Clumsy administration threatens unprecedented public support for Ukraine
Few major issues unite American public opinion, but the war in Ukraine does. Yet the Biden administration’s inconsistent response, lack of planning and poor messaging threaten US public support for Ukraine.
A remarkable consensus – not just in favor of Ukraine over Russia, but on how to respond – quickly emerged. Sanctions, financial aid, sending arms all received the support of more than 66% of Americans overall (YouGov March poll). Split by party and ideology, the Extremes (Liberal/Conservative, Democrat/Republican) were in closest agreement, while Moderates and Independents were less supportive – but even so, the lowest support was 60% of Independents in favor of sending more arms.
The warmongering of the liberals was even more revolutionary. On every measure except “get tougher,” liberals were more aggressive against Russia. If the constant hatred towards Putin and the recognition of the danger to the security of fascist Russia is an effect of their collective illusion during the 2016 elections, then perhaps the Russian hoax was not so bad.
In recent polls, the public consensus has generally held. Americans still overwhelmingly view Russia as an “enemy” or “hostile” (86%), view Ukraine as an “ally” or “friend” (76%), support sanctions (73%), send weapons (65%) and even accepting Ukrainian refugees (61%); No partisan ideological demographic group is in clear opposition.
But there are cracks: Republican and conservative support has dipped slightly — not toward Russia, but toward a neutral stance.
Conservative support for Ukraine aid fell from 66% in favor to 19% against 50-30. The question of whether the United States should “get tough” fell from 58% with the conservatives (59% of the GOP) to 43% (same for the Republicans). Willingness to accept refugees fell below half for the Conservatives, dropping from 53-25% in favor to 46-35%.
Sustainable so far, can this consensus withstand the clumsiness of the Biden administration?
The first returns are not promising.
Support for Ukraine is an interesting combination of liberal hatred of Putin, conservative mistrust of Russia, an American cultural stock that is rooted in the underdog, and revulsion at the atrocities committed by a Russian military that is less a professional army than a horde of violent marauders.
The Biden team undermines this consensus in three main ways: 1) by blaming domestic problems on the war in Ukraine; 2) failing to pursue a consistent policy; and 3) sending horribly incompetent messages.
In the face of rising inflation, the Biden team was eager to pin the blame on Putin. So far, this tactic hasn’t helped. Biden has found few solutions to domestic policy issues, and blaming the pariah Putin is a tempting move. Given the disruption in the fertilizer, food and energy markets, things are likely to escalate and could lead to more blame Biden being dismissed, further undermining support for Ukraine. Luckily for Ukraine, the Republican Party doesn’t want to let Biden off the hook. The GOP’s relentless hammering that Biden is to blame — not Putin — is likely helping to limit Republican easing.
Biden stumbles forward — and backward — in supporting Ukraine
The Biden team could reduce its problems if it really had a coherent policy – either to force a compromise or to give Ukraine the means to truly destroy the Russian war effort, instead of having just enough to go forward. Does Biden even have a plan? It doesn’t look like it. Admittedly, the first rule of Fight Club is not to talk about Fight Club. But Team Biden’s actions feel like an endless cycle of coyness, aggression, and backlash.
It is obvious that the only way to end this war is to make Russia’s losses intolerable. By refusing to give Ukraine the ability to strike Russia and/or end the Black Sea blockade, Biden is responding to Putin’s need to insulate the Russians from the direct costs. Instead, the destruction is entirely contained within Ukraine.
Biden’s policies look like a series of dove versus hawk versus public poll compromises, resulting in political mush.
The fear of an escalation falls under Putin’s bluff, not to mention that the scorched earth methods and the massacres of civilians leave Ukraine little to fear in terms of reprisals. At least Biden has finally figured out that the Russian nuclear threat isn’t real — of course, he should have figured that out three months ago.
Above all, it is Team Biden’s message that is most egregious. Email is the only thing the admin has control over – and they can’t figure it out. So far, rallying American opinion has been easy, given Russian brutality and Ukrainian dexterity and sophistication. But the Biden team isn’t helping.
First, the administration and its handmaidens in the American foreign policy establishment are determined to uphold the “rules-based international order.” Good – but not exactly an eye-catching sticker. It is incomprehensible that Biden would think this is a winning question. Domestically, few Americans are going to be moved by a fuzzy abstract principle — which former presidents of both parties have violated with impunity, by the way. Internationally, the so-called “international order” does not look so good for Africans or Indians struggling to make ends meet.
This argument may piss people off at Georgetown cocktail parties, but it hardly moves the needle with people outside The Beltway. The rhetoric of the rules-based order shows how insular and alienated American foreign policy specialists are from the main concerns of the American people; these pundits seem to view national security policy as their personal property, not to be touched by outsiders (and these same people wonder how Trump gets applause).
What the Biden team needs to say — clearly and repeatedly — is how much Russia’s actions run counter to the direct interests of Americans and our best allies in Europe.
Putin’s attack has irresponsibly thrown food and energy markets into turmoil, hurting all Americans and people around the world.
Ukraine may not be a perfect democracy, but it is improving and a potential location for American investment and trade.
Russia is also a clear threat to countries like Poland, Slovakia, the Baltic states and Romania – and it is these countries, not infallible Germany, that are the states’ staunchest and most supportive allies. United, not only in Europe, but in the world. to the big one. Not only is it important to American credibility to defend their interests, but Americans certainly don’t want to be seen as walking away from friends in need.
So far, Biden has been able to overcome Putin’s aggression and atrocities to maintain US support for Ukraine. But his missteps are piling up. If he loses that support and fumbles in this war, he will pay the price in November far beyond anything expected today.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public affairs and regulatory consulting firm. Naughton is a former political campaign consultant from Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.