“If Ukraine Matters, Tell Us Why”: Joe Biden Is Talking to Everyone Except the American People

For Vladimir Putin, the stage was set. Atrophied during the presidency of Donald Trump, the U.S. and its alliance with Europe were weak, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan under President Joe Biden further stamped out an already diluted U.S. desire to engage in conflicts abroad, and the COVID pandemic had left the world reeling economically and socially. The Russian president began deploying troops and military hardware to Ukraine’s borders. “It’s sort of like an experiment: ‘I’ll just start appearing to be ready to go to war. And let’s see how that plays out,’” a former senior diplomat who worked in the region said.

What he likely did not expect was a U.S. administration wholly different on the foreign policy front than the ones that came before it—including Trump, and also Barack Obama, who forged the Iran nuclear deal but also fumbled in times of crisis (creating a “red line” in Syria and then failing to respond when Bashar al-Assad crossed it; responding with sanctions, after the fact, once Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine). In its effort to mitigate the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Biden’s administration has adopted a posture of preemptive crisis diplomacy—declassifying intelligence on Russia’s propaganda efforts and warning of “false flag” operations, regular communication and coordination with U.S. allies, and signaling to Putin by the highest levels of government what a U.S. response to an invasion of Ukraine might entail.

What it will mean for Biden on his home turf remains to be seen. “I always try to reflect on how this plays domestically. After all, a ‘foreign policy for the middle class’ is, to me, code for making foreign policy serve the ends of domestic priorities and electoral politics at home,” a former senior U.S. official said. “Over the last year, Biden has taken criticism for incompetence (Afghan withdrawal), insensitivity to allies (French submarines and AUKUS), and the general right-wing accusation that ‘Sleepy Joe’ is too old and not paying enough attention. In all three areas of potential criticism, I think the foreign policy team has done a good job in the current crisis of paying close attention—even perhaps overstating the danger of Russian incursion, but that’s better than not expecting the Taliban in Kabul, right?”

While engaging in nonstop diplomatic efforts over the past several weeks abroad, Biden has been largely quiet in selling the endeavor—which involves the deployment of U.S. troops to the region but, notably, not to Ukraine itself—to the American people. Speaking in a daytime address on Friday—his second in a week—Biden largely targeted his messaging to the Russian government, warning that “the entire free world is united” in opposing any attack on Ukraine, a decision he said Putin had made. “The West is united and resolved,” he said, before adding: “Russia can still choose diplomacy, it is not too late to de-escalate and return to the negotiating table.”\

Despite a nod to the idea of “collective security,” lacking in Biden’s remarks was an explanation to the American people as to why they should care (polls show that, as FiveThirtyEight put it, Americans’ views on the situation are “muddled.”) “It’s a threat to Europe and the rest of our NATO allies in Europe, Baltic states, and Poland in particular on the border of Ukraine,” said Daniel Hoffman, a former Moscow station chief for the CIA. If the world lets Russia change borders by force, he ventured, who is to say China won’t do it next?

He called on Biden to send that message. “That’s up to Joe Biden to get on his bully pulpit, which he hasn’t done yet,” he said. “If Ukraine matters, tell us why.” 

Biden has won praise from diplomats for engaging so wholly, whether it is ultimately successful or not.

“I think they have done a tremendous job of keeping our NATO Allies and partners unified and coordinated,” a second former senior diplomat said. “Their efforts on this have been pitch-perfect and so thorough with State, [the National Security Council], and [the Department of Defense] all reaching out at a variety of levels.“ 

Observers are currently on alert for Russian “false flag” operations—partly because of the Biden administration’s decision to publicize that that would be a possible method of Russian attack. Some have praised Biden’s aggressive posturing in the information war, but others have criticized it.

The second former high-ranking diplomat said this strategy left them “perplexed.” The other diplomat worried about the parallels to 2003 and Iraq. “I’m not sure that that’s really a good formula for success, certainly using tactics like that can be really useful in moderation,” this person said. “However, to constantly be putting out senior officials every day to say, ‘War could happen today; it could happen in the next couple of days,’ it begins to make us look alarmist.”

“I don’t think that declassifying intelligence is going to influence Vladimir Putin’s moves at all. You can do all you want and declassify stuff that they already know about—it doesn’t matter…. That doesn’t influence his military decisions. Far from it. If we think that’s the case, we are fooling ourselves, that’s like diplomacy by declassification,” Hoffman said. “Economic measures have never really changed Putin’s calculus. Ukraine is an existential threat to Russia, not because of any military threat, but because nothing threatens Putin more than democracy. That’s what scares the crap out of him…. If they’re a prosperous, vibrant democracy, then that’s a clarion call to all of Putin’s own people whom you know the Kremlin is repressing and denying their basic civil and human rights.” 

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