Half measures won't save Ukraine or restore American deterrence
The strongest part of President Biden’s State of the Union address was the section on the war in Ukraine. Biden condemned the Russian invasion. He welcomed the Ukrainian ambassador. He led Congress in a statement of solidarity with the Ukrainian people in their fight against the Russian aggressor. He announced that the United States was closing its airspace to Russian planes, cutting off Russia from the international financial system, penalizing the Russian central bank, sanctioning the Russian government and its leadership, and targeting Russian oligarchs. He made it clear whose side the United States is on. “Together with our allies,” Biden said, “we are providing support to the Ukrainians in their fight for freedom. Military assistance. Economic assistance. Humanitarian assistance.”
All good. All sensible. And not nearly enough. Defeating Russia in Ukraine and restoring American deterrence will require much more than Biden has announced so far. The State of the Union was a chance for Biden to explain the nature of the threat, the stakes for America, his plan for rolling back Putin’s offensive, his strategy for American revival, and the potential costs to American citizens. He ducked the hard questions. He relied on bromides. He left the impression that the road ahead will be relatively painless, and that victory is assured. It isn’t.
“Putin may circle Kyiv with tanks, but he will never gain the hearts and souls of the Iranian people,” Biden said. He meant to say the “Ukrainian people.” A laudable sentiment. And a misleading one. What does it matter to Putin if he gains the “hearts and souls” of Ukrainians? He doesn’t want their love. He desires their territory. And he won’t just encircle Kyiv with tanks. He will level it. Biden could have warned America and the world about the sorts of horrible images already being broadcast from Ukraine. He could have explained why the misery will grow worse long before it subsides. He could have steeled the nation’s spine for the uncertain years ahead. He chose not to.
“Freedom will always triumph over tyranny,” Biden said. Another lovely idea that crumbles under scrutiny. Ask the North Koreans or the Cubans or the Venezuelans or the Iranians or the Chinese or, for that matter, the Russians if freedom always triumphs over tyranny. The tragic fact of the matter is that freedom is rare. Authoritarians are resilient. Biden left out the element essential to freedom’s victory. Freedom requires more than will. It requires force. And in today’s world of proliferating dangers, the only nation with the power to shield freedom from its enemies is the United States.
I’m not talking about the power of our example. I mean the military and strategic assets at our disposal. These elements of national power are the foundation for a world of democracies. But they have atrophied. America’s armed forces labor under budget constraints. America’s nuclear deterrent requires modernization. America’s research and development has withered, and American energy has been constricted. America’s alliances are force multipliers that Biden has leveraged well against Russia. They can only get us so far, however. In the end, it will be American will and American might that guarantee international security in Europe, East Asia, and the Greater Middle East. Every minute spent evading this reality is wasted.
Which is why Biden’s easy confidence in the eventual victory of freedom over oppression troubles me. Take the defense budget. Biden mentioned the Department of Defense a single time—in reference to his plan to “end cancer as we know it.” He spent an hour calling on Congress to pass legislation that has failed already. Not once did he ask Congress to pass the defense appropriations bill. Nor did he ask for more to be spent on defense in this global emergency. America spent an average of 7 percent of gross domestic product on our military during the first Cold War. Now we spend about 3 percent. To win a Second Cold War against an expansionist Russia and a belligerent China, we must spend more. Failure to do so isn’t just unserious. It’s reckless.
Biden’s energy plan was similarly troubling. He announced the release of strategic petroleum reserves to tamp down the rising cost of oil and gasoline. The problem with reserves, though, is that they eventually run out. How will we replenish them? Biden left no clue. He wants to provide “investments and tax credits to weatherize your homes and businesses to be energy efficient.” He wants to “double America’s clean energy production in solar, wind, and so much more.” He wants electric vehicles to be cheaper. He’s deluding himself. The words “drill,” “natural gas,” and “nuclear” never passed his lips. He won’t ban Russian oil imports—meaning that we continue to fund the butchers of Ukraine. The American energy sector is the key to national independence, freedom of action on the world stage, and long-term weaning of Europe from dependence on Russian energy. You wouldn’t know that from listening to Biden.
But you would get the impression that the president is averse to conflict. “Let me be clear,” he said, “our forces are not engaged and will not engage in conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine.” The reinforcements he’s deployed to Europe are there to defend NATO if Putin turns against the Baltic States, Poland, or Romania. America will send weapons to Ukraine, but otherwise the Ukrainians are on their own. This message doesn’t inspire confidence. It gives Putin a green light to conduct the war on his terms. The best way to prevent the expansion of the war is to make Putin second-guess his actions. How? Not by continually reminding him of what you won’t do. You deter Putin by forcing him to consider what you might do.
The State of the Union contained nothing that might stop Putin from continuing his assault. Biden’s silence about the American withdrawal from Afghanistan was telling. He said the word “Afghanistan” just twice, in a section devoted to spending more resources on American veterans. I’m all for spending money to help the troops—active duty as well as reserve and retired. But the 13 servicemen killed as America retreated from a land that we protected for two decades deserved better. The Afghans themselves deserved a mention, as well, especially the ones we have welcomed to America. Their absence was odd.
The whole speech was odd. It lacked the seriousness required during a national trial. Its logic was nonsensical: Biden argued with a straight face, for instance, that protectionism somehow will reduce inflation. His policy proposals either had nothing to do with, or will actively undermine, national priorities such as reducing inflation, securing the southern border, and reestablishing a peaceful world through military strength. “We are stronger today than we were a year ago,” Biden concluded. It’s pleasant to think so. But that doesn’t mean it’s true.