Ukraine, Israel, and Biden:  lessons and questions

Some thoughts on recent developments . . .

Elite persuasion and its limits

News reports suggest that President Biden got Speaker Mike Johnson to put a Ukraine aid bill on the floor of the House through good, old-fashioned persuasion:  Biden and his team convinced Johnson it was the right thing to do by sharing intelligence with him.  Biden didn’t berate Johnson in public.  I suspect he flattered Johnson in private.

Knowing how to deal with Congress is a critical skill for any president, and Biden seems to be particularly good at it.  Unfortunately, it is doubtful that many voters understand this.  And being effective behind the scenes at negotiating and cajoling makes it difficult for Biden to take credit for legislation.  To a considerable extent, Biden’s approach gives credit to members of Congress – Johnson now, Manchin earlier.  And his quiet, non-partisan approach enables Trump to avoid blame for starving Ukraine of weapons.

Despite Biden’s success with Congress, recent events also highlight the real limits to persuasion, especially when dealing foreign leaders with their own interests and constituent pressures. 

Biden’s team was unable – quite understandably – to persuade Ukraine not to target refineries in Russia.  Biden has been largely unsuccessful persuading Netanyahu to respond to October 7 in a way that would either avoid civilian casualties or pave the way to a regional peace deal.  In addition to his commitment to his ideological goals and his enjoyment of the spotlight, Netanyahu has a strong personal incentive to remain in power – to avoid prosecution – and this means prolonging the war and hoping to eke out something that he can call a victory, no matter how unlikely his tactics are to achieve his goals.  And the Israeli public has been largely supportive of Netanyahu’s military response to October 7.  It is not clear there is any credible argument about the best interests of the Israeli people that Biden can use to persuade Netanyahu to jeopardize his coalition or to bring the war to a quicker resolution through negotiation with Hamas. 

Unintended consequences

The delay in getting aid to Ukraine was, on its face, a humanitarian, military, and diplomatic disaster.  But there may have been some unexpected benefits.  Watching Russian missiles batter Ukrainian cities while the United States stood by forced European leaders to the belated recognition that Europe must be able to defend itself.  Furthermore, there is a growing understanding that Russian imperialism will not end with Ukraine.  The prospect of unending Russian revanchism, in turn, helped to persuade people that worrying about Russian escalation will not buy peace or eliminate the risk of nuclear war.  Finally, there I a growing realization that the war is increasing military cooperation between Russia and China.  As a result, it is possible that the Biden administration will be bolder in arming and aiding Ukraine.

A critical test will be whether the Biden administration gives Ukraine the weapons it needs to destroy the Kerch bridge.  It is unclear to me from published reports if ATACMS can do this.  But giving Ukraine weapons it needs to blow up the bridge and to stymie the flow of supplies from the north would put the Russian invaders in a very difficult defensive position.  Anything less would represent a betrayal of the people of Ukraine and an invitation to further Russian imperialism.

Short term thinking and the future of Ukraine

It is not clear to me why we have been withholding important weapons from Ukraine.  The pattern of making up reasons not to aid Ukraine has been with us since the opening days of the war, when people argued that we could not provide more Javelin anti-tank weapons to the Ukrainians because our stocks would be too low, as if we have anything more useful to do with Javelins than destroying Russian tanks.  Why has Biden allowed this type of thinking to influence his support for Ukraine?  There are various explanations, none of which seem particularly compelling to me – worries about stockpiles, the needs of coalition maintenance and reluctance to overrule subordinates, fear of escalation, etc.

But sometimes Biden seems to me to behave in an overly cautious, temporizing manner, with the result that he fails to get in front of looming problems.  I don’t want to overstate this as a criticism:  it might not be true at all (he may have had good reasons that are not apparent to me), and often keeping options open is a good strategy (just as “wait and see” is often good medical advice).  That said, I hope his administration has a plan for how to help Ukraine in the event of a Trump victory or Republican gains in Congress that strengthen the MAGA / Freedom Caucus wing of the party.  Large stockpiles of weapons need to be physically in Ukraine on inauguration day 2024.  Long-term contracts for logistical support and maintenance from private companies need to be signed.  Financing needs to be put in place that is not subject to presidential discretion. 

Short term thinking and Gaza

People rightly ask what Netanyahu’s plan is for Gaza.  But we can also ask:  what is Biden’s plan?  I suspect that he thought the war would be winding down by now, that the domestic political challenges posed by the war would subside (people have short memories), and (hopefully) that his foreign policy team could pull a rabbit out of a hat and get a real peace process started.  But without a plan for dealing with Netanyahu this seems like wishful thinking.

Persuading the people

In dealing with Congress, appealing to the public can be counterproductive, a fact that Biden understands well.  But in Gaza private persuasion is unlikely to work.  Instead, we need to persuade Israelis and their American supporters that they cannot achieve security through armed force alone, and we need to persuade Palestinians that they have no future unless they give up armed struggle.  Who is pointing out to the Israeli people that their continued military dominance is far from assured?  That they are losing allies and may not be able to count on American support indefinitely?  That continued normalization with Arab nations cannot be taken for granted if the current violence rages on?  And who is making the case to the Palestinians that they need to move past the violence and rejectionism of Hamas and negotiate an acceptable peace deal with Israel, or their great-grandchildren may well be living in the same horrid conditions they are enduring?

Conditioning aid to Israel

Critics of Biden argue that he needs to condition aid to Israel.  Maybe, but conditioning aid is tricky (because there is a constant temptation to move the goal posts, which undermines the incentive effect) and Biden needs to be cognizant of American public opinion.  The destruction in Gaza is shifting public opinion, but it mostly just makes people angry about the war, rather than laying out an affirmative case for the peace he and his advisors want both sides to embrace, however cautiously.