As Russia wages war, leveling sanctions is fine, but is describing them as 'tough' really accurate?
By Gary Abernathy
Let’s stop pretending that Biden is being tough on Russia
It’s been painful watching many of our biggest news leaders try their best to paint President Biden as tough on Russia and President Vladimir Putin while Russia invades Ukraine. Headlines abound along the lines of, “Biden hits back with tough sanctions” or “Putin got more than he bargained for with Biden response,” etc., etc.
Many, of course, are trying hard to blame Russia’s invasion on former president Donald Trump. It goes like this: Trump weakened NATO, and held up Ukrainian aide unless President Volodymyr Zelensky promised to investigate Joe Biden. And, of course, Trump was buddies with Putin, who helped “install” him as president in the first place.
Trump got hammered for saying Putin is smart. But you can be both evil and smart. Right?
Here’s the only fact we know for sure, and Trump said it best himself — which isn’t always the case — at the recent CPAC conference: “Under Bush, Russia invaded Georgia. Under Obama, Russia took Crimea. Under Biden, Russia invaded Ukraine. I stand as the only president of the 21st century on whose watch Russia did not invade another country,” said Trump.
Along those lines, a recent Harvard Center for American Political Studies (CAPS)-Harris Poll found that “62 percent of those polled believed Putin would not be moving against Ukraine if Trump had been president.” That’s probably true.
It’s at times like these that I grow even more frustrated by Trump’s post-election actions in 2020, when he refused to accept the election results, suggested that electors for Biden should be rejected and contributed to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. For those attacks on our democracy, I can’t support him for president again. If he had simply accepted the outcome, he would be in a great position to run again, and I would happily support him. But he didn’t, and I can’t.
Still, this is one of those moments when it would be interesting to be able to run two sets of actions concurrently to prove a point, the point being that if Trump was doing and saying exactly — exactly — the same things Biden is doing and saying on Russia-Ukraine, Trump would be absolutely vilified from the left and most of the mainstream media. Biden, by contrast, is portrayed in heroic terms.
Here’s the New York Times a few days ago. Headline: “Biden Hits Russia With Broad Sanctions for Putin’s War in Ukraine.” The story says:
President Biden, vowing to turn President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia into a “pariah,” announced tough new sanctions on Thursday aimed at cutting off Russia’s largest banks and some oligarchs from much of the global financial system and preventing the country from importing American technology critical to its defense, aerospace and maritime industries. The package unveiled by the U.S. government is expected to ripple across companies and households in Russia, where anxiety over Mr. Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has already begun setting in. The nation’s stock market fell more than 30 percent on Thursday, wiping out a huge amount of wealth. The new U.S. sanctions include harsh penalties against the two largest Russian financial institutions, which together account for more than half of the country’s banking assets.
All they left out was a scene from the movie “Tombstone,” with Biden replacing Wyatt Earp and declaring, “You tell ‘em I’m coming, and Hell’s coming with me! You hear? Hell’s coming with me!”
Here’s what’s happening — and what everyone in the world knows is happening: Vladimir Putin is running roughshod over Ukraine, and no one is doing anything about it, except talking tough, imposing sanctions and telling him to stop it — which will have as much impact as when President Obama talked to Putin about election interference and told him, presumably in a stern voice, “Cut it out.”
Sanctions are fine, but right now Putin is laughing at sanctions. He knew they would come. Every day we read about “tough new sanctions” aimed at Russia, and taking away rich Russians’ yachts, and maybe imposing an oil ban. Imposing an oil ban? After declaring war on fossil fuels in this country? Now we’re suggesting banning oil from Russia while increasing our own output and buying more from other countries? Now we’re suggesting that? After the left screamed bloody murder over Trump making the U.S. energy independent?
And please don’t argue that point. Fact checkers — even ones not inclined to give Trump any benefit of the doubt — generally don’t dispute that point. As Politifact noted back in 2020, for the first time in decades “2019 also saw the U.S. export more energy than it imported, by a difference of about 715 trillion Btu, according to the EIA. That trend continued in the first three months of 2020. Previously, the U.S. had been a net energy importer since 1953. But the EIA projected in January that the U.S. would remain a net energy exporter in 2020 and through 2050.”
Then came Biden and his party’s war on fossil fuels. As Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen recently noted:
Biden rejoined the Paris agreement and canceled the Keystone XL pipeline, which by itself would have transported 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas — far more than the 538,000 barrels we import every day from Russia). He suspended oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and sought to deliver on his campaign promise to ban all “new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters.” And he made clear his intention to tax and regulate the fossil fuel industry out of business, promising that his administration would “end fossil fuel.”
As Thiessen added, “Putin gambled that Biden was not willing to risk sanctioning his lucrative energy exports, and thus driving up energy prices for U.S. consumers just months before the midterm elections. The bet paid off.”
Putin’s calculation emboldened him to launch the Ukraine attack. Even if we change course now and stop buying Russian oil, the damage has been done to Ukraine.
My old boss, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), this week suggested that we should at least be making sure Ukraine has airplanes and drones that the U.S. can ensure it has. That’s probably the most anyone has the stomach for doing right now. But let’s quit lying to ourselves that we’re doing anything truly meaningful. Let’s all just call it for what it is — Putin is running amok, conquering a neighboring sovereign state, and no one outside Ukraine is doing much of anything meaningful to stop him. We’re all just hoping and praying that it will end soon. That’s what we’re doing.
Biden is apparently not even leading the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That’s being handled by French President Emmanuel Macron. According to the Washington Post on Thursday:
Macron is the only Western leader who has been in consistent public contact with Putin since the invasion of Ukraine, in an effort the French presidency has described as an attempt to keep the doors to meaningful negotiations open. Putin and Macron also spoke Monday and last Thursday. Before the invasion, Macron had led Western efforts to prevent an escalation of the crisis through diplomatic channels, traveling to Moscow last month to keep Putin engaged. Since mid-December, the two leaders have spoken over a dozen times, according to the French presidency. Macron has also been in frequent contact with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — the most recent time on Thursday, following his call with Putin. “Maintaining dialogue to avoid human tragedies is absolutely necessary,” Macron tweeted Thursday. “I will continue my efforts and outreach. We must avoid the worst.”
These are sad times, and what’s particularly sad is knowing that Putin will not stop with Ukraine — and as he marches on, the world will be given no choice but to change our current definition of “tough.”
Great being back at Georgetown Day School
For the fourth time in the last five years, I spent three days last week with high school students at Georgetown Day School, a private school in Washington D.C., participating in a program called, “A View From the Other Side.”
GDS is known for its progressive curriculum. In other words, most students are very liberal in their politics. It has many famous alumni in various walks of life. Back in 2017, then-Associate Head of School Kevin Barr decided it would benefit students to hear from people from across the political spectrum — right, left and middle. I was invited to participate in all three days of the event, providing commentary, engaging in conversations and posing questions between appearances by other guests. It’s a role I’ve enjoyed playing each year (except last year, which was canceled due to covid).
Kevin retired, but the tradition has been carried on by Susan Ikenberry, a GDS history teacher who has been with the school for 30 years. This year’s program featured individuals from across the political and journalism spectrum: CNN contributor Alyssa Farah Griffin, the first person to serve as spokesperson for the president, vice-president and secretary of defense in one administration (Trump’s); Congressman Mike Waltz (R-6, Florida); Juan Williams of Fox News; Thomas Edsall of the New York Times; David Frum of The Atlantic; John Fea, an author and history teacher at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Penn.; and speakers from the Pulitzer Center and Braver Angels. There were also two panels of GDS alums, one group of fairly recent grads who were more conservative than most students, talking about the challenges of navigating a school dominated by liberal classmates and faculty, and another panel of established political scientists and analysts.
The vast majority of students disagree with me on almost all things political. But they’re extremely knowledgeable on politics and history, and they’re sharp debaters. They ask challenging questions. And above all, they’re engaging and very respectful. I always hate to see the program come to an end.
As I always tell the students at the start of the week, my goal is not to change anyone’s mind as much as to help foster respect and more understanding — beyond the popular media stereotypes — about people who hold very different political views from their own. I expect to learn from them as much as they might learn from me or any other speaker. Every year, by the end of the week I always feel some progress has been made in that regard, and most of the students seem to agree.
Thanks to Sue Ikenberry, Lisa Rauschart, Monique Leyden, Leigh Tait and everyone else at GDS — especially the students — for another enjoyable visit. Looking forward to next year.
Back in the Smoky Mountains, celebrating 20 years
On a personal note, two decades ago Lora and I were married in a cabin in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee in the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge area. This week we went back for our 20th anniversary. It was a great week. Putting up with me for 20 years is quite an accomplishment. I’m lucky to have her. Thanks babe!
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Interesting, Gary. Oil, Biden, Putin, Macron, Trump, Zelensky - all such a mess! You going to GDS fantastic. Of course your beautiful wife of 20 years - Congrats you two (2) oh & doggo!