Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 8 February 2024

 

America’s Enemies Don’t Fear Biden—or Trump

Feb. 7, 2024 5:26 pm ET

Wonder Land: Iran, Russia and China know that both Joe Biden and Donald Trump are weak adversaries, not least because they have failed to raise U.S. defense capacity to the level of an unmistakable deterrent. Images: AP/Shutterstock Composite: Mark Kelly

The world is on fire, and the U.S. should be having an election-year debate about foreign policy. Instead, one of the presumed candidates, Donald Trump, is unwilling to talk about anything other than his years-ago first term, and the other, Joe Biden, is barely able to talk about the subject at all. It falls to everyone else to fill in the blanks of a hostile world.

History will record two dates as defining the final stretch of President Biden’s first term: Oct. 7, 2023, the day Hamas entered Israel and butchered 1,200 people, including Americans, and Jan. 29, when an Iran-allied militia killed three U.S. service members at Tower 22 in Jordan.

The first event was an Israeli intelligence failure. The second was also a failure of intelligence, though not in the military sense. The Jan. 29 deaths followed more than 150 attacks on U.S. forces in the region. The deaths of those U.S. service members weren’t predictable. They were inevitable.

After several U.S. counterstrikes against the militias, the Biden national-security team this week is pursuing the one strategy it believes in—diplomacy, which means having conversations.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on his fifth post-Oct. 7 trip to the Mideast. His goal, as before, is to negotiate an end to the war in Gaza that ensures Israel’s security and establishes a path toward the creation of a Palestinian state. And in the next half-minute, I will solve Rubik’s Cube.

Running alongside this mess are the two dysfunctional U.S. political parties that compose Congress, now in the process of failing to pass funding support for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan.

There is a limit to the amount of global risk the U.S. can incur without suffering consequences. Put plainly—a big war.

We need to admit that avoiding a war is understandably what Team Biden is trying to do, notwithstanding its compulsion to euphemize it as an “expansion of hostilities.” In this, the Biden administration surely has the support of the American people. As well, Mr. Biden can’t go anywhere in the U.S. without being taunted by anti-Israel agitators. The antisemitic vote is on the brink of making itself part of the Democratic coalition.

We have heard a lot recently, including in this space, about the importance of deterrence. Less examined is whether these commitments to deterrence on paper will match the ideological forces driving the U.S.’s three primary adversaries—Iran, Russia and China.

Not one of these countries is a conventional opponent, subject—as the Biden national-security team believes—to incentives offered through diplomatic overtures to reduce their aggressive behavior. Iran, Russia and China aren’t just military threats. None of them operate inside the West’s traditional understanding of power relationships governed by a balance of interests. Instead, all three under their current leadership have become messianic political movements.

Political messianism has three characteristics: It is relentless in its pursuit of its goals, outward-moving and virtually unappeasable. We read daily about Iran’s “proxies” in the Middle East, but that bland word undervalues the fanatic energy driving Iran’s goals. At this late date it would require extraordinary myopia not to recognize that the Islamic Republic of Iran was, and always will be, a messianic movement.

Like Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are seeking the restoration of centuries-old cross-border empires. These goals aren’t propagated merely for internal consumption. Each of these men believes it.

At the 2021 centennial of the Chinese Communist Party, Mr. Xi described China’s “national rejuvenation” as a “historical inevitability.” Mr. Putin has likened his invasion of Ukraine to Peter the Great’s 18th-century expansions into northern Europe. A year ago he called Ukraine a “watershed moment for our country” and said the West’s opposition is an attack on the Russian Orthodox Church.

These are enemies who can’t be deterred with the standard mix of carrots and sticks. They are looking not just for regional dominance but active obeisance to their rule. In the case of Iran and Russia, that means literally erasing opponents such as Israel and Ukraine.

Today, elements in both the Democratic and Republican parties want to believe that the water’s edge somehow protects the U.S. Refusing to ignore external realities was the point of Ronald Reagan’s decision to raise U.S. defense capacity against the Soviet Union to the level of an unmistakable deterrent.

Reagan summarized the strategy five months before the 1980 election in his “Peace Through Strength” speech at the GOP convention: “We know only too well that war comes not when the forces of freedom are strong, but when they are weak. It is then that tyrants are tempted.”

Iran isn’t backing down to the U.S.’s retaliatory bombing of its proxies, because it knows the Biden Democrats’ long-term commitments lie with domestic spending, not rebuilding military infrastructure. Mr. Trump, an off-and-on public admirer of Messrs. Putin and Xi, seems to think the answer to their messianism is him talking to them, guy to guy.

On the available evidence, neither candidate looks up to the task of stopping these three determined threats.

Write henninger@wsj.com.

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Appeared in the February 8, 2024, print edition as 'America’s Unfearful Enemies'.

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