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From armchair warrior to war-defining presidency: Biden’s legacy in Ukraine, Palestine

May 09,2024 - Last updated at May 09,2024

Joe Biden is an armchair warrior who never fought in war but his presidency is being defined by war. War in Ukraine and war in Palestine. Despite being a football player and lifeguard, Biden received five draft deferments for asthma, which enabled him to escape the Vietnam war which killed 60,000 young men of his generation.

Donald Trump, his presumed rival in the November presidential race played squash and tennis, received medical deferments for alleged bone spurs.

Biden was first elected by the small state of Delaware to the US Senate in 1972, becoming the youngest senator, and was reelected every six years until 2008 when he was Barack Obama’s choice for vice president. During his time in the Senate, Biden took illiberal stands on a number of issues backed by his Democrat Party. He voted against authorising the 1991 Gulf War but not because he was against the war as such but on the grounds that the US was bearing most of the burden of conducting this campaign. He supported the 2001 war in Afghanistan and the 2003 unprovoked US war on Iraq. Once the Iraq war was recognised as a disaster, he expressed regret that he had backed that war. Biden unsuccessfully ran for president in 1988 and 2008 and won in 2020. At 78, he was the oldest candidate to become president. A president who had a longstanding reputation for making political mistakes on key domestic and foreign issues and committing gaffes.

Along with Britain’s ex-prime minister Boris Johnson and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, Biden was a prime motivator of the war in Ukraine. Instead of promoting a peaceful settlement between Ukraine and Russia over Kyiv’s bid to join NATO, they urged Ukraine’s neophyte President Volodymyr Zelensky to defy Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. For Putin, this was an existential challenge which could not be ignored.

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989-1991, US Secretary of State James Baker promised Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev that if Moscow accepted Germany’s reunification, NATO would not move “one inch eastwards” into countries which had belonged to the Soviet bloc. While there were no written guarantees of this pledge, reassurances were given by the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Britain’s Prime Minister John Major. However, NATO has added 14 new members since 1991, prompting successive Russian presidents and senior figures to accuse NATO and the West of deceit.

In his 2007 address to the Munich Security Conference, Vladimir Putin Charged the west with breaking binding assurances. While NATO membership for Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and other countries which had been in the Warsaw Pact was uncomfortable for Moscow, NATO expansion into Ukraine amounted to a casus bello. According to Jonathan Masters writing on the US Council on Foreign Relations website in February 2023, “Russia has deep cultural, economic and political bonds with Ukraine, and in many ways, Ukraine is central to Russia’s identity and vision for itself in the world.” 

The two countries were connected by close family ties, history, language, trade, agriculture and the presence in Ukraine of a million ethnic Russians. For many Russians of the older generation like Putin, Ukraine’s NATO membership would alienate Russia from itself.

On the strategic territorial front, Moscow and Kyiv both claimed ownership of Russia’s Crimea which Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gifted to Ukraine in 1954 to boost ties between the two peoples. However, the majority Russian residents of Crimea longed for a return to Russia while Sevastopol is Russia’s main warm water port and home to the Black Sea naval fleet.

Despite US and European funds and arms, Ukraine is not winning the war. The US injection of $62 billion cannot make up for Ukraine’s shortage of trained military recruits and their will to fight. The Russian front lines remain largely impenetrable and Russia has taken rather than ceded territory. Russia can simply overcome Ukrainian efforts to regain territory and wait until Kyiv is ready to talk peace on Moscow’s terms. The attempt to use Ukraine as a proxy to take on Russia has failed. Ukraine and Ukrainians are paying the price.

When meeting with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his war Cabinet at a Tel Aviv hotel after Hamas’ October 7th surprise attack on Israel, Catholic Christian Biden declared, he is a Zionist. “I don’t believe you have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.” As a child, Biden’s connection with Israel was forged by his father who believed Israel’s creation to be just. Soon after entering the Senate in 1973, Biden met Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir who told him Israel’s strength was determined by the fact that “we have no place else to go”. Reuters cited Open Secrets Database which said that during his three decades in the Senate, Biden received $4.2 million in campaign funding from, pro-Israeli groups. While vice president, Biden mediated between Netanyahu and Obama. As president, Biden has given Netanyahu total support during his war on Gaza. 

Without using US leverage to impose conditions, Biden has supplied tens of billions of dollars worth of 900 and 250 kilogramme bombs as well as artillery shells and other munitions Israel has used to kill nearly 35,000 Palestinians, wound 78,000, devastate Gaza and create a humanitarian catastrophe there. By giving Netanyahu everything he wants, Biden has sacrificed whatever influence he might use to press Israel to accept a ceasefire and prevent Israel from mounting an offensive in Rafah where 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering in terrible conditions without food, water, electricity and sufficient medical services.

Israel’s failure in seven months to eliminate Hamas has deprived Netanyahu and his sidekick Biden of the “total victory” they expected, alienated the Global South and some European Countries, outraged humanitarian agencies and the UN, and prompted university students in the US and across the globe to mount anti-War, anti-Israel protests. Israel and its supporters have also lost whatever moral standing they enjoyed on the world level, the International Criminal Court could issue arrest warrants for Netanyahu and his generals and the International Court of Justice could brand Israel’s war on Gaza as “genocide”. Nevertheless, Biden stands by Israel and could lose November’s presidential election and thereafter be cited alongside Netanyahu for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

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