Politics and Government

How 2 unexpected wars are defining Biden's presidency

Biden Ukraine
President Biden meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Paris on June 7. Biden announced another $225 million in weapons for Ukraine, part of the recently approved package of $60 billion in military assistance.
Evan Vucci | AP

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, President Biden's response was stronger and swifter than many expected.

"I think Biden surprised the world. He certainly surprised the Russians by his decision to create a broad democratic alliance to defend Ukraine," said Anne Applebaum, an author and historian who writes extensively on the war.

Matthew Kroenig at the Atlantic Council also gives Biden high marks for his initial backing of Israel when it was attacked eight months ago by Hamas.

"The Biden administration's instinct right after the Oct. 7th attack was the correct one, to have Israel's back in its goal to eliminate Hamas," said Kroenig.

In Biden's first year in office, he pulled the last remaining U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, ending America's longest war, and displayed no desire for other foreign adventures.

The wars are shaping his presidency

Yet these unexpected wars in Ukraine and Gaza are defining Biden's presidency and complicating his reelection bid. He has earned praise in some quarters for rushing in to support allies of the U.S., including large weapons packages for both Israel and Ukraine.

That same aid has drawn criticism from others who say he should cut off arms to Israel due to the high Palestinian civilian death toll. And on Ukraine, Biden's various critics say he has provided either too much or not enough in the way of military assistance.

Both wars have their own distinct dynamics. And like most conflicts, the longer they grind on, the messier and more complicated they become.

Biden's backing of Ukraine still has broad support in the U.S. and the West. However, his embrace of Israel faces growing criticism, at home and abroad.

"The United States has provided unconditional support for an Israeli approach that is both unlikely to eradicate Hamas and has done enormous humanitarian damage," said Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Biden is pushing for a cease-fire in Gaza and has publicly chastised Israel over Palestinian civilian deaths, which account for most of the more than 37,000 Palestinians killed in the territory, according to Palestinian officials.

But the president still supports Israel's effort to fully defeat Hamas, and he recently signed off on a huge new package of weapons for Israel, which is already the leading recipient of such aid.

Palestinian children search through the rubble a day after an Israeli military operation in the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza. Palestinian officials said well over 200 Palestinians were killed, many of them civilians. Israel freed four hostages who had been held since last October.
Eyad Baba | AFP via Getty Images

White House boundaries for Ukraine aid

In Ukraine, Biden remains wary of provoking a Russian escalation and repeatedly sets limits on the kinds of weapons the U.S. sends and how they can be used.

"There's been a kind of indecision," said Kroenig. "Should we provide tanks? First the answer was no. Then it was yes. Should we provide aircraft? First the answer was no. Then it was yes. Should we allow Ukraine to strike in Russian territory? First it was no, then it was yes.”

Anne Applebaum said Biden should say explicitly what outcome he wants in Ukraine.

"I would like him to say clearly that he believes the Ukrainians can win the war and that he understands that a defeat of Russia is the only way the war can end permanently," said Applebaum.

In contrast, Walt said Biden has been too willing to go along with Ukraine’s goal of driving out all Russian troops — a goal Walt finds unrealistic.

"We've let Ukraine basically determine the war aims," he said. "The United States has not put any meaningful pressure on Ukraine to cut a diplomatic deal, and I think is unfortunately presiding over a long war of attrition that is doing enormous harm to Ukraine."

In short, there’s no way Biden can please everyone.

President Biden listens to Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2023, just days after the start of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. Biden and Netanyahu have long had a difficult relationship, further strained by the current war. Biden supports Israel's war aims, but says it must do more to prevent Palestinian civilian casualties and to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP via Getty Images

Complicated relations with leaders

Biden is popular among the Ukrainian and Israeli publics for his strong support. His relationship with the leaders of those countries is trickier.

Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met in Paris on Friday. Biden announced another tranche of weapons for Ukraine, part of a recently approved aid package worth $60 billion. Biden was in France for the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landing in World War II, and he drew parallels between the current war in Ukraine and the fight against Nazi Germany.

The president described the American troops and other Allied forces that stormed the beaches of Normandy as "heroes."

"They knew — beyond any doubt — there are things that are worth fighting and dying for. Freedom is worth it. Democracy is worth it. America is worth it. The world is worth it," Biden said.

Zelenskyy expressed gratitude for the ongoing U.S. support. But recently, he's also signaled his frustration with the U.S. policy of withholding some weapons Ukraine has asked for, and his placing limits on others the U.S. has supplied.

The Biden administration recently gave permission, for the first time, for Ukraine to hit inside Russian territory. But the U.S. said any such Ukrainian strikes should be limited to a border area where Russia is launching an offensive from its own territory as it tries to advance deeper into northeastern Ukraine.

"Clearly Zelenskyy and Biden have different goals," said Applebaum. "Biden is fighting an election. Zelenskyy is fighting a war. They have a different timeline. They have a different sense of urgency. And I think it's fully understandable that there can be misunderstandings."

Meanwhile, Biden has a long history of friction with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Israeli leader has often defied Biden’s wishes in the war, says Walt.

"The Biden team believes that by embracing and supporting Netanyahu, they would have influence over his actions. And that influence seems to be paltry at best," Walt said.

As Biden faces a reelection battle against former President Donald Trump, the conventional wisdom is that issues abroad rarely, if ever, determine a presidential contest.

Still, as Kroenig notes, the Israeli-Hamas war is provoking strong emotions, and ongoing protests, against Israeli military action and Biden's support of Israel.

"I think Biden wants to get these conflicts to die down before the election," he said.

Biden hasn’t — and insists he won’t — send U.S. troops into the conflict zones in the Middle East or Ukraine.

But he still faces tough decisions, Walt said.

"The danger is that you can get dragged into these things the longer they continue," he said. "I will give Biden credit for having resisted that temptation up until now. It remains to be seen if he will continue to resist it, if the situation gets worse."

And both wars are sure to deliver more surprises.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent who has covered the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East.

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