Biden's Fine-Tuning of the Ukraine War Is a Terrible Idea

Ukrainian soldier fires a grenade launcher on the frontline in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine
A Ukrainian soldier fires a grenade launcher on the frontline in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Monday, April 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Libkos)

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Since the time of Harry Truman, Democratic presidents have loved limited wars. Some critics -- this one included -- say that is the reason we haven't won any wars with them in charge. Truman deliberately kept the Korean War limited for fear of bringing the Soviet Union in on the North Vietnamese side, thus starting World War III. The Communists kept fighting until Truman's successor -- Dwight Eisenhower -- quietly let them know that he would use nuclear weapons if necessary to get a cease-fire.

John Kennedy institutionalized the concept of brushfire wars with the creation of the Green Berets as the tip of the spear in containing Communism. When it appeared that this approach wasn't working, Kennedy was reportedly reconsidering the strategy in Vietnam when he was assassinated.

When Lyndon Johnson followed the slain Kennedy, he doubled down in Vietnam but refused to seriously consider going after the Communist center of gravity -- North Vietnam -- decisively by destroying its military infrastructure. Again, he feared Chinese and Soviet intervention that might erupt into global war. Instead, he chose incremental bombing of the north to "send signals." He largely succeeded only in getting a lot of U.S. airmen killed or captured.

Bill Clinton wisely cut his losses in the Somalia misadventure but attempted to solve the al-Qaida problem with pinprick drone strikes. Joe Biden loves drones too. Having engineered both the disastrous 2011 departure from Iraq as well as the even more botched Afghan withdrawal, he is now trying to manage the support of Ukraine in a way that will create an endless stalemate.

The presidents who got the balance of threat and application of military force in crisis situations correct were Teddy Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford. Roosevelt handled the Perdicaris Crisis on the Barbary Coast magnificently by speaking softly but brandishing the proverbial "big stick."

Ford, with a lot of help from Henry Kissinger, managed the evacuation of South Vietnam and the follow-on rescue of the Mayaguez crew from the Cambodians by making the best of a bad situation that Congress -- with then-Sen. Biden as a leading instigator -- had handed him. Bush resolved the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait with overwhelming force in Operation Desert Storm in early 1991, but not before he had exhausted all diplomatic means to resolve the crisis.

It is becoming obvious that Biden and his advisers are dolling out aid to give the Ukrainians just enough support to survive, but not enough to decisively eject Russian forces from sovereign Ukraine territory. Like Truman and Johnson before him, Biden is afraid of what the Russians and Chinese might do. Real military superpowers do not act that way. Biden should be making the Russians and Chinese afraid of what he might do. Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon were masters of that strategic art.

Admittedly, some Republican presidents have used military power to enact regime change with overwhelming force. Sometimes it has worked, as in Panama and Grenada, but in other cases -- Iraq and Afghanistan -- it had unintended consequences that led to deeper long-term problems.

Biden's studied parsimony in support of the Ukrainians will likely prolong the war and get more people killed than would a decisive Ukrainian victory. If Russian President Vladimir Putin resorts to tactical nuclear weapons, he will not likely hit anything of importance, and if he cannot beat Ukraine, going to war with the rest of NATO is a disastrously bad idea. He has acted out of hubris this far, but he is not stupid.

It is entirely possible that, even without adequate military support from the United States, a Ukrainian spring offensive might crack the already shaky morale of the Russian Army and result in a rout. However, if the Ukrainians run out of ammunition and a quagmire results, the fault will rest squarely on Biden's shoulders during an election year. The Russians will never see the Americans as honest brokers in any negotiation, so if our president is angling for a Nobel Peace Prize, he should look elsewhere.

Johnson's attempt to be a little bit at war was like trying to be a little bit pregnant: It ruined his presidency and divided the country. It is wrong to try to fine-tune one's own wars, but it is morally repugnant to try to tinker with and control a conflict involving another nation fighting for its life against a larger aggressor.

-- Gary Anderson retired as chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. He lectures on alternative analysis and wargaming at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.

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