On the Ukrainian crisis, Biden seeks to show his courage

America’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan last year was a made-for-television tragedy – with camera-ready scenes of distraught civilians, harassed US Marines and helicopters hovering above a rooftop. embassy.

Ukraine is a foreign policy conundrum of a whole different kind. President Joe Biden’s job is to prevent a war from starting, not to end it with dignity. But even if he warded off a Russian invasion, he shouldn’t expect bandwidth on Fifth Avenue.

“Foreign policy politics is rarely right, and that’s the epitome of this kind of situation,” said John Gans, a former Pentagon speechwriter in the Obama administration. “You rarely get credit for dogs that don’t bark.”

Our colleagues at The New York Times delved into the national security aspects of the confrontation with Moscow, including the latest news developments, with reporting by Julian E. Barnes and Helene Cooper on how the White House is trying to outsmart Russia, and the look of Michael Crowley. by Biden’s calculations.

But this is a political bulletin, so we have to ask a crude question: Can Ukraine help Biden regain some of the public trust he lost after the pullout from Afghanistan?

In conversations over the past few days with current and former officials, members of Congress, and Capitol Hill aides, we’ve seen broad general support for Biden’s approach to Ukraine, though some Republicans have complained about specific aspects of the strategy. But the president’s options for resolving the crisis, many believe, could provide an opening for criticism. And, as Biden warned in his remarks on Tuesday, taking on Vladimir Putin is unlikely to be “painless” for Americans, even if Russia relents.

Silence the skeptics

So far, Biden has faced criticism from the right, but there has been no sustained chorus of rebuke from either side.

Republicans do not speak with one voice. They are divided between those, like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who push for a tougher line against Moscow, and skeptics like Tucker Carlson of Fox News who say Ukraine is not America’s problem. America. In 2018, the party lost its most prominent hawk, Senator John McCain of Arizona, while its current leader, Donald Trump, is a less than ideal messenger when it comes to Russia.

The White House has also kept leading progressives on board. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., praised the administration for “doing its best on a very difficult tightrope,” while Democratic senses Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Jeff Merkley of Oregon told HuffPost that they supported Biden’s strategy.

Unlike in Afghanistan, criticism of the foreign policy establishment has been muted.

“I think they started with a small error in analysis – that they could have a stable and predictable relationship with Russia so that they could focus on China,” said Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration. “But, in general, I’m impressed.”

Since November, the administration has held more than 300 “diplomatic engagements” with partners and allies. Biden sent troops to bolster nervous NATO allies in Eastern Europe. And the White House has used the information as a deterrent, declassifying and releasing intelligence to disrupt possible Russian operations in real time.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former deputy national intelligence officer for Russia, described it as an effort to “build a common threat picture”.

It has worked so far. European countries that might otherwise have faltered, notably Germany, have agreed to impose tough sanctions if Putin decides to invade.

“Trump couldn’t have done that,” said Daniel Fried, a longtime Russia expert who retired in 2017 as the State Department’s coordinator for sanctions policy. “Trump wouldn’t have been interested.”

Next comes the tricky part

Putin could still attack, of course, which would raise questions about White House strategy. And he also has options outside of war: annexing parts of Ukraine. Squeeze Kiev economically. Using Russia’s energy resources to divide European countries. Launch cyberattacks. Raise the price of oil.

Giving Putin an exit ramp could require a long and painful negotiation process, potentially leading to accusations that the United States is handing Ukraine over to the Russian wolf.

Building a cross-cutting coalition in Washington won’t be easy either.

On Tuesday, as talks on a bipartisan bill to penalize Russia fizzled, the best Congress could cobble together was a statement expressing solidarity with Ukraine. Two of the resisters were Cotton and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, both of whom harbor presidential ambitions. Senate Republicans introduced their own punitive legislation – the Never Yielding Europe’s Territory, or NYET Act, a rhetorical feat in the form of a bill that would shut down Nord Stream 2, a Baltic Sea gas pipeline intended to bypass the Ukraine.

The proposal reminded that the Republicans have a megaphone but no real responsibility. And in an election year, national security can quickly become political.

Don’t expect a bump in Ukraine

Historically, any effect foreign crises have on public opinion tends to be short-lived.

After John F. Kennedy pulled the United States out of the Cuban Missile Crisis, his approval rating soared to 76%. At the time of his assassination a year later, he was in his upper 50s. George HW Bush’s approval rating soared to 89% after the first Gulf War, but dropped to 29% when the economy crashed and he lost re-election to Bill Clinton. The murder of Osama bin Laden gave Barack Obama about a month of buoyant polls, at most.

But when things go wrong abroad, the damage to a president’s credibility can be devastating. Lyndon B. Johnson declined to run for re-election after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam helped boost his approval ratings in the mid-1930s. The American hostage-taking in Iran crippled Jimmy Carter, contributing to his defeat in 1980. And although George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, Iraq haunted the rest of his presidency.

David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to Obama, said Biden had been “very smart and strong and deliberate” on Ukraine. “Even though most Americans are focused closer to home,” he added, “‘smart, strong, and deliberate’ are welcome adjectives for this president after six difficult months.”

If Putin takes over, the judgment of history could be severe. And even if things go well, some question the wisdom of devoting so much attention to a region that represents the geopolitical past, not its future.

“We have to focus on China,” said Elbridge Colby, a former Pentagon official in the Trump administration. “The military situation in Asia is increasingly acute, and we are far behind. Russia is a side issue.

Christi C. Elwood