Joe Biden is right. Putin’s invasion is largely responsible for skyrocketing energy prices. Of course, the fact that Putin never took Biden’s threats seriously and that the Biden Administration did zero planning to prepare for possible disruptions in energy and food markets puts the blame for inflation right back in the White House where it belongs.
To be fair, Biden is a victim – a victim of the thoroughly incompetent and fatuous turn in philosophy by the Democratic foreign policy establishment under President Obama. In the name of sophistication, post-modernism and their most coveted adjective, “smart,” they rejected the old, tired concept of deterrence, any use of force and realpolitik in favor of a mish-mash of vapid public relations, proportional response and personal sanctions.
The result is a lack of credibility with autocrats like Putin, Assad, Xi and others seeing American foreign policy frivolousness as an opportunity for aggression and aggrandizement. Unless Biden and the Democrats commit to a permanent U-turn, Ukraine is just the start, with Taiwan on the chopping block next.
The new progressive-leftist establishment hates deterrence due to its association with the Cold War and mutually assured destruction (MAD) and their abhorrence of use of force. Now a purposeful policy of mutual annihilation is mad. But, since the number of nuclear exchanges between the US and the USSR was zero, so it did work – unless I missed World War III.
Deterrence requires the capability to inflict intolerable losses on your opponent and the perception by your opponent you have the will to use it. Credibility is critical and ambiguity is fatal.
In short, war is costly, but deterrence is cheap.
Yet, the Obama national security team decided this was unsophisticated, outdated thinking. Instead, they believed that speeches and finger-wagging by President Obama would set the world in the right direction. After all, every intelligent, enlightened person knows what a genius Obama is, right?
Unfortunately, foreign leaders were not about to genuflect like starry-eyed Washington Post reporters at the “genius” of Obama. Not just American foes like Putin and Assad, but also leaders open to co-operation with the US like Turkish President Erdogan, Egyptian President Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu have their own domestic constituencies and interests. Authoritarians like Putin and Assad have no scruples and have no interest in the approval of the “enlightened” progressive establishment.
Putin, Assad and Sisi outright flaunted Obama’s admonitions. Putin seized a large chunk of the Ukraine. Sisi amputated Egyptian democracy with little domestic opposition. Utterly unafraid of Obama’s threats, Assad launched a vicious, atrocity-filled civil war to retain power. With over 300,000 deaths, at least part of the responsibility lies with Team Obama’s naïve, banal, worthless policy.
As America is learning the hard way, regaining deterrence is an expensive project – with Ukraine paying most of the price.
Rejecting deterrence was not enough, the sophisticates had to come up with a new set of responses and they settled on “proportional response” and sanctioning individuals – and both ideas have proven to be colossal failures. Proportional response is the idea that sanctions should be commensurate for the offense.
Setting aside the inability to create an economic sanctions regime that is “proportional” to invasion or mass murder, the proponents of proportionality face a more prosaic calculation problem. Determining a “proportional” response is left to the boffins in the State Department and the National Security Administration. In short, they are determining what they think are proportional when they should be thinking what the target will consider “proportional.”
Put another way if two people are involved in a feud and one is committed to a “civilized” proportional response, you don’t have to figure out what a proportional response is, you just have to figure out what the other person thinks is proportional and whether that’s a price worth paying. If I don’t care that your dog fouls my lawn, but it would bother you, then you better get a shovel ready.
Yet, the alleged intellectuals think that proportional response is a civilized advance in diplomacy. In reality, proportional response is just something that impresses their fellow intellectuals and The New York Times editorial board. Along with personal sanctions, it simply does not work.
Hard to believe, but there is a worse “innovation” than proportional response and it is personal sanctions. Like proportional response, it sure sounds good and seems civilized. Personal sanctions are levying penalties on individuals instead of the state. The intent is to penalize bad actors and not punish the citizenry – as if poison gassing civilians can be treated like insider trading on Wall Street.
The fundamentally flawed premise is twofold; 1) that you can insulate citizens of another country from sanctions and 2) that the individuals being sanctioned are affected by the sanctions enough to change behavior. The fact is that, in authoritarian nations, the leadership can simply push the cost of sanctions on to the people. Vladimir Putin and his cronies were, by all accounts, still living the high life under half-hearted 2014 US sanctions.
And where is the evidence that these sanctions actually mean anything? Sure, they can be inconvenient, but there is no example of a major government or military figure from Russia, Iran, Syria, Burma, Venezuela, etc. who has defected to the West. I guess not being able to take the kids to EPCOT is not such a big deal.
The bottom line is that personal sanctions are nothing more than a public relations stunt. There is zero evidence that personal sanctions or proportional response has worked in any way. What the Obama-Biden national security team have embraced is feel-good policy designed to impress themselves, their friend and superficial, utterly uninformed media outlets.
Making the World Safe for Nobody
This failed philosophy is making the world much less safe and has failed to advance democracy and human rights. According to the 2022 Freedom House Annual Report, there was a net decline in levels of freedom in countries every year of the Obama Administration with an acceleration in the last three years of his Presidency. And, while the Trump Administration did not have any better record, Biden’s first year has been worse than the Trump average with a net 35 countries becoming less free.
The Ukraine war is the bitter harvest of Obama and Biden’s fatuous, timid policies. What works against authoritarians is force and the credible threat of force. That does not mean endorsing the bomb-everybody policy of Dick Cheney. But it does mean that containing and pushing back the Putins and Assads of the world requires tough, realistic response.