Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 14 December 2023


Will America Betray Ukraine?

Washington is ready to close up shop for the holidays, and so far there’s no deal for more weapons for Israel and Ukraine with changes to border security. The question to start asking is whether the U.S. is really going to let partisan divisions turn into a betrayal of Ukraine.

Hard to believe, but perhaps it is. President Biden warned Tuesday that America is “at a real inflection point in history” that could “determine the future” of Europe. He is right on that point. Without more U.S. weapons, Ukraine will lose to Vladimir Putin. One result would be an unstable Europe. The blow to U.S. power and influence would be on the order of Saigon in 1975.

Ukraine needs more ammo soon, and U.S. supplies are running out. The Kremlin is launching fresh salvos and betting that a deadly winter stalemate will exhaust Western support. Ukraine is short on air defenses to defend cities from Russian missiles, as well as longer-range weapons and air power.

But the Commander in Chief has been slow to act as if he means what he says about the Ukraine stakes. Mr. Biden only recently waded into negotiations with GOP lawmakers, even though the contours of a border-Ukraine trade have been obvious for months. The President misread the political moment this week by outsourcing the case for U.S. aid to Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, whose visit to Washington produced no breakthrough.

Mr. Biden can’t simply dump the failure to deliver Ukraine aid on Republicans, who control one chamber of Congress and are making a reasonable ask on the border. The GOP is correct on the merits that the border has become a U.S. security liability beyond the usual immigration debate. Thousands of migrants from dozens of countries are pouring in daily.

The GOP wants to fix dysfunctional policies on asylum and humanitarian parole. The failed Senate vote last week to move the President’s Ukraine package—opposed by all GOP Senators, though most support Kyiv—should have disabused the White House that it could roll Republicans.

Yet the President still appears terrified to cut a deal that offends the progressive left, which is already angry about his support for Israel. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus this week intoned that Mr. Biden is pondering “Trump-era immigration policies,” the ultimate Democratic insult. The irony is that a deal would in fact be a political lifeline for Mr. Biden. The border is a reelection liability for the President, and even many Democrats realize it.

Republicans also have a large stake in agreeing to a compromise, even if it’s not all the border reform they want. House Speaker Mike John-son deserves credit for telling Mr. Zelensky this week that “we stand with him and against Putin’s brutal invasion.” Yet Mr. Johnson’s line that “any national security supplemental spending package” should be “about our own national security first” is a false dilemma.

Both Ukraine and the border are U.S. security interests. The GOP has little to show for winning the House majority in 2022, and even a partial victory on border policy would be something to brag about back home. A deal would demonstrate to GOP voters that U.S. leadership abroad doesn’t preclude addressing problems at home.

Negotiators were still talking by our deadline, and the optimistic case is that even if a deal doesn’t emerge this week, Congress can pass something quickly in January before Ukraine’s weapons needs are acute. But the slower the weapons delivery, the longer the fighting lasts and the less likely that Ukraine will be able to seize the initiative on the battlefield. Ukraine’s critics want Kyiv to negotiate with Russia, but why would Mr. Putin settle now if he thinks he might win outright?

An overrun Ukraine would be a second Afghanistan for President Biden. The strategic damage—Mr. Putin victorious, an emboldened China—would be much worse than the debacle in Kabul. Republicans don’t want to co-own that world, and they will if they abandon Ukraine after its people have sacrificed so many lives for two years.

A Ukraine-border deal would be good for the country and a tonic for America’s polarized politics. Kyiv isn’t the only world capital watching to see whether the American President and lawmakers can still accomplish something so clearly in the nation’s interest.

Biden and Republicans would co-own a Vietnam-scale debacle.

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