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October 20, 2023

Factoring in the significant advantages of low expectations, how did President Biden’s speech go on Thursday night?  Despite his recent jet-setting schedule to the Middle East, Mr. Biden looked and sounded presidential, never once drooling on his tie, blurting out secret codewords or disclosing where Hunter’s get-out-of-town Secret Stash might be buried. Instead, in just 15 minutes, the president managed to underline the strategic linkage between Israel and Ukraine, pledging over $105 billion or so to both countries (estimates vary) as well as to Palestinian relief. He repeatedly wrapped these initiatives in the flag, underlining American greatness, “It’s who we are,” even invoking Madeleine Albright’s famous formulation of America as “the indispensable nation.”

However, he also reminded me of one of my last MBA students, struggling through an exam, despite being repeatedly warned about diligent study. Afterwards, I asked how it had gone. “Well, sir, it probably would have gone better if I had just bought the textbook.” Indeed!

In exactly that same way, parts of the Biden speech individually made sense: But overall, it lacked the passion, purpose and panache of a confident president challenging his countrymen, even daring them onward to their greatest efforts. While his rationale for supporting Ukraine was easily his best, it came nearly two years into the conflict, amidst weakening support across a deeply confused Congress. Missing and badly needed was the over-arching vision posed by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in the current Foreign Affairs: “The United States now confronts graver threats to its security than it has in decades, perhaps ever. Never before has it faced four allied antagonists at the same time – Russia, China, North Korea and Iran…”

At least Secretary Gates had the fortitude to bring up Iran, notably missing from President Biden’s remarks while in Israel. Meanwhile his White House staff members gave their best Sergeant Schulz impressions, hilariously insisting that they had heard “nuh-zing” about Iranian involvement in the recent massacres. Nonsense: From the president on down, those lies caught in their teeth, provoking disbelief as well as contempt. How can you deter anything you refuse to name, much less call out or denounce? It is especially significant that Egypt and Jordan, two of America’s best regional allies, as well as the Palestinian governing authority (such as it is) refused to meet with Mr. Biden. Although blaming their refusal on that errant missile striking a Palestinian hospital, these meetings-that-weren’t were actually a Middle Eastern cultural norm of using absence to convey contempt.

While President Biden belatedly mentioned Iran in his speech, he has yet to go beyond using the word “Don’t” as a kind of catch-all, apparently meant to terrify Teheran and deter them from escalating hostilities. That lack of specificity was the greatest defect of President Biden’s speech, one that may well come back to haunt him - probably sooner than later. Had the president somehow found the courage to reverse the appeasement cultures of the Biden and Obama White Houses, it still could be discounted by the Persians. “So, has Trump returned yet?” they might ask themselves with a wink and a smile. Since he has not and since Mr. Biden studiously avoids any action that might be interpreted as antagonism, the stage is being meticulously prepared for war by misadventure. For good or ill, US naval combatants, fighter aircraft and cruise missiles are now massing ever closer to the Israeli engagement zone, where a shooting incident becomes a daily possibility. Well, what then, Mr. President? With five thousand sailors and marines on each of those major combatants, what will you say to their families when push comes to shove?

While Joe Biden last night flubbed his best chance to leave an unmistakable impression, he never even hinted at anything regarding our wide-open southern border. As a former intelligence officer, I contend that the 8 million (at least!) undocumented, unidentified and unknown aliens from 150 countries are now and will likely remain our greatest strategic vulnerability. Even worse: Should we get into a shooting war or anything close to it, the ayatollahs would be derelict in their duties by failing to exploit that vulnerability. As you may have noticed: The current conflict began when the Israelis were attacked, overwhelmed and slaughtered at their border with Gaza, despite its fortifications and surveillance equipment. Care to compare theirs with ours?   


Colonel (Ret.) Kenneth Allard is a former West Point faculty member, Dean of the National War College and NBC News military analyst.


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