From Ukraine to Gaza, Biden’s First Battles Are at Home

WASHINGTON – Two years ago, just six days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden opened his State of the Union address by promising to stop Vladimir Putin in his tracks. The response in the House of Representatives was a series of standing ovations.

On Thursday evening, Biden again opened his speech by reiterating his warning that if not stopped, Putin would not halt his territorial ambitions on Ukraine’s borders. But the political climate was completely different.

With many Republicans vowing not to vote for more aid and the Ukrainians short of ammunition and losing ground, Biden challenged them to defend former President Donald Trump’s statement that if a NATO country did not pay enough for its defense , he would tell Putin to ‘do this’. whatever you want.”

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As Democrats cheered Biden’s direct shot at his opponent in the 2024 election, many Republicans in the House looked down or checked their phones — an illustration of the evolving and mounting challenges he faces at a time when his agenda plays a central role in foreign policy. in the re-election campaign.

Biden’s vow to restore American power by rebuilding alliances and “proving that democracy works” is a far more complicated task than when he came to power.

His problems go deeper than the new thinking of a Republican Party that has evolved in two decades from President George W. Bush’s declaration that America’s mission would be the spread of democracy to Trump’s open admiration for Putin and quasi-autocrats such as President Viktor Orban of Hungary. , who visits Mar-a-Lago on Friday.

On the progressive side of his own party, Biden is dismayed to discover that an entire generation of Americans does not share his instinct to protect Israel at all costs, and is highly critical of the way he allowed American weapons to feed the prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu‘s continued bombardment of civilian areas in Gaza, where local health authorities say more than 30,000 people have been killed.

After two Democratic primaries in which “uncommitted” won notable percentages of the vote in protest of the administration’s Middle East policy, Biden spent the final part of his speech struggling to let progressives know he was listening. He described in detail what Gazans have experienced and emphasized that “Israel must allow more humanitarian aid.” It was a change of tone for a president who has shown no desire to publicly pressure Netanyahu, even as the two leaders have feuded bitterly over safe lines.

Biden sought to use the receding memory of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol to stitch together his domestic and foreign democracy agenda, at one point declaring that the rampage “posed the greatest threat to democracy since the Civil War.” .

And while he counted on the sound of cheering that he knew would greet these remarks, hoping to expose the election deniers in Congress and beyond, the sound was almost certainly heard from Beijing to Berlin, where leaders were desperate want to gauge what America they will have to deal with in ten months’ time.

Ukraine presents the clearest test of Biden’s ability to declare that he has rebuilt America’s alliances just in time.

He opened with a reminder of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address, when “Hitler was on the march” and “the war was raging in Europe.” Comparing that moment to today, he argued that “if anyone in this room thinks Putin will quit on Ukraine, I assure you he won’t.”

It was part of a strategy to portray opponents of future military aid to Ukraine as conciliators, accusing Trump – whose name he never spoke and called him “my predecessor” – of “bowing to a Russian leader.” And he went on to celebrate NATO, “the strongest military alliance the world has ever known.”

Now, after two years in which the alliance has rediscovered its mission of containing Russian power, even that line has left Republicans silent. Nothing that has happened in the past two years, even the European commitment of $54 billion to rebuild Ukraine and the delivery of Leopard tanks, Storm Shadow missiles and millions of artillery shells, has deflected Trump from his talking points. He still denounces the alliance as an attack on America, and his former top aides say he might withdraw from the alliance if elected.

Biden’s most influential advisers, including Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who regularly talks to the president, have insisted that Trump’s expression of sympathy for the Russian leader is the rare case of a foreign policy issue that moves the needle of a could trigger a political crisis. presidential elections.

And they think support for Ukraine runs deeper than it seems. Many Democrats argue that if the bill to provide $60.1 billion in additional aid to Ukraine — much of which will remain in U.S. weapons factories — received an up or down vote in the House of Representatives, it would pass. But under pressure from Trump, Chairman Mike Johnson ensured that the vote was not discussed.

But if Ukraine is a place of moral clarity for Biden and his argument that American intervention on behalf of democracies is at the heart of the national mission, the war between Israel and Hamas is a quagmire.

Biden’s announcement during the State of the Union address that he had ordered the military to send emergency aid to Gaza by building a pop-up port on the Mediterranean Sea was in some ways a demonstration of America’s global reach, while country is struggling to counter a large-scale violence. humanitarian disaster before hundreds of thousands starve.

But in other ways it was also a symbol of Biden’s global frustrations.

The very fact that he had to order the construction of the floating pier in Israel’s backyard, apparently without assistance, was a remarkable admission of how his repeated pleas to Netanyahu have fallen on deaf ears.

Unable to influence Netanyahu and his war cabinet, Biden is literally walking around them and building floating piers designed for landing in hostile territory. Biden’s order was motivated not only by a humanitarian impulse but also by the electoral imperative to unite his party’s divisions over Middle East policy and show that he is willing to do much more for the Palestinians than Trump.

“To Israel’s leadership I say this,” Biden said Thursday. “Humanitarian aid should not be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip. Protecting and saving innocent lives must be a priority.”

Biden is not yet where the left of his party is; for example, he did not say he would place restrictions on how American weapons supplied to Israel can be used. And while the new maritime effort to deliver aid quickly may help, if combined with a pause or ceasefire that allows for the distribution of food and medicine, Biden may be too late to help disenchanted members of his base to get back.

Remarkably, the foreign policy initiative that Biden sees as the single most important of his term received the least mention: containing China’s power while competing with China on key technologies and pushing for cooperation on climate and other common issues.

He gave China just seven rules, but officials say these remain the core of his strategy. But even there he couldn’t withstand the attack on Trump, who railed against the “China virus” during the pandemic but was slow to phase out chips and chip-making equipment, as Biden has done. “Frankly, for all his tough talk on China,” Biden said, “it never occurred to my predecessor to do that.”

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