a fact of life; even the best “over the horizon” intelligence-gathering is an invitation to strategic surprise.
Even more remarkably, the Russian invasions of Georgia and Ukraine from 2008 onward—and now, the continuation of the largest land war in Europe since 1945—have not aroused the United States or most of our major European allies to real action, to anything that involves genuine sacrifice or reordering of national priorities. Even Poland, key to the “Eastern Front” and heretofore stalwart in support of Ukraine, is unlikely to forgo its own military modernization to give Kyiv the modern Western systems it needs. The Ukrainian military has had to make do with old Soviet hand-me-downs and narrowly selected U.S. and Western systems. The balance of power in Europe, ever America’s central strategic concern since the founding, apparently no longer worries us that much.
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Nor has the sheer barbarism of our enemies had more than a transitory effect. The extreme brutality of the Hamas attacks are not more horrid than those perpetrated by ISIS, al Qaeda in Iraq, the Iranian Quds Force, the Russian army, or the Wagner Group. The face of evil shows itself again and again—and again and again we avert our eyes.
BACK IN 2008, frustrated that the Pentagon was dragging its heels in fulfilling the requirements of the Iraq surge, Defense Secretary Robert Gates decried “a tendency towards what might be called ‘Next-War-itis,’ the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict.” The normally imperturbable Gates was infuriated that his senior generals were not committed to winning “the war we are in,” and he fired a number of them. His purge, alas, proved incomplete and transitory. And we can see the same problem today, as too many in the national security world wish to focus only on tomorrow’s contest with China and the defense of Taiwan. For Elbridge Colby, for instance—the scribe for the national defense strategy pursued by the Trump administration, in which he served as a deputy assistant secretary of defense—the new Israeli-Hamas war shows “the need for us to husband our strength for Asia,” prioritizing “very close allies like Israel” at the expense of transfers to Ukraine.
Husbanding is an inadequate and indeed imprudent response to the current systemic crisis of the liberal international order, the world America made from the rubble of World War II. By the time the contest reaches a shape and proportion that is congenial to our current thinking, it will be too late. When the final fig leaf of diplomacy wafts away, we will stand naked in a hostile world.
For President Biden’s passionate words to take on real meaning, they must form the inspiration not just for the immediate defense of beleaguered, freedom-loving friends on the frontier but for a speedily begun and sustained program of rearmament, led by the United States but promulgated across many allies. Our recent presidents have complained about “free-riding” partners who devote less than 2 percent of their annual income to defense, yet we ourselves don’t spend much more than that. We ourselves have become free riders on the investments made by past generations.
Biden can be—may already be—the most pro-Ukraine and pro-Israel president in American history, judging by rhetoric. But his promises and exhortations will count for nothing if he cannot lead the United States to a place where it is willing—politically, economically, militarily—to back up the Israelis.