Everything about President Joe Biden’s impassioned speech on Thursday night was old school, whether it was his invocation of World War II or his reference to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright calling America “the indispensable nation.” Biden is the last liberal Cold War president. He tied the battles in Ukraine and Israel into a larger struggle of democracy against autocracy, arguing that they are “vital for America’s security” and that Russia and Hamas are trying to “annihilate a neighboring democracy.” The question looming over his Oval Office address was whether that remains the case or whether America is going to AWOL permanently.
With his repeated invocations of “this is the United States,” Biden almost seemed to be trying to physically will the unity that has escaped America over the past decade. It had a whiff of desperation to it. Biden did not mention it, but the current morass in Congress, where Republican lawmakers are feuding with each other over whom to name Speaker, epitomizes the extent to which the federal government has run aground. Triggered in part by disputes over aiding Ukraine—a CNN poll in August indicated that 71 percent of Republican voters are antipathetic to further aid—it could last weeks longer, impeding Biden’s call for billions more in aid to both Israel and Ukraine. Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance complained, “Why is Joe Biden going on national television and selling people on a Ukrainian escalation when Joe Biden is talking about the terrible tragedy in Israel?”
If Congress remains stymied, Biden’s hand will be strengthened to pull some kind of end-run around Congress, a maneuver that Franklin Roosevelt executed when he announced his Lend-Lease program with Great Britain in March 1941, to the fury of the America Firsters of the day. (A formal “Ukraine democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act was approved by Congress and signed by Biden in May 2022.) The fact remains that overall aid to Ukraine remains popular in America and that Biden isn’t about to let Kyiv go under, much as that prospect might please Ukraine’s detractors on the American right.
Indeed, as he weighed in on behalf of Israel and Ukraine, Biden made it plain that his presidency will partly rise or fall on the fate of both countries. “History has taught us when terrorists don’t pay a price for their terror, when dictators don’t pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and death and more destruction,” Biden said. “They keep going. And the cost and the threat to America and the world keep rising.”
In Ukraine, Biden continues to up the ante, sending ATACMs to Kyiv, which has deployed them to destroy strategic Russian assets. When it came to Israel, Biden was unequivocal in his support for its battle against Hamas but also explained that he had cautioned it not to replicate the mistakes that the George W. Bush administration committed after 9/11, when it lashed out not only against Afghanistan but also Iraq in a spasm of anger, miring America in a forever war that stained its reputation and diminished its military capability.
At the time, National Interest editor Owen Harries cited Edmund Burke to warn about the perils latent in willfully invading Iraq: “Among precautions against ambition, it may not be amiss to take precautions against our own. I must fairly say, I dread our own power and our own ambition: I dread our being too much dreaded. … We may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing and hitherto unheard of power.”
Today, however, it is a revisionist Russia that is dreaded abroad for its neo-imperialist mission to subdue Ukraine. At the same time, a wider war that includes a predatory Iran looms large in the Middle East. Despite his reference to Madeleine Albright, Biden did not utter a peep about committing American troops to either conflict. Instead, much like Ronald Reagan during the 1980s, he is relying on aid to local forces to carry the day, especially in Ukraine.
More than ever, Biden has become a foreign policy president. In committing America so firmly to Israel and Ukraine, Biden made it clear that it’s a time for choosing, and he has made his choice. His presidency will partly rise or fall on the outcome of those conflicts.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He has written on both foreign and domestic issues for numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, Reuters, Washington Monthly, and The Weekly Standard. He has also written for German publications such as Cicero, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and Der Tagesspiegel. In 2008, his book They Knew They Were Right: the Rise of the Neocons was published by Doubleday. It was named one of the one hundred notable books of the year by the New York Times. He is the author of America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators, coming in 2024.