If Not Now, When?
Biden Needs a Wartime Consigliere
One of the worst annual traditions in U.S. politics is the president’s annual State of the Union. For decades, presidents have stood before Congress, delivering mostly forgettable speeches for more than an hour.
This week, Joe Biden delivered his first State of the Union address to Congress in the backdrop of low-approval ratings, the highest inflation in 40 years, and days following the launch of the largest invasion in Europe since World War II.
Given the environment of the speech, Biden could have ripped up the speech he planned to deliver and speak directly and honestly to the American people. Instead, his speechwriters inserted roughly ten minutes on Ukraine and revised the ending to speak to the moment.
In between, we got the very boilerplate language that makes most State of the Union speeches abysmal. A laundry list of priorities that, in most cases, are destined to fail but seemingly poll-tested to help borderline Democrats survive the impending doom of the November elections. Here’s the problem, eight months from now is like three years in political cycles.
The good news for Biden is his speech will fall into a large pile of forgotten speeches delivered by his predecessors. The address could have been Biden’s chance to reset a weak first year in office. He chose instead to stick with a plan that’s by and large put him in the political spot he’s in.
Right now, Biden’s fighting two fronts: a pandemic-plagued economy at home and a rapidly evolving international crisis. His moment isn’t Franklin Roosevelt’s in September 1939, when Germany and the Soviet Union proceeded to carve up Poland and escalate the war raging in Europe. At least not yet.
In January 1940, Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union, reflecting honestly on the growing war in Europe and America’s principles addressing themes that sound familiar in our current debate. The whole speech is worth a read, but here is a critical part:
But there are those who wishfully insist, in innocence or ignorance or both, that the United States of America as a self-contained unit can live happily and prosperously, its future secure, inside a high wall of isolation while, outside, the rest of Civilization and the commerce and culture of mankind are shattered.
I can understand the feelings of those who warn the nation that they will never again consent to the sending of American youth to fight on the soil of Europe. But, as I remember, nobody has asked them to consent--for nobody expects such an undertaking.
The overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens do not abandon in the slightest their hope and their expectation that the United States will not become involved in military participation in these wars.
I can also understand the wishfulness of those who oversimplify the whole situation by repeating that all we have to do is to mind our own business and keep the nation out of war. But there is a vast difference between keeping out of war and pretending that this war is none of our business.
We do not have to go to war with other nations, but at least we can strive with other nations to encourage the kind of peace that will lighten the troubles of the world, and by so doing help our own nation as well.
Much can go wrong in the months ahead, which has consequences at home and abroad. The cliched political advice is to “pivot” or “reset” in the current environment. Biden’s pivots were too subtle in his speech, and his reset was rhetorical. He should make a real pivot and an actual reset. It starts with a wartime consigliere.
Tom Hagen Need Not Apply
If you’ve never watched The Godfather Parts I and II, you should stop reading and watch both immediately.1 In the original movie, Tom Hagen, the German-Irish “adopted” son of Vito Corleone, is removed as consigliere after Sonny Corleone is gunned down at a tollbooth. Vito’s second son, Michael, explains, “You're not a wartime Consigliere, Tom. Things could get rough with the move we're making.” Tom was a more cautious and conciliatory advisor, which had its value, but not for that moment. The move was designed to protect Tom from the revenge Michael would take, allowing him to return when Michael tried to take The Family legitimate.
A president is only as good as the people around him, and in some cases, not even that helps. Political appointees are primarily well-intentioned but human. The reality is people take those jobs with baggage of their own and an eye to the future. It fosters a bubble mentality and an aversion to risk. Right now, we’re heavy on Tom Hagens thinking about political consequences rather than setting a course for the country.
In a perfect world, President Biden could rely on someone who understands world affairs, especially Russia, can work across on a bipartisan basis with Congress, and unconcerned about the typical “next gig” hesitations. The ideal candidate would be former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. People on the fringes would immediately react, but this is not the time for tribalism, as I wrote before.
This past weekend, Fox News interviewed Secretary Rice, reflecting on Putin and how we can respond. She makes a lot of sense.
The Next Phase is Here
The immediate response from the United States and the international community has been remarkable. Broad sweeping sanctions aimed at the Russian economy, Putin and his closest associates, and defensive military aid to Ukraine have given Ukrainians resistance-level capabilities. Putin incorrectly assumed a more muted international response and an easier path to Kyiv. His response will be a more intensive campaign with sophisticated weapons systems to do more damage than initially planned. This phase will replace the initial heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people, with more significant casualties and refugees fleeing the country.
The Root Cause
Dictators create pretexts for war built on a foundation of propaganda. Putin has used NATO expansion as his grievance, and it’s fiction. At the risk of oversimplifying the problem, we need to look at the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States negotiated a deal for Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for recognition and guarantee of sovereignty by both the U.S. and Russia.
The deal remained intact until 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, a clear violation of the agreement. The Obama Administration responded with some sanctions and non-lethal military aid. It was at this moment both the Russians and Ukrainians began moves to strengthen their respective positions believing the U.S. no longer cared to enforce the 1994 agreement.
Biden, who served as vice president, has to rip this bandaid off. He has to acknowledge Russia broke its end of the deal - which had nothing to do with NATO - and our response was flawed. The 2014 annexation of Crimea set Ukraine on a more aggressive path to join the European Union and NATO. Whether Ukraine joins or not should ultimately be their decision and in the best interests of their national security. We owe them that much.
A longer progression of errors and signals performed across four administrations creates a narrative around the Crimean annexation. But without some honesty and lessons learned, Biden’s ability to lead will suffer.
The Path Forward
Sanctions and weapons shipments are the first steps, but this war will get bloodier, costlier, and more dangerous. Public opinion is clear that sending U.S. troops to Ukraine should not be on the table. There’s already a discussion of “no-fly zones” over Ukraine, but that’s a half-step toward engaging the Russians. There are plenty of options between here and there. Biden needs help now.
We’ve got to move from punishment to diplomacy. Though we should not use the military in Ukraine, we have to stop Putin before he kills thousands of Ukrainians and sends millions fleeing the country. Or worse, he grows more desperate and crosses the point of no return.
When Antony Blinken became Secretary of State, he repeatedly pronounced, " American is back to the international community.” It sounded more like a PR campaign and less like actionable items to back it up. A few months later, the Biden Administration hastily withdrew from Afghanistan to disastrous results. Not exactly a capital-building exercise here or abroad. We need a clear-minded expert to push Blinken and Biden as credible leaders.
While it’s encouraging to see Ukraine and Russia meet for talks, they will likely produce little in terms of peace. The U.S. and our NATO allies can and should increase the pressure to stop the fighting through diplomacy. Will it work? Not likely, but sitting on the sidelines and hoping for the best won’t either.
A host of other issues require our attention: reestablishing our credible leadership within the international community, dealing with the fuel disruptions by leaning on allied oil producers to step up production, working with Congress on sanctions and other actions, and opening the discussion to a more coherent energy independence policy.
These issues are polarized at present, and, to be blunt, public opinion is not on Joe Biden’s side. Washington’s bubble makes minor issues appear bigger based on crosstab polling data. It’s great that Biden wants to rely on a “Made in America” policy regarding government spending. Still, it does nothing for inflation, energy production, or the volatile world unfolding around us.
To achieve the larger objectives, Biden will have to unilaterally disarm from the partisanship of Washington and bring in his wartime consigliere. There’s no guarantee that he’ll get help from Republicans or that Democrats will win the midterm elections. But as long as political results are the measure of success, history will judge him and everyone else accordingly.
Less urgent is watching The Godfather Part III if you’re a completist.