Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
President Joe Biden is confronting an international crisis of an enormous magnitude. While Biden played a proactive role in trying to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine, it wasn’t enough to stop the largest conventional military attack in Europe since World War II.
Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine – which comes at a moment when Biden is already struggling domestically with rising inflation, a turbulent stock market and low approval ratings – poses an immense challenge, both in terms of policy and politics.
For Biden, the short-term options are limited. The President, working with US allies to put an economic squeeze on Putin and his inner circle, announced additional sanctions during a press conference on Thursday. “Putin chose this war, and now he and his country will bear the consequences,” the President said. Biden also emphasized his commitment to NATO and its principle of collective defense, saying the US will “defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power.”
But Biden’s hands are somewhat tied, given that the President has repeatedly stated he does not intend to deploy US troops to Ukraine. Putin has already issued a stark warning against any intervention and the fact that Russia possesses a massive stockpile of nuclear weapons means that any direct confrontation could quickly veer into enormously dangerous territory.
In the coming weeks, Americans will likely witness devastating images of human destruction in Ukraine. Sanctions, which Biden himself acknowledged would take time, could have limited success. As the conflict drags on, the President will inevitably face criticism over his handling of the situation.
And since partisan politics never really stops at the water’s edge, we should expect Republican attacks against Biden to accelerate as legislators keep an eye on the upcoming midterms.
Despite the pressure he will face, Biden must avoid acting out of his own political interest and remain focused on the best steps to sanction and isolate Russia without turning this into a broader military conflict.
It doesn’t help that Americans have plenty of concerns about the state of our own nation. The pandemic has exacerbated deep political divisions and exposed how fragile we are at the hands of a deadly virus. Rising prices have created economic anxiety and the conflict in Ukraine could lead to even higher gas prices – an issue Biden pledged to address using “every tool at our disposal.” Overseas, the continued growth of authoritarian regimes has challenged the place of democratic forces.
The crisis is reminiscent of the foreign policy debacle that President Jimmy Carter faced in 1979. Based on the advice of National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter authorized what would become his most controversial decision: providing aid to mujahideen guerilla forces in Afghanistan.
In December 1979, Carter, who was already struggling with a flailing economy, an oil crisis and Americans being held hostage in Iran, learned that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Carter, who was astounded that the Soviets had launched the invasion, understood that this would kill any possibility for continuing détente – the policy that former President Richard Nixon pursued to establish friendlier relations with the communists and ease tensions around arms controls.
Carter took action and in January 1980, Carter asked Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd to table further discussions of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks treaty (SALT II). Weeks later, Carter outlined the “Carter Doctrine” in his State of the Union address, vowing to “be ready to meet any challenge by Soviet military power” while calling for a 5% annual increase in defense spending.
Carter also outlined a more aggressive posture in the Persian Gulf and decided that the United States would boycott the Moscow Olympics.
As the conflict progressed, however, Carter became bogged down by Afghanistan and the public increasingly perceived him as ineffectual and weak. Republicans blasted Carter as a failed president who was not defending the nation’s security.
In one of Reagan’s television spots, images of suffering children were broadcast along with a voiceover that stated: “Very slowly, a step at a time, the hope for world peace erodes. Slowly, we once slid into Korea – slowly into Vietnam. And now, the Persian Gulf beckons.” As a close-up of Carter’s face filled the screen, the voiceover continued: “Jimmy Carter’s weak, indecisive leadership has vacillated before events in Angola, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. Jimmy Carter still doesn’t know that it takes strong leadership to keep the peace. Weak leadership will lose it.”
And during the final presidential debates in 1980, Ronald Reagan, the Republican nominee, asked: “Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that … we’re as strong as we were four years ago?”
In November 1980, the electorate delivered the presidency to Reagan, ushering in an era in which conservative politics reshaped the country.
For Biden, the political fallout of Ukraine could likewise pose a serious risk to his presidency. If this Russian assault on Ukraine continues for months and the humanitarian crisis turns out to be as bad as some expect, Biden’s inability to take stronger action could become a major liability going into the midterms and the 2024 election.
It will only be a matter of time before Republicans start reminding the public that a Democrat was in the White House both times Russia invaded Ukraine in the past decade.
Ultimately, these attacks should not guide Biden’s policy decisions or pressure the US into an extended and catastrophic war. If achieving peace and stability overseas requires sacrificing his own political future, that’s a tradeoff Biden should be willing to make.
For now, Biden can take solace in the fact that unemployment remains very low. The possibility that the pandemic will become endemic could provide Biden and Democrats with a huge boost in the coming months. And so far, there seems to be little appetite for a US military intervention in Ukraine.
And unlike Carter, Biden does not yet face a formidable political opponent hammering him for being ineffectual. Whereas Reagan condemned Carter for being too weak with Afghanistan, former President Donald Trump, the de facto head of the GOP, continues to praise Putin, calling his strategy in Ukraine “genius.”
Biden came to office promising to revitalize America’s international alliances that had been frayed during the Trump years. Now is the time to work through those alliances to pressure Putin to change course.
With a situation this fraught, true presidential leadership will require Biden to govern through thoughtful, evidence-based policies rather than the bombast that comes so easily at times like these.
This article has been updated to accurately reflect former President Donald’s Trump’s comments; he called Putin’s strategy in Ukraine “genius.”