America can be defined in one word, says President Biden: “possibilities.” As the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, Americans who have spent the past two years contemplating the possibility of coming down with a lethal disease now find themselves facing a different dread: the prospect of blowing up in a nuclear attack. Sadly, the unthinkable is emerging from the places where deepest fears reside and are being thought of once again.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has shaped images of man-made devastation on a scale only seen by the living in historical documentaries and Hollywood depictions of the world wars. As the conflict drags on, an impatient Russian President Vladimir Putin has opted to flash the nuclear card. “If someone intends to intervene in the ongoing events from the outside and create strategic threats for Russia that are unacceptable to us,” he said in St. Petersburg last Wednesday, “they should know that our retaliatory strikes will be lightning-fast.” His threat was preceded by the test of a new line of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace on Thursday bristled back: “We have strong armed forces and a nuclear deterrent and we’re part of a NATO partnership of 30 nations who outgun him, outnumber him and have potentially all the capabilities at our disposal.”
Then former Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy Seth Cropsey argued in The Wall Street Journal Friday that if Mr. Putin makes good on his threat, the U.S. “could use its naval power to hunt down and destroy a Russian nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, the backbone of Russian second-strike capability.”
“Dr. Strangelove” made good fun out of black comedy, but in real life when Russia is threatening to press the button over Ukraine, not so much. How has the 20th century’s nuclear nightmare recurred so suddenly?
Mr. Putin’s unfathomable act of aggression could only have been preceded by an equally unfathomable act of submission, and Mr. Biden provided it with his helter-skelter retreat from Afghanistan last August.
Once the subsequent invasion of Ukraine began in February, Mr. Biden made a belated about-face. Since then, he has attempted to revamp the U.S. military’s reputation as a bully’s worst nightmare with two $800 million shipments of munitions to the outgunned Ukrainians. On Thursday, the president asked Congress for $33 billion more.
Needles are threaded sometimes with skill and sometimes with luck, so a well-equipped and stubborn Ukraine might fight Russia to a draw. Even without tripping Russia’s nuclear hair-trigger, though, tragedy has already accrued. Faltering American resolve in Afghanistan signaled a ripening opportunity for military adventurism, and Mr. Putin felt free to unleash the dogs of war.
Hindsight is always 20/20, it is said, and reflecting on the 2020 election is instructive. It crystallizes the drawbacks of choosing a president nearing the octogenarian’s doorstep, backed by a party that believes America deserves to be diminished.
Leadership that forces Americans to think the unthinkable can be defined in one word: failure.
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