Two Cheers for Biden’s Ukraine Policy
Our call this week will be at its regular time, Friday at Noon EST.
Our guest will be Eric Alterman, who teaches at Brooklyn College, was for many years a columnist at The Nation and is author of the new book, We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight over Israel. Reading the book, I was struck by how often over the last seventy-five years the same pattern has repeated itself: An American president wants Israel to change its behavior, Israel and its American allies push back, the American president backs down. Are the political dynamics, especially in the Democratic Party, changing enough to break this pattern? I’ll ask Eric on Friday.
As usual, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week.
Sources Cited in this Video
One of the essays that shaped my thinking when it came out just after Russia’s invasion last year: “A letter to the Western Left from Kyiv.”
The failure of America’s effort to isolate Russia around the world.
The Sinica Podcast’s recent conversation about why China sees no upside to distancing itself from Russia.
Things to Read
If you’re in Los Angeles on March 3, stop by the Jewish Currents Purim Party. You can register here.
For the Foundation for Middle East Peace, I talked with Sawsan Zaher of Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, and Brown University’s Nathaniel Berman, about the claim that Israel’s supreme court defends human rights.
Last week, Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard argues, Israeli annexed the West Bank.
On March 30, The New School is sponsoring a conversation on Israel and Palestine between two brilliant philosophers, Sari Nusseibeh and Avishai Margalit.
See you on Friday,
Hi. Our call this Friday, at its normal time noon ET, will be with Eric Alterman who wrote a book, which came out just a little while ago called We Are Not One, which is a kind of a history of the American debate over Israel. I’ve known Eric for a while, and I think it’s a good book. And I think it’s an interesting moment to discuss it because I think the book is a good launching off point for the question of whether something fundamental is changing in the American debate over Israel or whether we’re simply trapped in the same basic kind of dynamics that Eric describes that have been going on for decades. So, that’ll be this Friday at noon ET for paid subscribers. I hope you’ll consider subscribing and joining us on Friday.
As you’ve probably noticed, there’s been a lot of discussion about the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And so, I thought I would say a couple of things as I’ve tried to struggle with how to make sense of this. The first thing is that I believe that the Ukrainians are fighting a just war. And so, American and European support for that war is fundamentally just. Now, there I think are legitimate debates, and I was part of this debate a little bit about whether the United States should have gone further in being willing to promise the Russians that NATO would never join Ukraine. But once Russia invaded Ukraine, I think the conversation became a different kind of conversation. To state the obvious, Ukraine did not invade Russia; Russia invaded Ukraine.
And the Russians might claim that it was to protect the Russian speakers in Ukraine, but however plausible that might have seemed at the time, in fact, I don’t think anyone can take that seriously today. First of all, because the Russian speakers in Ukraine have suffered most hideously under Russian control, and it’s also extremely clear today that Russian speakers in Ukraine generally don’t want to be protected by Russia. In fact, they see themselves overwhelmingly as Ukrainian patriots. And the Russian claim that this was a preemptive attack because Ukraine was threatening Russia, I think, is no more plausible than frankly the United States’ claim that we had to preemptively attack Iraq because Iraq was threatening the United States.
Ukraine was not a military threat to Russia. It might have been a kind of political threat in the sense that it represented a model that was worrying to Vladimir Putin. And Russia wanted a kind of geopolitical security belt on its borders, as do the United States and many other countries. But that doesn’t provide a legitimate reason for Russia to invade Ukraine any more than the United States’ claim that we wanted a geopolitical security belt in the Caribbean and Central America, for instance, which legitimized America’s many military interventions under the name of the Monroe Doctrine.
I also think that for people who are on the left and who care about international law, this is a clear violation of international law. It was a clear violation of Ukrainian self-determination. And it was also a war of empire. I think this is one of the points that people in Ukraine, especially leftists in Ukraine and across the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, have been making— which I think has been very important when speaking to people on the left in the West—is to recognize that this is a war of Russian Empire. It may not look that way initially to people in the United States because Russia borders on Ukraine and some of these other countries. But, in fact, this is a war about Ukraine wanting genuine independence, and self-determination, and not wanting to be part of the Russian Empire. And I think those are the kinds of instincts, political instincts, that people on the left rightly tend to support. So, that frames my general belief that the United States was right to support Ukraine, has been right to support Ukraine in the in this war.
I think there’s one other thing that needs to be said about the Biden administration. In general, I’m pretty critical of the Biden administration’s foreign policy, but the way they have supported Ukraine has shown a high degree of confidence. And if one is tempted to take that for granted, I think it’s worth asking a question: what might have happened if Donald Trump had been president when Russia invaded Ukraine, or had George W. Bush been president, right? First of all, we know the Trump administration would have been, just logistically, it would have been an utter mess, right? The Trump administration had no capacity to actually bring together American and European allies into any kind of coherent strategy, even if they had wanted to pursue one that would have supported Ukraine. It would have looked, I think, a lot like the American response in the initial stages to Covid, which would have been terrible for Ukraine, and indeed terrible for Europe, even discounting the possibility that Trump might have tried to make some deal with Vladimir Putin over the heads of the Ukrainians that would have been terrible for them.
On the other side, if George W. Bush and Dick Cheney would have been in the White House, I don’t think we can count on the fact that they would have calibrated in the way that Biden administration has done so far to prevent this from becoming a wider war. The Biden administration has been very careful—not perfect—but I think pretty careful about trying to prevent this to escalating into a war between NATO and Russia, a direct war. And we can imagine the Bush administration, with a kind of recklessness that it showed in its invasion of Iraq, would not necessarily have done that. You know, with John Bolton, Dick Cheney there, I’m not necessarily sure we can count on that. So, I think the Biden administration deserves credit there.
Where I think the biggest mistakes, it seems to me, are the places where it deserves the most critique, are three areas. First of all, on sanctions. We now see in retrospect that sanctions have not been nearly as effective as we thought. I think there was a case for imposing certain kinds of sanctions on Russia, but the rush to impose very broad-based sanctions without any clear idea of what it would take for those sanctions to be lifted given the history that we now see across the world where the US is very quick to put sanctions on other countries and it’s extremely difficult politically to almost ever remove those sanctions. I think, in retrospect, that may have really been a mistake to impose such sweeping, broad-based sanctions with no kind of clear vision of when they could be lifted. Partly just because they’re imposing tremendous costs on ordinary Russians who are not responsible for what their terrible regime is doing and because I think, ultimately, they may lock the US in to a cold war with Russia, even if this war ended and we wanted to try to pivot to a different relationship at some point. Given these sanctions we’ve imposed, I think it will be very, very difficult to ever lift them.
The second mistake is that I think the Biden administration, I think, has really pursued its policies towards China that I think are very, very problematic. There are all of these reports of great fear that China may go in even more heavily on Russia’s behalf, maybe even giving them military support. And I think one of the things that if they do that, one of the reasons will be that the Chinese don’t think that anything they could do would fundamentally improve their relationship with United States. The Biden administration has not really mapped out any vision by which the Chinese could do almost anything that would actually lead to a better relationship with United States. And I was influenced—I’ll put this in the newsletter—by a podcast on Chinese affairs that I really, really like called the Sinica podcast, where various people are making this point.
So, for instance, the Biden administration hasn’t even lifted the tariffs on China that the Trump administration imposed. The Biden administration’s own economists were saying during the campaign that those tariffs make no sense and really just hurt American consumers. And I think the very hardline posture that the United States has taken on China has put the Chinese in a position where they don’t really have much of an incentive not to support Russia. I mean, their only incentive is that the US might slap more sanctions on them. But they don’t have any positive incentive because I don’t think the Chinese believe that—were they to distance themselves from Russia—that it would have any positive effect on their relationship with the United States because the political dynamic in Washington, which the Biden administration has contributed to, has made it such that the US does not have the flexibility to actually try to pursue a more positive relationship with China virtually no matter what China does.
And the last critique. And this is something I’ve said before, but I think it’s sadly still so often missing from the debate. American political officials and many American pundits simply, I think, don’t think nearly enough about the way in which America’s policies in other parts of the world. America’s blatant support for governments that abuse human rights and violate international law and our own multiple ongoing violations of international law make us look like hypocrites in the world. I mean, there was a recent story which just showed how much of the Global South has not been willing to get on board with the American and European effort in Ukraine. And people noticed that in passing, and they kind of shrug their shoulders and think, well, these countries are cynical. Sure, these countries are cynical and self-interested just like all countries are cynical and self-interested. But they have good reason to be cynical when they look at the way the United States behaves. And part of the problem is that American foreign policy conversation is so siloed that for the most part the people who have influence in speaking about Ukraine—the Ukraine hawks who talk about the fight in Ukraine in highly moralistic terms—they’re not wrong when they talk about it in highly moralistic terms, but because so many of those very influential commentators and government officials conveniently avert their eyes from the fact that America has almost helped to destroy the International Criminal Court even as we say Russia now needs to be brought to international justice; avert their attention from America’s support for what the Saudis and the Emirates have done, not only in brutalizing their own people, but in really the destroying the possibility for liberal democracy in many other parts of the Middle East; and, of course, avert their eyes from the fact that the United States gives Israel complete diplomatic protection and billions of dollars in aid even as Israel flagrantly violates international law and commits human rights abuses that have been judged as very, very grave by even its own human rights organizations and international human rights organizations, not to mention Palestinian ones.
We, in the United States, tend to somehow act as if these conversations can be kept separate. That when we want to talk to India or Nigeria or South Africa about why they’re not on board more with Ukraine, we can table that other conversation, but we have no right to actually table that conversation. If you’re going to speak in a universal language of human rights and international law, these conversations are deeply intertwined, and you can’t blame other countries for seeing them as deeply intertwined and not wanting to give America a pass just because it’s convenient for us to honor these in certain circumstances and not to honor them in other circumstances. If we want them to stick up for Ukraine when it’s hard, right—and it is hard for many of these countries given that they may have long-standing relationships with Russia, they may rely on Russia in various ways—the United States has to show that it’s willing to stand up for human rights when it’s hard, right? Which means countries that give us oil; countries that, in the case of Israel, have longstanding strong political relationships and influence in the United States.
And what bothers me is that there are so many foreign policy commentators in the United States who act as if they can engage on the Ukraine conversation without engaging on these other conversations, as if they’re not interrelated. It’s not only that I think it’s morally problematic because those other places matter in and of themselves, it’s also I think that those folks need to realize that it is that they are actually undermining the Ukrainian cause that they claim to care so much about because if they don’t challenge America’s moral hypocrisy in other ways, they make it far more difficult for America to build international support for Ukraine. And so that’s an area where I think the Biden administration has, of course, been flagrantly lacking. The Biden administration has done literally, virtually nothing, I think, when it comes to human rights abuses in some of America’s most influential allies. And I think that the Biden administration’s supporters are also guilty of that. Again, our conversation on Friday will be with Eric Alterman, author of the new book We Are Not One about the history of the US-Israel relationship. That’ll be on Friday at noon. I hope many of you will join us.