From international standing to domestic discord, President Joe Biden finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place. With calls to escalate American involvement in Ukraine and pleas for more military support expected from President Volodymyr Zelensky in his virtual address to a joint session of Congress today, Mr. Biden must walk a delicate tight rope to avoid the canyon of his own creation.
Already in murky waters with his popularity, Biden’s best hope of salvaging his legacy was to play the role of peacemaker. But with each passing day, that opportunity appears to be slipping away, leaving the president in a no-win situation.
Putin Trolls the White House
Russian President Vladimir Putin appears all-too-aware that the Biden administration faces domestic turmoil and that salvaging America’s reputation relies on Joe Biden maintaining an image as a global leader and statesman. In what appears to be a case of trolling aimed at creating a mockery of the White House, the Russian leader imposed sanctions of his own against senior US officials. The measures apply to Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, Press Secretary Jen Psaki, and other high-profile officials. The kicker is that the sanctions, which ban entry to Russia and block financial transactions in the region, also apply to the president’s son, Hunter Biden.
Psaki responded to the news by quipping, “None of us are planning tourist trips to Russia. None of us have bank accounts that we won’t be able to access.” This may seem a suitable response to what is clearly Russian trolling, but the fact that the White House is being mocked by the Kremlin diminishes its international reputation.
Comparisons to Trump
A stunning 62% of Americans believe that Putin would not have invaded Ukraine if Donald Trump had been in the White House, according to a recent Harvard/Harris poll. Even 38% of registered Democrats held this view. Indeed, Trump was much more unpredictable than Biden in his approach to international affairs, but another aspect of his personality may be more pertinent to the present Ukraine crisis.
The 45th president was by all accounts a “hands-on” leader. Whether for good or for ill, it seems almost inconceivable that Trump would not have been on the phone with Vladimir Putin from day one, making threats and trying to “manage” the situation. This is the kind of attitude that the international community now seems to be trying to goad President Biden into adopting.
Soft Power Diminished
Just this week, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with his Chinese counterpart to lay out some soft power diplomacy aimed at isolating the Kremlin from its allies. And yet it seems the administration is in danger of playing each encounter as a single game, rather than an ongoing season. While Sullivan may have made a strong case to China against providing support (financially or militarily) to Russia, it is worth considering whether it was he himself who was being manipulated.
In May 2021, President Biden publicly announced that intelligence officials would “redouble” their efforts to find possible origins of the COVID-19 virus, including any Chinese connection. This was not well received by China. Its state newspaper, the Global Times, in response published an op-ed likening the investigation to a redux of the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The paper stated:
“Washington is too arrogant to realize that its vicious accusations against China have become a political gamble for itself … It has staked too many bargaining chips on credit from international morality. It actually has no way to back down from this dangerous status.
“The US could meet its Waterloo in this battle: It might lose its credibility by abusing its soft power.”
Does the Biden administration believe that China has a short memory? To assume that the Chinese government has moved on from its previous statements and is ready to start afresh on an unrelated topic may be a folly of immense proportion.
No Good Outcomes
Hindsight is always 20:20, and political opponents use every misstatement, hesitation, and crisis as an opportunity to raise their own value. By refusing to set out the administration’s position and plan from the beginning, Joe Biden has left himself open to criticism from politicians both at home and abroad. His hesitancy – whether it will prove to be the right move or the wrong – has emboldened Putin and China and cast confusion among NATO allies (consider the volte-face on Poland’s MiG 29s).
This may not be President Biden’s “Waterloo,” as some pundits are already speculating. Still, the diminishment of American leadership and soft power are real and tangible events that could lead to a more precarious future further down the road.
~ Read more from Mark Angelides.