Republicans want to hold Joe Biden responsible for Putins attack on Ukraine, but its not his fault.
JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty
The second type of Republican thinks its bad for Russia to invade Ukraineand its all Joe Bidens fault!
These two types are hardly compatible. But since its no longer feasible to pretend the invasion is just a figment of our imagination, some conservatives say blame must be assigned to the West, NATO, or Joe Biden; it cannot be assigned to Putin, Russia, or (least of all) Donald Trump.
Because neither the West nor NATO will be on the ballot any time soon, Biden is the most tangible and politically advantageous scapegoat. But is this fair? I have been a harsh critic of Biden (here, here, here, here, and here, just to cite a few examples). But blaming Biden for Russia invading Ukraine strikes me as a bad faith argument made out of political expediency.
Thats not to say that Biden has not made mistakes. His biggest was probably waiving sanctions on the company behind the Nord Stream 2 pipeline (a pipeline meant to transport natural gas from Russia to Germany). He recently reimposed them. Bidens initial decision was the wrong one, but it was ostensibly made at the behest of Germany, who argued that the sanctions constituted interference in autonomous decisions taken in Europe. Biden also (wrongly, in my estimation) canceled the XL pipeline, demonstrated weakness with his disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal (this is Ted Cruzs rationale for blaming Biden), and continued to reward Putins bad behavior with summits, phone calls, and meetings. There was also his weird gaffe about a minor incursion, which did not matter in the end.
Biden was also part of the Obama administration, which made huge mistakes such as Obamas red line in Syria and a post-Crimea invasion response that did nothing to tame Putin. But its fairer to focus on things that happened on Bidens watch; some of these things (Nord Stream 2 and the Keystone XL pipeline, for example) reversed Trump administration policies.
This brings us to the million-dollar question: Would this invasion have happened on Trumps watch? This is a more interesting question than you might, at first, think. The Bulwarks Will Saletan argues that Putin didnt have to invade other countries during Trumps presidency because Putin didnt want to mess with a bigger catch: an ally in the US who was trying to weaken NATO. Trumps long history of praising Putin (the lowest point being Helsinki, when he sided with Russia over the U.S. intel community) makes it difficult to imagine that he would have risen to the occasion.
On the other hand, others argue that Trumps erratic, capricious style (consider the killing of Irans Qasem Soleimani) might have served as a deterrent, similar to the madman theory of politics that was cultivated by Richard Nixon. Additionally, because Trump is an egomaniac (who prizes the appearance of toughness), he might have felt compelled to overcompensate during an invasion. This, ironically, increases the odds of both Putin not invading and/or of Trump starting World War III to demonstrate his manliness. Having said that, when it comes to his administrations actual policies, Trump deserved more credit than he got. Unlike Obama, Trump provided critical aid to Ukraine. He also approved the Keystone XL pipeline, approved sanctions over Nord Stream 2, and supported a larger defense budget.
In other words, its messy and confusing. The best analogy to explain Trumps management of Russia may be Homer Simpsons assessment of alcohol as The cause of and the solution to all of lifes problems.
Biden is merely the latest to fail at managing Putin. And while we might fault Biden for failing to learn from his predecessors (who thought they could charm or outmaneuver Putin), hes also saddled with the bad hand he inherited from them. Putin is also stronger today than he was during previous presidencies.
It should also be noted that in the last month or so, Biden has done things correctly. He has preempted Russias attempts to create a bogus pretext for the invasion, clearly condemned Russias unprovoked and unjustified invasion, built a broad international coalition of support, and imposed sanctions (including sanctions on the company behind the Nord Stream 2 pipeline).
But just for fun, lets pretend for a second that Biden was somehow to blame for the invasion. Lets assume that Bidens show of weakness did influence Putin. Would now be the time for Americans to air that dirty laundry and point the guns inward? As the invasion begins, wouldnt the patriotic thing be to focus on the people of Ukraine and focus our passionate anger on the man who is actually responsible?
No, not Joe Biden. Vladimir Putin.