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Opinion We’re still asking the wrong question about Biden and Ukraine

(Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

No one knows precisely what will happen in the growing crisis involving Russia and Ukraine. Ask experts and their predictions are all over the map: Maybe Vladimir Putin will invade, or maybe he won’t, or maybe he hasn’t made up his mind. Maybe sanctions will make him back down, or maybe we need to credibly threaten war with Russia, or maybe what’s important is to let him save face.

But here’s one thing we can say for sure. We’re spending way too much time on what might be the worst question about this situation, the same stupid question that always dominates our foreign policy debates: Is the president being weak or strong?

As The Post reports, everyone seems obsessed over whether this issue will make President Biden “look weak.” We must have “a strong, resolute, and successful response,” says retired admiral James Stavridis, lest Putin “make the Biden administration look weak.” The conflict provides Biden “with an opportunity to show strength,” says a Republican pollster.

“This administration has been very clear on how weak they are,” says Nikki Haley, who was Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. She claims that even though “Putin’s intention was never to go to war,” he might do it just because Biden is supposedly so weak.

Is that really what we should be worried about?

When you see every foreign policy problem through the frame of strength vs. weakness, bad things tend to happen. Not only do you lose all sense of the nuance and complexity of the situation, you convince yourself that nuance and complexity are irrelevant; all that matters is showing strength.

In any foreign policy challenge, understanding what goes into the decisions other countries will make is absolutely vital. But if you’ve decided the only thing that matters is whether America and the American president look weak or strong, you’ve become willfully stupid and blind.

And in your desperation to show strength, you inevitably push toward the most belligerent choices, which can make armed conflict more likely.

The fetishization of strength has been the foundation of Republican foreign policy for decades — and all too often they succeeded in making everyone else focus on it. Mostly this was just about attitude, the belief that nothing was more important than for the American president to pose and preen like an oiled-up bodybuilder.

At times the obsession with weakness becomes comical. In 2017, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to the border between South and North Korea to gaze sternly across at the North Koreans, since he wanted them to “see our resolve in my face.” Weirdly, Kim Jong Un did not immediately dismantle his nuclear weapons program despite having witnessed this menacing display of facial fortitude.

Yet the belief that foreign actors make decisions based on how strong or weak they perceive America and the American president to be persists. Republicans always tell us that when foreign leaders don’t do what we want it’s because we were weak, and if we show more strength they will submit.

Why does terrorism happen? Because we were weak. In the future, all problems will be solved if we show sufficient strength. “If we get Ukraine right, we can reset the world,” says Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). Which seems unlikely.

Yet we confront every foreign policy question assuming that everything is in our control, and every other actor will make decisions based mostly, if not entirely, on what they think the United States will do.

America might be the closest thing there is to a global hegemon, but that position has blinded us to the fact that other countries, leaders and peoples have their own incentives and goals that aren’t determined by us. This is a fact we have proven stubbornly unable to accept.

We should be clear that Republicans are not united on Ukraine, beyond their agreement that whatever Biden does, it will be wrong. Some are demanding that the administration be more aggressive toward Russia, while the Trumpiest among them are essentially taking Russia’s side against Ukraine. Fox News host Tucker Carlson has become akin to such a pro-Russia propagandist that one can now see clips of his program regularly on Russian state TV.

The reality is that there are no perfect options for the administration. There might be a way to persuade Putin not to invade Ukraine for now, but this will be an ongoing conflict for the foreseeable future.

But we do know this: No matter what happens, Republicans will say it was bad because Biden was weak. So when they say that, perhaps we should recall how wrong they’ve been on so many foreign policy questions, and that the last Republican president who had a successful foreign policy left office almost 30 years ago.

None of that is to say that the Biden administration might not be handling this poorly, or making mistakes that will prove consequential. We should evaluate and critique everything the administration is doing and the decisions it makes. But we’d be far better served if we stopped asking whether those decisions are “weak” or “strong” and focus on what makes a real difference.