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Old Uncle Joe's ‘lightning speed’ decision making

In a headline that sounds like something from the Babylon Bee, the Washington Post informs us that “Biden team hails ‘lightning speed’ call on strikes in Russia. Meanwhile, Kharkiv burned.” The Biden team’s idea of “lightning speed” to make a life-and-death decision is 17 days. It’s part of a continuing pattern of indecision from this president, a man who wants the popularity and adulation of the job and who often seeks some middle path that ends up satisfying no one. In the realm of national security and foreign policy, the cost of delay and indecision is measured in lives.

For Biden’s Team, Taking 17 Days to Decide Is ‘Lightning Speed’

In a metaphor that is about as accurate as comparing our 81-and-a-half-year-old president who shuffles his feet on his way to and from Air Force One to Usain Bolt, the Biden administration insists that the commander in chief taking 17 days to decide to allow Ukraine to use U.S. weapons to strike targets within a limited portion of Russian territory represents “lighting speed.”

From the Washington Post:

The White House this week said it moved at “lightning speed” to allow Kyiv to use U.S. weaponry to strike limited targets inside Russia, just 17 days after Ukraine came begging for the capability. But for Ukrainians who have weathered a punishing Russian assault on the northeast Kharkiv region, those 17 days of waiting are emblematic of a White House that has lagged repeatedly behind battlefield developments at the cost of Ukrainian lives. . . .

The assault on Kharkiv, located just 25 miles from the Russian border, and the region around it, was designed with Moscow’s understanding that U.S. restrictions limited Ukraine’s ability to strike back, Ukrainian military officials say. Thousands fled their homes as the Kremlin took advantage of being able to hit Ukrainian territory from the Russian side of the border, having spent months building up forces there with relative impunity.

Uh-huh. And George R. R. Martin is finishing the Game of Thrones series at “lightning speed,” too, pal. (If you don’t get the joke, the last book in the series was published in 2011, with anyone’s guess as to when the two concluding books will be published, if ever.)

Biden’s “no hitting Russians in Russia with our weapons” policy amounted to circumstances where the Russians could bomb the bejeezus (Considering the invading Russian army’s attitude toward Protestant churches, literally.) out of Ukraine’s second-largest city but the Ukrainians either couldn’t strike back or could barely counterpunch with non-U.S. weapons.

The Institute for the Study of War concluded back on May 13:

Current US policy prohibiting Ukraine from using US-provided weapons in the territory of the Russian Federation is severely compromising Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against the renewed cross-border invasion Russia has recently launched in Kharkiv Oblast. US policy has effectively created a vast sanctuary in which Russia has been able to amass its ground invasion force and from which it is launching glide bombs and other long-range strike systems in support of its renewed invasion. . . .

Russian aircraft can strike Kharkiv City indefinitely without ever leaving the sanctuary of Russian airspace. Russia’s glide bombs have a glide range of 40-60 kilometers.[9] Ukraine’s air defense systems do not have the capability to intercept glide bombs once they have been launched from Russian fighter-bombers. The Russian Air Force can therefore strike Kharkiv City without ever entering Ukraine’s sovereign airspace. It is absurd to constrain Ukraine’s ability to counter Russia’s glide bomb threat in Kharkiv at this pivotal movement.

The Post reports, “Biden is still refusing to let Ukraine use long-range U.S. weapons to strike airfields and other targets deeper inside Russian territory.”

House Republicans are thoroughly underwhelmed. On Friday, House Armed Services Committee chairman Mike Rogers of Alabama, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Michael McCaul of Texas, and House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Turner of Ohio released a joint statement:

This decision should have been made before Russia’s recent offensive in Kharkiv, not after. Instead, the Biden administration’s continued handwringing crippled Ukraine’s response, forcing them to stand idly by and watch Russian forces prepare for an imminent attack just across its border. Moreover, by leaking to the press that the policy reversal only applies to certain U.S.-provided weapons in a limited area within Russia, the administration has telegraphed to Russia exactly how to effectively adapt to this change in policy, thereby decreasing the military effectiveness of the decision. To win this war of self-defense against Russia’s aggression, Ukraine must be allowed to use U.S.-provided weapons against any legitimate military targets in Russia, not just along the border near Kharkiv. Once again, President Biden’s policy of slow walking and half-measures is dragging out this conflict without providing Ukraine with a decisive advantage on the battlefield to force Vladimir Putin to the negotiating table as soon as possible.

And Biden still doesn’t want the Ukrainians to hit Russian oil refineries, never mind the fact that the strikes are shutting down refineries for weeks and forcing Russia to divert air-defense systems to protect them, stretching its air defenses thinner. The Biden administration’s feared impact on world oil prices hasn’t occurred; it is fair to question how large the strikes’ impact on the overall Russian oil markets are. But the strikes send a message to Russians working in the oil industry: As long as the war continues, you are not safe, either, even if you’re hundreds of miles from the front.

Back in December, Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine Corps special-operations-team leader, wrote in Time magazine about the dangers of the Biden administration’s “slow yes” philosophy:

It’s often been said that the second-best answer to yes is a fast no, and that the worst answer of all is a slow no. As the war in Ukraine closes out its second year, and as victory on the battlefield or a negotiated settlement appear as elusive as ever, we’re seeing that when it has come to Ukraine’s requests for international support — particularly military aid — there’s an answer that has proven worse than a slow no: the slow yes.

As President Zelensky petitions the U.S. and NATO for continued support, with high-profile visits to several capitals in December, and as Congress fights over another aid package to Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO are now shipping to Kyiv many of the sensitive weapon systems that Ukrainian officials have been requesting since 2022. Despite shortfalls in Western production capacity, this includes first-generation main battle tanks like the M1A1 Abrams, long range precision artillery like HIMARS, and fighter jets like the F-16. As these weapons systems arrived on the battlefield in the last few months, albeit in smaller numbers than the Ukrainians would like, it’s to an environment that’s changed radically since they were first requested. Large swaths of territory haven’t exchanged hands between Russia and Ukraine in more than a year. Putin’s forces are no longer stunned by Ukrainian overperformance, but dug in with extensive fortifications and trenches. The war of movement is over. Opportunity is dwindling. . . .

In October 2022, after Ukraine had launched its successful Kharkiv counteroffensive that reclaimed 12,000 square kilometers of territory, President Biden didn’t tout this success; instead, he warned Americans of a potential “nuclear Armageddon” after Putin insinuated that his lost territory could lead to grave consequences for Ukraine and the West.

It’s a great essay by Ackerman, but I have one quibble. It’s not quite accurate to say that Biden “warned Americans” of a potential “nuclear Armageddon.” The president made the remarks, off the cuff, at a closed-door reception for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at the Manhattan home of James and Kathryn Murdoch. You may recall me flipping out about the president blurting this out at a private fundraiser and observing that if the president really thinks the world is headed toward nuclear Armageddon, “That seems like the sort of thing that warrants an Oval Office prime-time address.” Instead, Biden went on to spend another weekend in Delaware. I wasn’t alone in observing, “If we’re facing Armageddon, that should be taking up all the president’s time.” And obviously, if we’re not facing Armageddon, the president shouldn’t say we are.

Apparently, Biden blindsided the rest of the U.S. government with his remarks; no one else in the government seemed to know what stirred Biden’s concern that particular day. The Defense Department and State Department issued statements that they had no new intelligence suggesting the level of nuclear threat had changed. The following Sunday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby had to do cleanup: “His comments were not based on new or fresh intelligence or new indications that Mr. Putin has made a decision to use nuclear weapons and, quite frankly, we don’t have indication that he has made that kind of decision.”

The presidency is all about making decisions, and very often those decisions require choosing between competing priorities. The U.S. wants to see the Ukrainians defend their territory and their people, and to repel the Russian invaders. The U.S. also wants to avoid exacerbating tensions with a hostile, nuclear-armed state. Those goals are in conflict, and there is no way to do both. One must be prioritized over the other.

One of those little moments in our recent political life that sticks in my craw was when a CNN report in August 2022 described Joe Biden as “famously indecisive.” Oh, really? Do you recall that label being applied to Biden at any point, by any major media organization, during the presidential campaign in 2019 and 2020? If a man has developed a reputation for being notoriously hesitant to make decisions, doesn’t that seem like the sort of thing that American voters ought to know before they choose to have him sit behind the Resolute Desk for four years?

But at some point during this presidency, it became safe to acknowledge that the man who’s been plotting to become president since at least 1987 hates doing what the job actually entails, which is making hard choices between two or more flawed and risky options when time is of the essence.

A Washington Post headline, February 2022: “Declassified Afghanistan reports back U.S. commanders who said Biden team was indecisive during crisis.”

In April 2023, Politico wrote, “Biden, who captured the presidency in his third bid for the White House, is famously indecisive, a habit exacerbated by decades in the über-deliberative Senate.”

Hey, considering that the job of the president is to make decisions all day, often under a tight deadline and with enormous consequences, maybe we don’t want someone “famously indecisive” sitting in the Oval Office?

Win the flippin’-flappin’ war. Stop telling Ukraine to “win the war, but not that way.”

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