AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
As results poured in for the second round of France’s presidential election last week, Ron Klain, Joe Biden’s Chief of Staff, took to Twitter to make an observation of the highest diplomatic subtlety. “An interesting observation, just fyi,” Klain wrote, “President Macron appears to have secured a double-digit victory over LePen, at a time when his approval rating is 36%. Hmmm….”
“Hmm” indeed. Was Klain implying there was something odd about the results? Engaging in wishful thinking about the political prospects of his own boss, who touched 35% approval in a Quinnipiac poll in early April? Or was he suggesting that the victory really wasn’t a credit to Macron’s presidency or his campaign, merely the awfulness of the opposition? Macron seemed to take the message that way. When Joe Biden tried to reach the French President for a congratulatory phone conversation, Biden was informed that Macron was celebrating his victory at the Eiffel Tower with his wife and effectively sent to voicemail. “I tried to talk to him last night. I spoke to his staff and he was at the Eiffel Tower having a good time,” Biden told the press Monday, before insisting that he was “going to be talking to him today.”
Douglas McArthur famously said that old soldiers don’t die, they merely fade away. The same increasingly seems to be the case with old politicians. While some, like Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, defy the odds to perform in third acts even in their nineties, it is increasingly clear that Biden and his team are not among them. Biden appears a bystander to events, unable to secure control over even his own border policy, and left impotently raging against changes to state-level curriculum in local school districts.
Donald Trump was not universally beloved around the world, but he was undeniably a factor everyone had to take into account. Leaders, especially Angela Merkel, might not have looked forward to his calls, but they took them. Under Biden, the United States is a non-factor. Macron may or may not have avoided Biden’s calls because he was irritated by Klain’s tweet, but he was able to afford to do so because he knew it would cost him nothing. The call would be useless. Anything that might be accomplished in it could just as easily be accomplished another time or in another format. Biden is not worth talking to.
On the contrary, Biden’s almost pleading response where he tried to justify the rebuff and insist that he was still on speaking terms with the French president radiated desperation. Biden was clearly embarrassed and hurt, and the only solution to that embarrassment was for Macron to speak with him – something which was within the power of the French president to withhold. The lesson was clear: refusing to pick up the phone when Joe Biden calls increases rather than decreases the leverage of a foreign leader over the United States. This might explain why the Saudis and Emiratis have been so quick to embrace the approach.
Donald Trump, largely through his background, seemed to understand the concept of leverage. Biden and his team appear entirely to miss it. And while it is a failing of the elderly president himself, he is responsible for surrounding himself with a team that has no grasp of the concepts of either leverage or urgency.
Klain, if not the sole source of the problem, clearly is one of them. If there is one thing which typifies Klain and has come to define American elites, it is the lack of any sense of urgency. Klain’s Twitter remarks about Macron’s reelection with a 36% approval rating display a worldview where everything will probably work out if left alone. Klain displayed the same lack of urgency on Al Gore’s behalf during the Florida recount back in 2000, and again when Obama appointed him as “Czar” in charge of responding to Ebola in 2014. In both cases, Klain acted as if he had all the time in the world to make decisions and consequently postponed any hard ones until they were overtaken by events. In public, Klain displayed a contempt for anyone in the press who questioned why he or his boss were not doing things, with the implication being that only fools worried or acted.
This attitude also explains the Biden administration’s approach to inflation. They believe it is probably not as bad as it seems and will likely work itself out. The same approach was applied to Afghanistan: it appears they assumed the situation was probably not as bad as the military was warning and things would likely work themselves out. Even with Russia and Ukraine, there seems to be no long-term planning, just a view that if the administration continues doing what it is doing, continues shipping weapons and upping the rhetoric, somehow the conflict will work itself out. What that would look like is left an open question. Do they want regime change in Russia? A return to the pre-invasion status quo? Would that involve Russian possession of the Crimea? Would they support concessions on Ukrainian neutrality which were not on the table last fall? They do not seem to feel the need to consider these questions.
This is bad enough when it is adopted in a vacuum. It is worse when the secret is out and everyone knows you have no plan. Macron is aware that there is no loop to be cut out of.
Maybe things will work out for Biden. Maybe presidents can win reelection by double-digits with 36% approval. The overwhelming evidence is that the Biden administration has no particular interest in doing anything to avoid finding out. And the American people, not to mention the entire world, are suffering from that lack of leadership.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.
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