Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 23 April 2024


Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan Aid: Four Historic Votes for Action

President Joe Biden in Seattle, April 22, 2022. Photo: Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

Last weekend’s House votes on aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan and a set of hawkish foreign-policy measures were dramatic and decisive. They may even prove historic. In a time of bitter polarization, the two parties managed to get four consequential foreign-policy bills over the finish line in a closely divided chamber. Friends and foes who thought America was paralyzed by internal dissension are taking another look.

The politics of American foreign policy today reflect a race between failure and fear. On the one hand, the serial failures and strategic incoherence of the conventional foreign-policy establishment lead many voters to oppose expensive foreign-policy initiatives they suspect will do little good. On the other hand, the visibly worsening state of the world and the growing power of countries that don’t disguise their hostile intentions are driving Americans to look to our defenses and allies.

What the four House votes show is that fear is winning the race against skepticism in America these days. The do-something coalition is outpacing the stay-home lobby, but Americans’ growing sense of unease hasn’t yet brought us into an effective foreign-policy consensus.


Many Biden allies see the world struggle in ideological and partisan terms. They recognize that dictators bent on lawlessness threaten the liberal international order and imagine that Donald Trump has formed an unholy alliance with Vladimir Putin to destroy democracy at home and peace abroad.

Other Americans see the danger in less ideological terms. For them, Russia seems less worrying than either China or Iran. Who makes the fentanyl and other synthetic opioids that flood over the border, killing more Americans each year than the total number of U.S. military deaths in the Vietnam War? Whose abuse of the international trading system “stole” millions of American jobs and threatens more jobs today? Whose military buildup imperils America’s access to the vital semiconductors produced in Taiwan?

As for Iran, many American voters are far more concerned about Tehran’s nuclear program and the terrorism it supports than about Russia’s designs on Moldova.

And fear leads Americans to focus, quite properly, on the shambolic state of our border security.


Fear is a good motivator but a bad strategist. The emerging do-something consensus lacks direction. The aid to Ukraine will, one hopes, stave off defeat and buy time, but one wonders how many more $60 billion Ukraine bills this or any future Congress will pass. And as far as one can tell, Team Biden’s goal remains to escape responsibility for a Ukrainian defeat the administration has no strategy or will to prevent.

Similarly, the aid will help Israel deal with Hamas, but the real threat to Israel’s security lies elsewhere. Unless the United States gets serious about helping Israel and its Arab neighbors address Iran’s drive for regional supremacy, the security situation in the Middle East will continue to worsen. The billions appropriated for the Indo-Pacific are also insufficient to reverse the growing insecurity affecting the most vital theater in world politics.

Should Americans prioritize Russia, China, the Middle East, Taiwan or the border in our quest for security? Does supporting Ukraine send a message to Xi Jinping about American will, or does it divert badly needed resources from the Indo-Pacific to the secondary European theater of the emerging global conflict? Should we respond to China’s abuse of the world trading system by imposing protectionist measures across the board that hurt our allies and neutral powers? Will pressuring our allies over human rights weaken our fragile coalition at a critical moment, or is it vital to remain committed to our core values no matter the cost? What’s the right level of defense spending, and how do we reconcile that with other national priorities at a time when the bond markets look restless?

President Biden must answer these questions, and not only because the House-passed Ukraine bill mandates a written statement on Ukraine strategy within 45 days. The do-something consensus is real, but it is vulnerable. Another round of expensive foreign-policy failures could put the stay-home lobby in the driver’s seat.

Paradoxically, Mr. Biden’s foreign-policy failures are responsible for the fear that now hands him political victories in Congress. The horrifying consequences of his administration’s failures to deter Russia in Ukraine and Iran in the Middle East, and fears of what a similar failure of deterrence could mean in the Indo-Pacific, have created bipartisan majorities for a more activist, better-armed American presence on the world scene.

America needs to be stronger and do better. That is the message Congress is sending the White House by passing these bills. One can only hope Team Biden is listening.

Journal Editorial Report: A Russian victory would be bad for the U.S., and a House majority knows it. Images: Reuters/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly


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Appeared in the April 23, 2024, print edition as 'Four Historic Votes for Action'.

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