A half-century from now, Joe Biden’s presidency will be remembered, as most presidencies are, with a short summary sentence. It will read: “He defeated President Donald Trump, and ____________.”
It won’t be the infrastructure bill, the rate of inflation or the Inflation Reduction Act — which, so long as China, India, South Africa and other countries continue building huge coal-fired plants, probably won’t lead to a major reduction in global greenhouse-gas emissions. It won’t be Hunter’s emails. Nor will it be whether he served one term or two.
What will matter in 2073 is whether he reversed the global tide of democratic retreat that began long before his presidency but reached new lows with the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If Biden can turn it, it will be a historic achievement. If not, much darker days will lie ahead.
He has a real chance.
On the positive side, there is last week’s announcement of 31 M1 Abrams tanks for Ukraine, unlocking German Leopard 2 tanks to be sent as well. The decision brings Ukraine a significant step closer to eventual NATO membership, to which it has more than earned the right.
Then there’s the apparent end of attempts to revive the Iran nuclear deal and a visibly tougher posture by the administration toward Iran’s misogynistic tyrants, including, last week, the largest-ever joint military exercise with Israel.
And there is the president’s repeated public statements that the U.S. will defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. Had Biden failed to say so, the island would be in even graver danger than it is now. Closer defense ties to Japan and Australia reinforce the point.
Each of these steps evoke the cautious but purposeful way in which Biden’s political hero, Franklin Roosevelt, came to Britain’s aid in 1941 with Lend-Lease while preparing America for the possibility of war. They come on top of Biden’s other foreign-policy successes, none of which were a given at this time last year: trans-Atlantic unity in the face of Russian aggression and energy blackmail; Finland and Sweden on their way toward NATO membership; the decimation of Russian military forces in Ukraine thanks largely to NATO weaponry and intelligence.
But Biden, like FDR, will not be judged by how he managed these crises at their start. What counts is how he brings them to an end.
For Ukraine, the minimal U.S. objective is to deny Russia any gains from its aggression in the past year — anything less and Russian President Vladimir Putin will be able to claim victory, freeze the conflict and bide his time against an enfeebled and demoralized Ukrainian state. For Iran, the objective is to stop the regime from reaching a nuclear breakout. For Taiwan, it’s to arm the island to the point where it can defend itself, by itself, against Chinese invasion while preserving a viable U.S. option to intervene.
On all this, the administration is a portrait in ambivalence.
Thirty-one tanks for Ukraine are better than none, even if they won’t arrive on the battlefield for months. So why not announce 62 tanks, or 124, which would bring Ukraine much closer to the 300 it says it needs to win? The old argument that these tanks are beyond Ukraine’s capabilities to operate is now inoperative. So is the argument that we must take care not to provoke Russia: Putin has shown that he is provoked by the weakness of his enemies, not by their strength.
It’s time to arm Ukraine with the arms it needs to win quickly — including F-16s — not just to survive indefinitely.
As for Iran, what’s the administration’s policy now that it acknowledges negotiations for a renewed nuclear deal have failed? Biden has so far remained mostly silent. Maybe he’s hoping for a return to bargaining now that the protest movement seems to be receding. But he isn’t likely to get an acceptable deal from a regime that has only moved much closer into Russia’s orbit in the past year. Is there a Plan B?
There had better be. An Iran that crosses the nuclear threshold, as North Korea did in the 1990s, will be followed by nuclear proliferation elsewhere in the Middle East, a curse that will haunt successive generations of Americans. Surely this is not the legacy Biden wants: a region in which four or five nuclear powers, prone to religious fanaticism, are at daggers drawn with one another, in ever-shifting balances of power.
And Taiwan: Last year, the administration approved a little more than $1 billion in arms sales to Taipei, which is a small fraction of what the island will need to defend itself against invasion. Last week, Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan, head of the Air Mobility Command, sent a memo to his officers with a blunt warning: “I hope I am wrong,” he wrote about the prospect of the United States getting into a war with China. “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.”
What if Minihan isn’t wrong? Can the administration honestly say it’s doing enough?
In 50 years, they’ll know. Biden’s sentence could be, “He defeated Trump, and then he defeated Putin, Khamenei and Xi.” Or it will be, “He defeated Trump, but then he came up slightly but fatally short.” Time will tell.