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Is the War in Ukraine Really Joe Biden’s Fault?

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the October jobs report, Friday, November 5, 2021, in the State Dining Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith)
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the October jobs report, Friday, November 5, 2021, in the State Dining Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

Ukraine is not Joe Biden’s Fault: The GOP Shares the Blame – Leave it to Donald Trump to make the Ukrainian catastrophe all about him.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine had the 45th president been reelected, he claimed: “I stand as the only president of the 21st century on whose watch Russia did not invade another country.”

The Joe Biden Is to Blame for Ukraine Idea

It’s all about the weakness of President Joe Biden, especially the Afghanistan withdrawal, according to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and a gaggle of other Republicans. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that the Russians wouldn’t be on the border of Ukraine with 100,000 more troops had we not indicated to the rest of the world we were pulling the plug on Afghanistan and going home,” claimed McConnell.

This is obvious partisan nonsense. If only the Biden administration was continuing to waste American lives and resources in Afghanistan, Putin would be cowering in the Kremlin basement. If only members of the foreign policy Blob had supported more needless wars, Moscow would have behaved itself and done as Washington wished. The Ukraine conflict has nothing to do with Russia and everything to do with America.

 It’s a ludicrous claim, yet constantly repeated by politicians who push war at every turn.

The immediate cause of today’s crisis reflects a decision made in Moscow. The reasons Putin chose war go back to the end of the Cold War. Despite the revisionist history pushed by those who disclaim any blame for Washington, declassified records demonstrate that many assurances were given and broken by US officials that NATO would not expand to Russia’s border. Moreover, the West ran roughshod over Moscow’s perceived security interests by backing regime change in Georgia and Ukraine (twice) as well as the war against Serbia. Putin also pointed to Washington’s promiscuous war-making after the disaster in Iraq. Whatever the justification for such actions, Moscow viewed the allied policy as hostile.

Although Bill Clinton began the needless process of NATO expansion, it was President George W. Bush who did the most damage—no surprise for the man who committed what is widely considered to be the worst foreign policy blunder in decades, the Iraq war. He added the most members, including the Baltic states. He also insisted on promising NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine, a fateful move. All the while ignoring Russia’s and Putin’s oft-stated opposition to this process. The Obama and Trump administrations added Balkan microstates and, more significantly, continued to promise Tbilisi and Kyiv inclusion.

Trump’s confidence that Moscow would not have moved on to Ukraine is based on his macho self-image, the endless posturing, and blustering with which he addressed the world. No doubt, that behavior in others impresses him. However, the rest of the world was less impressed with him.

Ironically, to his credit, as president he was a bit of a peacenik, being the first president since Ronald Reagan not to initiate a new war. Indeed, Trump repeatedly stepped back from military confrontation. He favored withdrawal from both Afghanistan and Syria and negotiated the Afghan exit. He rejected most of his officials’ proposals for military action. He abandoned “fire and fury” toward North Korea and refused to retaliate against Iran—for downing an American drone, hitting US bases with rockets, and striking Saudi oil facilities. Attacks by Iraqi militias on American facilities forced his secretary of state to threaten to close the US embassy, an ostentatious show of weakness. The claim that Trump’s presidency left evildoers around the globe quivering in fear is a fantasy.

Moreover, Trump spent four years lavishing Putin with praise and vilifying NATO. His working relationship with members of the transatlantic alliance, who he refused to affirm America would defend, was poor at best. Whether his appointees, who in a second term might have agreed with his more “America first” perspective, could have delivered a unified European approach to Russia is unclear. From Moscow’s standpoint, he would have looked more like a pushover than tough guy.

The only reason Putin might have foresworn action would be to wait and see if Trump acted against NATO during his second term. If so, the former’s worry about Ukraine joining would dissipate. Again, Moscow would have been reacting to perceived Trump’s weakness or indifference, not strength. Trump was a legend only in his own mind.

Nor is there any evidence that Afghanistan had anything to do with Putin’s decision. That is one of the most ridiculous arguments made by Washington factotums who pretend to be omniscient. Biden followed through on his campaign promise and Trump’s plan to leave Afghanistan. The Soviet Union had already suffered through the same experience, leaving Afghanistan in defeat. Yet no one in America declared the USSR to be weak for abandoning a hopeless commitment.

In contrast, Washington stayed twice as long, demonstrating foolish, uncomprehending bullheadedness, not toughness. The exit was botched but Russia long had witnessed American firepower and capability around the globe. Finally, leaving Afghanistan freed up resources and left Washington with one less conflict to manage. That was no green light to anyone.

More important, a US willingness to waste more lives and money by staying endlessly in Afghanistan would not likely strike fear in Putin’s heart. He almost certainly acted because he was confident in his nation’s own power and strength. He knew that Russia possessed a significant conventional force with local superiority against Ukraine. Moreover, Putin realized that America would be understandably reluctant to go to war with Russia for any reason but the most vital, which was not present—else Washington would have strong-armed acceptance of Kyiv into NATO.

Moscow also had a nuclear force comparable to America’s. Washington’s capability to defeat decrepit third world regimes paled in comparison. The US had to believe the issue was worth a potential nuclear confrontation, a point reinforced when Moscow recently put its nuclear forces on higher alert. That, likely more than anything else, including supposed perceptions of Biden’s weakness, is what encouraged Putin to act. Despite the assumption by many people within the Beltway, the world simply isn’t all about the US president, or even America more broadly.

Joe Biden

President Joe Biden delivers remarks to Department of Defense personnel, with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Feb. 10, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

This is not the first time that blundering hawks have attempted to rescue their misadventures by insisting that to sustain American credibility no mistake can ever be admitted. For instance, President Barack Obama sensibly refused to back an off-hand comment about chemical weapons in Syria by bombing the Damascus government. Conventional weapons had killed far more people and the American public opposed getting entangled in another Mideast endless war.

Yet warrior wannabes such as Bret Stephens of the New York Times claimed that this alleged show of weakness led to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea: “Vladimir Putin took note of Obama’s palpable reluctance to get involved.” Far more relevant is the fact that there was nothing America could have done militarily short of war, which would have been idiotic: the US had no vital let alone substantial interests at stake; Russia had local conventional superiority; any attack on Moscow’s forces would invite escalation to nuclear weapons. Who seriously believes that if only Washington had bombed the decrepit Syrian military, which could not resist, that nuclear-armed Russia, with the world’s second-ranked military, would have abandoned its aggressive foreign policy and subordinated itself to America?

Nation-states tend to act ruthlessly and brutally when they believe their security is threatened. Finely calibrated assessments of American “credibility” are unlikely to have much impact. As with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Don’t Throw the Plane Onto Joe Biden

Ultimately, if the US “invited” Moscow’s aggression, Bush bears the brunt of the blame for his foolish and, in retrospect, reckless expansion of NATO. Biden is not without fault—earlier this year he should have announced that Washington anticipated no additions to the transatlantic alliance. However, he would have had to face down virtually the entire Republican congressional caucus, which consistently puts the interest of other nations before that of Americans.

Debating the past might not help in dealing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for which Vladimir Putin and his ruling circle are fully responsible. However, the US should learn from its mistakes. Tragically, in Ukraine, thousands will die and many more will be injured or displaced as a result. Ukraine is Washington’s mistake, not Joe Biden’s mistake.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Times. Bandow speaks frequently at academic conferences, on college campuses, and to business groups. Bandow has been a regular commentator on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. He holds a JD from Stanford University.

Written By

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.