Feb 11, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Foreign policy "Blob" backs Biden on Ukraine

Ukrainian tanks are seen during live-fire exercises on Thursday.
Ukrainian service members conduct live-fire exercises on Thursday. Photo: Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images

Republican senators and establishment columnists who brutalized President Biden for the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal are now praising his handling of Russia's threatened invasion of Ukraine.

Why it matters: The endorsements give the president and his team more political space to pursue diplomacy. They also allow a president who ran on his competence and foreign policy experience to reclaim some of that mantle.

  • The challenge is maintaining support if the situation deteriorates as both sides pour more arms and personnel into the area.

The big picture: The Biden administration has made transatlantic unity its top priority throughout the crisis.

It's engaged European allies during over 200 phone calls and meetings to coordinate red lines and prepare crushing sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine.

  • Biden's straddled a fine line between supporting Ukraine with military aid and limiting the deployment of U.S. troops exclusively to NATO allies — well aware there's no public appetite for direct involvement in another war.
  • The two-track "diplomacy-and-deterrence" approach has won support from Americans across the political spectrum, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.
  • It's also earned plaudits from "the Blob," a term coined by former Obama deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes to describe old-guard foreign-policy types.
  • They believe U.S. power should be used to uphold the rules-based international order.

What they're saying: "The U.S. has organized a comprehensive response," Richard Haass, the Council on Foreign Relations leader who's been called the "Pope" of the Blob, wrote this month.

  • “Policy has been clearly framed and communicated to allies and adversaries alike — blunting Russia's ability to manipulate events," decreed the Washington Post's David Ignatius, whose scoops and analysis drive coverage in foreign policy circles, on Feb. 1.
  • "Mr. Biden has a few flaws but he was a child of the Cold War and, unless I’m mistaken, has surprised and discombobulated Vladimir Putin with his un-Obama-like response to renewed tensions over Ukraine,” Holman Jenkins, a conservative columnist, wrote Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal.
  • Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seems willing to give his former Senate colleague credit, even when he hasn’t adopted policies as quickly as he’d like: "I was glad to hear that U.S. forces are finally moving to reinforce our Eastern flank allies," McConnell said on Feb. 2.

Flashback: After Biden’s Aug. 31 speech on Afghanistan, Haass called parts of it "unbecoming," and deemed the overall approach "a questionable policy terribly executed."

  • In mid-August, before the suicide blast at Kabul's airport that killed 13 Americans and at least 170 Afghans, Ignatius called the situation a "disaster," and concluded, “Biden owns the final decision, for better or worse."
  • The title of Jenkins's Aug. 17 Afghanistan column: "Biden’s Eyes-Open Debacle."
  • McConnell called the withdrawal "one of the worst foreign policy decisions in American history."

The other side: Biden still has plenty of critics on Ukraine — including some unlikely bedfellows.

  • Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has called on Biden to drop long-standing support for Ukraine's eventual membership in NATO. He argues a binding commitment to defend the country would undermine efforts to counter China.
  • Senate Republicans also have continued to hammer Biden for his decision to waive sanctions on Nord Stream 2, the Russia-to-Germany natural gas pipeline Ukraine has called an "existential threat" to its security.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has warned new sanctions on Russia could cause "massive economic upheaval," and Russia's concerns about NATO expansion "were not just invented yesterday by Putin out of thin air."
  • But Sanders praised Biden's approach on the Senate floor on Thursday.

Between the lines: Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a reliable Biden critic, has voiced his support on Ukraine.

  • "I completely support the Biden Administration’s decision to send more U.S. troops to bolster NATO allies in the face of Russian aggression," he tweeted Feb. 2.
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