Like politics, wars can make for strange bedfellows. In the Second World War, even a staunch anti-Communist like Winston Churchill saw no problem with an alliance with the Soviet Union. Making common cause with a totalitarian state led by a mass murderer like Josef Stalin was difficult to swallow, and would lead to future tragedies. But with the future of civilization at stake in 1941, Churchill had to embrace the Soviets so as to defeat a more immediate threat: Nazi Germany. As he put it at the time, “If Hitler invaded hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”
According to the Biden administration, the United States is now in a similar position. With no end in sight to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the suffering this unprovoked war is causing continuing to grow, Western powers are struggling to come up with a response that doesn’t involve NATO forces going into combat against a nuclear power.
But President Joe Biden isn’t taking a page out of Churchill’s book to build an alliance that will defeat Russia’s authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin. Nor is he implementing a strategy that will do real damage to Putin’s alliance with China—a budding superpower that is an even more dangerous rogue regime. Instead, Biden seems to be primarily interested in saving his own political skin by making deals with terrorist and dictatorial regimes because that might lower American gas prices. Washington is selling out American allies like Israel in the Middle East and elsewhere merely to combat the record inflation that has grown on Biden’s watch and which is likely to lead to an epic midterm congressional defeat for the Democrats.
Doing nothing but enacting even the most severe economic sanctions—and sending arms and humanitarian aid to the embattled Ukrainians—isn’t terribly satisfying, especially with the public outrage growing about the situation. That’s why the administration is looking around the world attempting to peel away some of the Russians’ few allies in an attempt to somehow further isolate Moscow.
That was the conceit behind the recent not-so-secret visit of senior American officials to Venezuela. Their goal was, in the words of an AP report, to “unfreeze relations” between the dictatorial Socialist regime led by Nicolás Maduro and the United States to help get Venezuelan oil back on the market so as to reduce the impact of the administration’s decision to ban the importation of the vital resource from Russia. While two Americans were released from prison by Maduro’s government, there is no sign that he is willing to abandon his alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nor is there any reason to think that anything that could happen in South America would have the slightest impact on the struggle in Eastern Europe.
At the same time, the United States was also hoping that a new nuclear accord with Iran, which will be merely a far more feeble version of the already dangerously weak 2015 Iran nuclear deal, would soon be completed. That may be on hold for the moment as Russia is seeking an exemption for its trade with Iran in the sanctions the West has placed on it. But no one should underestimate the determination of the administration to appease Iran, so it would be foolish to think that foreign-policy officials will not continue to push for a new accord.
While it boggles the imagination to think of how enriching and empowering the world’s leading state sponsor of international terrorism will make anyone safer, the war in Ukraine has provided another rationale for Biden’s appeasement policy. Washington believes that bringing Iran back into the community of nations—and its considerable oil reserves back onto the market—will also help the effort to isolate Russia, whose main national asset other than its nuclear arsenal is its vast supplies of oil and natural gas.
The point being is that if you think stopping Putin’s criminal aggression in Ukraine is the world’s top priority, then moral compromises are going to be necessary. And if that means holding our noses and doing business with Maduro or Tehran’s murderous theocrats, then that is what must be done.
But there’s more at work here than realpolitik. Unlike the alliance with the Soviet Union that ensured that the Allies would eventually defeat Hitler, doing business with Venezuela and Iran will do little or nothing to halt the slaughter in Ukraine.
A serious approach to stopping Russia would be rooted in the recognition that American efforts to cozy up to rogue regimes like Russia, China and Iran have to end. As Eli Lake outlines in a cogent analysis of the situation in Commentary magazine, that would mean understanding that such countries are a threat to the entire community of nations. Stopping them from gaining ascendancy—let alone preventing future Ukraine wars—involves, among other things, committing to disentangling the American and Chinese economies, and altering the international system to build an alternative to a United Nations that is unable to defend the rule of law or prevent itself from becoming hostage to dictatorial and anti-Semitic governments whose goals are antithetical to the idea of collective security or world peace.
But Biden is about as likely to rethink the Democratic Party’s devotion to multilateralism and the United Nations as he is to defy his party’s leftist base on any other issues.
The administration would like to halt the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine. To its credit, it is not so foolish as to listen to the delusional advice of those who want NATO to become a combatant in the war by imposing a no-fly zone that would have unknowable and likely catastrophic consequences. The grim truth is that after cutting the Russians off from the international economy and sending armaments, Washington has likely done all it could reasonably hope to help Ukrainians, who are bravely resisting the Russian onslaught. But if Putin is truly determined to get his way by any means possible, then he continues to hold all the cards.
Still, it’s time to stop the pretense that outreach to Venezuela or Iran is really about Russia.
With respect to Venezuela, it’s a tragic abandonment of the already beleaguered democracy movement in that country that has been as thoroughly squelched by the leftist regime as anything Putin has done in Russia or would like to do in Ukraine.
With respect to Iran, the rush to get their oil on the market is more than a betrayal of principle that won’t help democracy in Ukraine or anywhere else. It’s a sellout of American security interests, as well as allies like Israel and the Arab states that are directly threatened by an accord that doesn’t put off an Iranian nuclear weapon so much as it guarantees that Tehran will get one at the end of the decade or sooner. As Gabriel Noronha details in an article in Tablet, the new deal is “much, much worse” in terms of its appeasement of Iranian terror, in addition to failing to accomplish the pact’s stated goal of preventing this fanatical Islamist regime from becoming a nuclear power.
The current rush to implement this disgraceful measure is rooted in Biden’s political woes. The record inflation ravaging American households is the fruit of his failed policies that downgraded American oil production—not just the recent spike in gas prices caused by sanctions on Russia. But what he’s doing now is creating an existential threat to Israel and other Iranian targets merely in order to try and keep the prices at the pump from going any higher while pretending that it will stop the bloodshed in Ukraine.
It’s difficult to imagine a more cynical or destructive policy than one that endangers friends merely in order to boost the president’s political standing at home. Much as Americans want to put a lid on gas prices, to buy that outcome by appeasing Iran is an immoral abandonment of American interests and obligations that won’t aid Ukraine or stop Putin.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.