Washington’s Message Is Like a Record with the Needle Stuck

US President Joe Biden’s November 18, 2023 op ed for The Washington Post opens with his rendition of Madeleine Albright’s no longer popular hit, “we are America; we are the indispensable nation.” “The United States,” Biden writes, “is the essential nation.”

Biden’s tune is tone deaf to the rising voice of the nonaligned world and the Global South – or the Global Majority – that is no longer listening to that hegemonic arrogance. Biden’s insistence that “The world looks to us to solve the problems of our time” is tone deaf even to the warnings of his own director of the CIA, William Burns, who said half a year ago that “the United States . . . is no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical bloc. And our position at the head of the table isn’t guaranteed.”

Biden continues to argue that “Putin [is] fighting to wipe a neighboring democracy off the map,” despite wiping Ukraine off the map never having been stated as a goal of Russia’s invasion. Russia has clearly identified keeping Ukraine out of NATO and NATO out of Ukraine as well as protection of Russian speakers in the Donbas as their military objectives. John Mearsheimer has pointed out that “There is no evidence in the public record that Putin was contemplating, much less intending to put an end to Ukraine as an independent state and make it part of greater Russia when he sent his troops into Ukraine on February 24th.”

Biden continues to insist that “when aggression in Europe goes unanswered, the crisis does not burn itself out. It draws America in directly” instead of realizing America pushing NATO expansion east in Europe contributed to the aggression in Europe.

Biden cynically says that his administration is “keeping American troops out of this war by supporting the brave Ukrainians defending their freedom and homeland” when the world has long been shown that the US prevented Ukraine from negotiating an end to the war with Russia and asked Ukrainian soldiers to die for American goals.

Biden boasts that “More than 50 nations have joined us to ensure that Ukraine has what it needs to defend itself” seemingly blind to the flipside that that means more than 150 have not.

Biden keeps repeating the same refrain seemingly unaware that the world has changed. But the president is not the only one in Washington who sings like a record with the needle stuck. On November 14, 2023, national security advisor Jake Sullivan spoke words in an interview that could have been read from a script written over a year and a half ago. Not a word about the war in Ukraine had changed despite all the changes in the war in Ukraine.

Asked if the Biden administration was pushing Ukraine to the negotiating table, Sullivan answered with one word: “No.” This despite a November 3 report from NBC that “U.S. and U.S. and European officials have begun quietly talking to the Ukrainian government about what possible peace negotiations with Russia might entail to end the war,” including discussions “of what Ukraine might need to give up to reach a deal.”

Sullivan then insists that the US perspective is that they “believe the battlefield remains dynamic” and that the Ukrainian armed forces will “continue to try to make progress on the battlefield.” Sullivan doggedly insists on the possibly positive changes on the battlefield in the face of Ukrainian commander-in-chief General Valery Zaluzhny’s perhaps better informed assessment that the war has reached a “stalemate” that “[t]here will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough,” and that, in fact, such a long war of attrition favours Russia.

Sullivan’s needle is seemingly stuck. Words spoken by a close aid of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky that he “deludes himself,” that “We’re out of options. We’re not winning. But try telling him that” seem to apply equally well to Jake Sullivan.

He repeats the old refrain, “Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine,” ignoring that there has been nothing about Ukraine without the United States, and that, though Ukraine does not have to negotiate with Russia until they are ready, the Biden administration, whose primary obligation is to the security and prosperity of Americans, does not have to go on enabling them.

Sullivan’s promise that the US is “going to continue to support Ukraine with the tools and resources and capabilities that it needs” is blind not only to the much changed reality that has dawned on most everyone else that there are no tools or capabilities that are sufficient for what Ukraine needs. Zaluzhny said that that weapon doesn’t exist. No NATO wonder weapon has changed the reality that Ukraine cannot defeat Russia: the best that NATO has to offer has launched impotently or been ineffectively burned and blasted on the battlefield.

It is also blind to the changing reality of NATO’s capacity and, perhaps, even willingness to continue supporting Ukraine at the level it has. The supply lines are running dry. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on November 15 that the US is “having to make tough decisions right now about the security assistance packages that we are providing to Ukraine, because we are coming near the end of the rope.” “The runway,” he added, “is getting shorter and shorter for our ability to support Ukraine in the manner in which we have been, and that funding is drying up.”

Sullivan closes with one more track from the broken record: “our job is to put Ukraine in the best possible position on the battlefield so it’s in the best possible position at the negotiating table.” Biden used those very words in a New York Times op ed a year and a half ago: “We have moved quickly to send Ukraine a significant amount of weaponry and ammunition so it can fight on the battlefield and be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table.”

Once again, the world has changed, and Sullivan has not seemingly noticed. Ukraine was in “the best possible position on the battlefield” almost exactly one year ago when the Ukrainian armed forces quickly recaptured large areas of Kherson. At that point, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley suggested that the time may have come to transition to negotiations. Several US and European analysts warned at that time that a “inflection point” had been reached at which Ukrainian gains had reached an apex and after which continued fighting would only lead to loss of land and life.

In the year since that optimal moment, Ukraine has lost tens – or more likely hundreds – of thousands of lives. Their counteroffensive has failed, they have gained no further territory and are now being pushed back and losing territory. Around Avdiivka, Ukraine faces the threat of Russia exploding through the front and capturing the entire Donbass, while Ukraine sacrifices the counteroffensive elsewhere and an unimaginable further loss of life.

Sullivan’s comments seem to have noticed none of this. Like a record with the stylus stuck, the Biden administration keeps spinning the same message about the world without seemingly noticing that the world is not the same.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at tedsnider@bell.net.