Weakness is a contagion. Years in the future, when the historians are done analyzing our present moment, they may well find it was more harmful to us than COVID-19. This past weekend, Iranians fired missiles towards the U.S. consulate in Erbil, Iraq. In first calculating whether this was a good move, they surely considered our lack of military response to Russia’s vicious and unprovoked war on Ukraine.
Leaders in both Russia and Iran remember a time not so long ago when America sought to bend the world to our will. Now it seems those days are over, and the world’s despots who were once too frightened to challenge us directly are lining up and taking turns.
When he rejected Poland’s offer to give us MiG-29 fighter jets we could then pass onto Ukraine to aid its self-defense, President Joe Biden sent two troubling messages at the same time. First, he waffled – which is common for a career politician – initially being open to the exchange and then shutting it down. But more worrisome, when he finally rejected the deal, Biden made it clear it was because he feared what Russian President Vladimir Putin would think if he didn’t.
Throughout his 14 months in office, Biden has done nothing meaningful to deter Russian aggression. While his allies in Congress used Ukraine as a political football, and his son Hunter as an ATM, Biden himself failed time and again to communicate to Moscow the seriousness of America’s resolve when it comes to invading independent democracies.
This comes only three months after hosting a global “Summit of Democracies.” No wonder the world’s authoritarians now believe our word is hollow. After all, they watched us leave more than $80 billion worth of weaponry on the field in Afghanistan after our hasty and poorly-planned retreat.
Now is not the time for belaboring how we got here. It would be more useful to ask, as Biden himself is fond of doing, whether this is who we really are. Unlike Russia, Iran, or China, America is not a country whose course is set by one man. As I travel around Maine, I hear veterans and civilians alike express dismay that we’re not doing more to help Ukraine. Many have taken matters into their own hands.
As a retired Navy SEAL who spent my career in hot spots around the globe, I know firsthand what American involvement looks like. By no means am I advocating U.S. boots on the ground in Ukraine right now, but I know there are things we could have been doing, and should be doing, to make a difference.
Arming the Ukrainians, for instance, to withstand a continuing, violent uptick in Russia’s tactics is a way to help a fledgling democracy defend itself from a much bigger, expansionist dictatorship. We can do more in this regard. For instance, three squadrons of our A-10 “Warthog” anti-tank aircraft are about to be mothballed. Instead, we can give them to people who vitally need them. If the Russians were paying bounties on U.S. servicemen in Afghanistan, as Democrats insisted not so long ago, why are we so timid about equipping a free people with the tools they need for their defense?
Second, we revisit the “leading from behind” approach pioneered during the Obama administration. Was it as pragmatic, or effective, as it was once thought? Not really. Had Russia paid a real cost for its 2014 annexation of Crimea, Ukraine would probably not be facing the devastation it is today. Instead of swatting down the efforts of NATO allies like Poland to be helpful, we should be the innovators of bold, proactive actions.
Finally, we prepare for the possibility of a Russia without Putin, as democracy activists in that country have been demanding for years now. When the Soviet Union collapsed, we did too little to help the newly-independent states prepare for the “New World Order” former President George H.W. Bush predicted. What are we doing to learn from those lessons and to help the people around the world who are courageous enough to put their lives on the line for human freedom to build resilient countries? If the answer is not much, let’s change that now.
Cringing before danger has never been a good approach, but it seems to be our new default position. We are not the world’s policeman, but we can be a global force for good. We just need better leadership to get us there.
Photo: Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons