After Japan’s Dec. 7th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt was, in a sense, lucky. World War II would become a two-front war fought in the Atlantic and Europe and in the Pacific with allies.
Today, President Joe Biden faces more complicated and risk-filled tasks: the prospect of a five-front war with fewer allies. This five-front war is not all “hot” in that bullets are flying everywhere. However, escalation is a growing danger.
The first two fronts are China as “the pacing threat” and Russia as the “acute threat.” China is an economic and military superpower; Russia is a military one. And both are testing and challenging American global leadership.
With the Oct. 7 Hamas offensive against Israel, which had no moral or ethical boundaries, and the conflict in Ukraine, two hot wars are underway. America has promised “unwavering” support for Israel and, for Ukraine, assistance for “as long as it takes.” The war, especially if or when Israel decides to launch a major operation into Gaza to eradicate Hamas, will dilute attention and possibly the level of aid to Ukraine.
This accounts for four fronts. Perhaps the most debilitating is the fifth front taking place in America.
Politics, no matter the importance or triviality of the issue, is profoundly dividing the nation across party and ideological lines. The two opposing sides have visceral and even irreparable differences not amenable to compromise.
This front is playing out in the House of Representatives. When this goes to print, Republicans may have chosen a new leader. Or they may not.
Animosities that some Republicans harbor for Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) blocked his run for speaker. And there is no chance for a compromise such as choosing Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) Cynically, the longer Republicans are in disarray, Democrats will argue, the more likely they will regain control of the House in 2025.
White Houses have difficulty in dealing with one crisis let alone more. Now, five imminent crises are in place. No matter how competent senior White House officials are, the bandwidth and the ability to focus simultaneously on several conflicts is very limited. Media demands for briefings as well as difficult and embarrassing questions are unhelpful to any White House. And the “loyal” opposition will be determined to eviscerate the president.
President Biden recently returned from meeting Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in Israel. That decision was not without considerable physical and political risk. This was a no-win situation for Biden. Why?
One of the underreported purposes of the trip was to discourage Netanyahu from initiating a full-scale invasion and occupation of Gaza. While obvious common sensical advice, Israel almost certainly has no alternative to possibly large invade. As the United States had no choice except to respond to 9/11, Israel is in a similar situation. But be careful.
America’s decision to invade Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq two years later was one of the worst U.S. foreign policy actions ever taken. Catastrophic is not an excessive description. Had the mission in Afghanistan been limited to eliminating al Qaeda and bringing Osama bin Laden to justice, it is self-evident how different today would be.
The vision that democratizing Iraq would spread to the greater Middle East, forever changing the geostrategic framework of that region, also proved disastrous. Suppose Iraq had not been invaded and Saddam Hussein remained in power. Iraqis may or may not have been better off. But given the historical hostilities, Iraq probably would have been a restraint on Iran.
Biden did not return from his trip with any breakthroughs beyond the U.S. and possibly Egyptian humanitarian aid for Palestinians. Unfortunately, the Gaza hospital bombing was politically calamitous as both Hamas and Israel denied responsibility. As a result, regional Arab leaders canceled a meeting with President Biden. Republicans will crucify the president on this visit and on handling this crisis with or without justification. And Donald Trump will be unable to constrain himself.
What does this mean? Since World War II, it is impossible to recall any time when the United States confronted as many testing issues and crises as today. There is no manual or book in existence on how to manage a five-front war.
Biden is the most experienced foreign policy president America has had since Bush 41. But how good is his strategic judgment? Could any single president safely navigate the extraordinarily treacherous waters of a five-front war? We will see.
Harlan Ullman, Ph.D. is a senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the prime author of the “shock and awe” military doctrine. His 12th book, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large,” is available on Amazon. He can be reached on Twitter @harlankullman.
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