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Friday, December 2, 2022

Smith: What is it good for?

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Among the pitches that Joe Biden made to the American people when he was running for president was the fact that he had decades of experience to bring to bear in performing the job.

Such experience, he argued, would be a distinct advantage when addressing the inevitable challenges that face all those who have occupied the Oval Office. Since being elected, Biden has had to contend with a global pandemic, a struggling economy, racial unrest, seemingly intractable partisan bickering and infighting among Democrats that has stalled his agenda. On top of all that, he has been forced to play high stakes poker with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the past several weeks.

We are on the brink of the biggest military conflict in Europe since World War II. The Biden administration has engaged in nonstop diplomacy to avert what would certainly be a humanitarian disaster. Also, as a deterrent, America and our allies have threatened drastic economic and other consequences were Putin to decide to order a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. (I use the phrase “full-scale” because Russia has already breached Ukraine’s borders.)

As of this writing, tensions remain exceedingly high. Yet, while the possibility of war is very real, there is still a chance that Putin’s calculus will lead him to conclude that the costs of instigating one are more than he is willing to pay. No one knows for sure what Putin ultimately will decide — and that perhaps includes Putin himself.

Even if war ultimately breaks out, it is clear that Biden’s long tenure in government has paid dividends in this crisis. As a recent editorial in The Economist points out, Russia loses regardless of whether its president decides to go to war or to send its troops home. Specifically, if he chooses to go forward with an invasion, he will have caused his country (and his cronies) to face potentially crippling sanctions, the end of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Germany and millions of dollars being drained from its stagnant economy. Most importantly, images of Russian soldiers coming home in body bags will exacerbate his already difficult domestic situation.

President Biden has done a masterful job of reinforcing NATO countries’ commitment to each other, as well as convincing our European allies (including a reluctant Germany) to exact a high cost to Russia if it does invade. Even Republican commentator Peggy Noonan has lauded Biden for playing “a bad hand” as well as could be expected. Speaking of which, one accomplishment that Putin has unwittingly earned is mostly squashing political partisanship in the U.S. — at least on this issue.

Republican politicians have been uncharacteristically supportive of Biden, even if that means (in some cases) simply not voicing criticism. There has even been, in the main, agreement as to reserving the step of leveling sanctions unless Russia goes further. Most Republicans respect the fact that a potential war should not be treated as an opportunity for a sound bite. Only the usual chorus of the most negative naysayers (e.g., Sens. Cotton and Hawley), along with the right-wing media machine, have bitterly complained.

President Biden certainly is mindful that American credibility is on the line with our foes — and our friends. President Bush’s response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 was, to put it mildly, muted. In 2013, months after warning that the use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad in Syria would be a “red line,” President Obama decided against a muscular military response when Assad crossed it. And, most recently, President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA (aka the “Iran nuclear deal”) and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

This history must weigh heavily on President Biden as he considers how to respond to a more deadly Russian incursion into Ukraine. But the time has come for the U.S. to again aggressively defend its ideals, as well as to be seen as the only legitimate “leader of the free world.” With his domestic agenda sputtering and an uncertain future for his party in congress, Biden’s decision-making during this crisis must be lauded. I’m grateful that I don’t sit in his seat, but I’m encouraged that he does.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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