President Joe Biden is repeating, with China, a mistake that President Barack Obama made, with Russia: he is inviting a rival to impose an agreement in an area of traditional U.S. influence, for the sake of domestic politics.
In 2013, Obama allowed Russia back into the Middle East by accepting a deal in which President Vladimir Putin would guarantee the removal of chemical weapons that Syria was using against civilians in its civil war.
The agreement emerged after Obama failed to enforce his own “red line” against Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Obama lacked the courage to authorize a military strike, or even to propose one to Congress.
A blunder by Secretary of State John Kerry created an opening for an unenforceable deal that allowed Russia to regain a foothold in the region, and that protected the murderous regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
When Syria violated the Obama-era agreement, it took an airstrike ordered by President Donald Trump — as Chinese premier Xi Jinping ate chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago — to enforce international humanitarian law.
This week, Xi traveled to Moscow in a sign of growing ties between America’s major geopolitical rivals. The White House dismisses it an “alliance of convenience,” but it is the direct consequence of Biden’s policies.
Much as President George W. Bush created an opportunity for Iran when he invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq 20 years ago this week without creating a stable replacement, Biden has created a unique opportunity for China.
After first appeasing Russia — lifting sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, holding a summit with Putin in Geneva before meeting Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky — Biden now wants to overthrow its leadership.
That has forced Russia to turn to China — and, to some extent, to India — to find a market for its oil and gas. Putin may soon rely on China for weapons — another “red line” from which Biden seems to be backing away.
The successful U.S. strategy in Asia for half a century was to separate China from Russia (or the USSR). Biden has reversed that — not by helping Ukraine defend itself, appropriately, but by pushing for regime change.
Xi arrived in Moscow bearing proposals for peace between Russia and Ukraine — one that could leave Russia in charge of territories it has occupied since the war began last February. Putin cautiously welcomed the idea.
But White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that while “we’d all like to see the fighting stop,” there could be no ceasefire until Russia soldiers left Ukraine (he did not specify whether that also includes Crimea).
So the Biden administration’s official position is that the war must continue, with the help of U.S. weapons and money. The White House also continues to claim that it will not propose peace until Ukraine wants to do so.
That is an absurd, vague position, one that appears to rely on magical thinking — that Putin will be overthrown; or that Russia will accept defeat without using nuclear weapons first; or that China will allow either to happen.
But it may not be Biden’s real position. Kirby may have dropped a hint on Monday when he said that China’s peace proposals were unacceptable “without any discussion between the Chinese and the Ukrainians.”
In other words, they might be acceptable, after all, if China were to offer them to the Ukrainians, and not just impose them with the Russians. And there are already plans for a virtual meeting between Zelensky and Xi.
So it appears that Biden wants China to impose a peace that leaves Russia in control of Ukrainian territory — not just Crimea, but portions of the eastern provinces. Biden just doesn’t want the U.S. to be seen imposing it.
He wants to continue posturing as a champion of freedom for a domestic audience, while allowing China to lead in Europe. This is Obama’s “leading from behind,” version 2.0. And it could have disastrous consequences.
Better to be honest with the American people, and the world, and accept that a nuclear-armed power can never be “defeated” — at least, not on its own boundaries. The U.S. should tell Zelensky that it’s time to negotiate.
The resulting deal should have stronger security guarantees than the 1994 Budapest memorandum that Obama allowed Russia to violate in Crimea. But it will also include territorial concessions. And it must keep China out.