Biden’s Blindness on Ukraine Fits a US Pattern

President Joe Biden faces many foreign policy problems, but one involving Equatorial Guinea was not on my Bingo card. This week, though, administration officials took offense at the revelation that China may establish a naval base in the western African nation.

This possibility is “a threat that is setting off alarm bells at the White House and Pentagon,” reported The Wall Street Journal. Affording the Chinese navy a permanent presence in the Atlantic Ocean “would raise national security concerns,” an unidentified senior U.S. official warned.

It’s a stretch, but this administration, like every American administration, is exquisitely sensitive to any development abroad that could work to our disadvantage. Like every administration, it is also blind to actions of ours that other governments think would work to their disadvantage. U.S. policymakers habitually act to protect marginal interests far from our shores while denying the right of other countries to protect vital interests on their doorsteps.

That double standard lies behind Biden’s Ukraine quandary. On Tuesday, he told Russian President Vladimir Putin there would be serious consequences should Russia invade its former republic. But Putin, for all his thuggish ways, has legitimate reasons to regard Ukraine as a vital Russian interest. Biden’s warning is unlikely to change his mind.

Russia has a 1,200-mile land border with Ukraine, whose government would like to join NATO — which for four decades was the Soviet Union’s prime enemy. The Kremlin has always opposed the expansion of the alliance, but NATO has added former Eastern European nations and former Soviet republics. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says Ukraine and Georgia have an “open door” to join.

For two centuries, going back to the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. has done its best to keep foreign powers out of the entire Western Hemisphere. So Biden should have no trouble understanding Russia’s concerns about Ukraine.

It’s not as though the Kremlin is making outlandish demands. As The Washington Post reported, “It wants written guarantees from the United States and its allies in NATO that the military alliance will not expand east — both in terms of membership and Western forces.”

Nor is Putin eager to invade. What University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2014 is still true: “Putin surely understands that trying to subdue Ukraine would be like swallowing a porcupine.”

But Biden is determined to push his luck. He said last week, “I don’t accept anybody’s red lines” — one of the most colossally foolish foreign policy pronouncements ever made by a U.S. president. Any self-respecting nation with even modest military power has red lines, which others ignore at their peril.

For China, the red line runs through Taiwan. The same administration that feels threatened by a Chinese naval base 6,000 miles away from our soil has vowed to defend Taiwan should China attack it — even though Taiwan, just 100 miles off the Chinese coast, is emphatically regarded as sovereign territory by Beijing.

China has long tolerated the island’s de facto independence while making clear it would not tolerate any assertion of formal independence. Lately, it has made a conspicuous show of might, flying warplanes through Taiwan’s air defense zone.

American politicians treat these demonstrations as harbingers of aggression, when their purpose is to deter rash action by Taiwan. China is not itching to use military force. It is desperate to avoid it. But hawks in Congress feed its fears by urging Biden to declare that he would go to war for Taiwan.

Then there is Iran. President Donald Trump reneged on his predecessor’s nuclear deal, eventually inducing Tehran to resume activities the agreement forbade. Biden wants Iran to return to compliance but has kept the sanctions imposed by Trump. Iran can’t rely on Washington to honor a renewed accord, though, because any Republican president would discard it.

Opponents of the original deal failed to grasp Iran’s stake in a nuclear program. Iran’s rulers saw the U.S. force regime change in Iraq and Libya, which had no nuclear weapons, but not in North Korea, which does. For Iran to give up the mere possibility of acquiring such a valuable means of self-defense would require us to offer something comparable– an idea that is intolerable to hawks in Congress.

Both Republican and Democratic presidents preach liberal ideals when convenient. But in a pinch, they know they have to act assertively to protect crucial security interests, whether the rest of the world likes it or not. Why are they surprised when other governments do the same?

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Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. His twice-a-week column on national and international affairs, distributed by Creators Syndicate, appears in some 50 papers across the country.