Joe Biden didn’t set out to be a wartime president, but he made himself one.
Last week, the president staked his place in history on the outcomes of two conflicts: Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Ukraine’s war against an invading Russia.
When Biden came to the White House in 2021, his foreign policy goals were more modest. He wanted to rebuild alliances that had frayed under his predecessor, Donald Trump. He wanted to refocus on great-power competition with China. And he wanted to withdraw the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan — a mission he accomplished in chaos.
Two events have changed the landscape.
Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, seeking to turn an independent country into a colony. Last week, Israel prepared to launch a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip to destroy the Hamas regime that attacked Israeli towns and villages.
On Thursday, Biden yoked the two crises together and declared a new primary goal for American foreign policy: “Making sure Israel and Ukraine succeed.”
“We’re facing an inflection point in history — one of those moments where the decisions we make today are going to determine the future for decades to come,” he said.
“We cannot and will not let terrorists like Hamas and tyrants like Putin win,” he said, adding, “I refuse to let that happen.”
Consciously or not, he was echoing President George H.W. Bush’s response to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait: “This will not stand.”
In a narrow sense, Biden’s speech was merely a legislative gambit. On Friday, he sent Congress a request for $105 billion in emergency funding — mostly for Ukraine, but with substantial sums for Israel, Palestinian humanitarian aid, U.S. border security and Taiwan.
His hope is that Congress, including Republicans skeptical about supporting Ukraine, will find it easier to pass a bill that includes something for everyone.
But the president’s message was much broader than the wrangle over funding, and his real target was the American public.
He clearly wanted to push back against increasing sentiment among voters, especially Republicans, that the United States should reduce its commitments overseas.
In several polls over the last year, a gradually growing share of voters has said the United States should take a less active role in the world. In a September survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a majority of Republican voters — 53% — said they believed the United States should “stay out of world affairs,” the first such finding in the poll’s 49-year history.
Biden has reframed his rationale for helping Ukraine and Israel. Last year, after Russia’s invasion, he described the stakes as a “battle between democracy and autocracy” — a formula that may have been too abstract for some voters.
Last week, he focused his pitch closer to home.
“Making sure Israel and Ukraine succeed is vital for America’s national security,” he argued. “It’s a smart investment that’s going to pay dividends for American security for generations [and] help us keep American troops out of harm’s way.”
Biden had another broad point to make.
“American leadership is what holds the world together,” he said. “American alliances are what keep us — America — safe.”
He quoted the late Madeleine Albright, who as the irrepressibly activist secretary of State under President Clinton called the United States “the indispensable nation.”
And he reached back to 1940, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed the United States to be “the arsenal of democracy” in the early days of World War II.
In effect, Biden is trying to build a new version of the Cold War thinking that dominated U.S. foreign policy for much of the second half of the 20th century, when he began his political career: the principle that assertive U.S. leadership is essential to world peace.
The two conflicts he is tackling won’t be easy to manage.
Israel can presumably prevail in a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, but it will then face more difficult challenges: pacifying and administering the battle zone, and reviving the neglected search for peace with the Palestinians. Biden gave Israel’s leaders advice on those counts both publicly and privately last week; to help Israel succeed over the long run, he will need to give much more.
Ukraine’s 20-month war has been costly in blood and treasure (the United States has already provided more than $75 billion, European countries even more), and Putin appears dug in, waiting to see whether his longtime admirer, Trump, will return to the White House in 2025.
Presidents are often measured by how they lead in times of crisis. Last week, Biden put his place in history on the line.
He set an ambitious goal — making sure both Israel and Ukraine “succeed” — and made it the yardstick of his leadership.
Voters are more likely to judge him by the state of the economy. But historians will evaluate him by the measure he set for himself.
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