Column: Leadership matters in this time of war

The nation craves leadership — and the test of Biden’s presidency will be whether he can call that forth in this time of crisis.
President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event.
Photo by Phil Roeder.

Leadership matters especially in a crisis. And two American allies are now in the midst of serious, if not existential, crises; and they are turning to the United States for leadership. 

Are we capable of responding as the leader of the free world should and must? 

A positive answer to that question depends on our recognition of two other maxims: The truth matters. The rules matter.

For more than a year the brave people of Ukraine have repelled a determined effort by Vladimir Putin and his Russian troops to invade their country. That is the truth. There are no two sides to this story. Putin’s claims that Ukraine is the aggressor is ridiculous on its face. 

Any political leader who does not denounce this attack and repeats Putin’s lies is equally guilty of spreading false statements as if they were true. 

It is in our national interest to help Ukraine defend itself. If Putin is successful in Ukraine, he will move on from there. That claim is not the Vietnam-era domino theory reborn; it reflects the stated goal of Putin, to reclaim past glory and dominance of Eastern Europe. 

And if he invades a NATO member, we are bound by treaty to join that fight. Thus, in many ways the Ukrainians are fighting our war for us — and all they are asking in the weapons to do so.

But some Republicans in Congress do not want American dollars going to defend another country.

And some of those are willing to hold the election of the Speaker of the House hostage to prevent more funding to Ukraine. On the one hand, that is short-sighted; on the other, that is putting the ability of our country to face crises in limbo over one policy disagreement. And they may succeed for some time — because of the rules.

The rules in play here are the “motion to vacate,” which former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (D-Calif.) agreed to allow any one member to move as part of his compromises to attain the Speakership last January, and the Republican Conference rule that their candidate for Speaker must have the support of 218 Republicans, so that the GOP need not rely on Democratic votes to elect a Speaker.

Together these rules make the House ungovernable and unable to respond to a crisis — not only the crisis in Ukraine but also the one in Israel.

Last Saturday the terrorist organization Hamas attacked Israeli settlements near the border with Gaza in a coordinated, unprovoked, and lethal attack by land, sea, and air. They randomly killed as many as 800 Israelis, including women, children, and the elderly. They took an unknown number, thought to be around 150, as hostages. They raped women, murdered civilians randomly, and, as seen in video after video, seemed to take great pride in doing so.

Israel responded, as Hamas knew it would, with vicious air strikes throughout Gaza, and with a concerted effort to repel the invaders, reclaiming all of its towns and cities within 48 hours, killing as many as 1,500 Hamas fighters.

President Biden has spoken daily with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pledging full American support. But that might require an additional appropriations, which cannot be voted on in the Congress until a new Speaker is elected, because of a set of rules that give the Speaker near total control of floor debates in the House (though, to be completely accurate, there are work-around, elaborate procedures that would consume a great deal of time).

More than 400 members of the House have co-sponsored a resolution condemning Hamas (though it too would face significant hurdles until a new Speaker is elected). But, as many have pointed out, Democratic progressives’ support of Israel has waned in recent years, with a recent Gallup poll showing that as many Democrats favor the Palestinian position in Israel as that of the Israelis.

While Hamas’ callous brutality and violence dominates the airwaves and streaming space today, when Israel attacks, as it surely will, scenes of innocent Palestinians dying will be the images the world sees. And Democrats’ congressional support for Israel will decrease, just as has Republicans’ support of Ukraine.

Which brings us back to leadership. President Biden has been brilliant in bringing western leaders together to support Ukraine; many see that support in their interest as well. And he may well do the same for Israel. 

But these efforts require bringing the country together. He has not made that case to the public. He has not convinced the public, through repeated, explicit speeches, that the Ukrainian cause is our cause. 

Now the president faces another challenge here at home and abroad with Israel.

Before the attack, Biden opposed Netanyahu’s so-called judicial reform, which is a blatant attempt to increase the Prime Minister’s own power and to decrease his chances of facing the criminal charges for which he has been indicted. Biden has put those differences aside in supporting Israel in its hour of crisis.

He made a strong statement Tuesday, calling the attacks “pure unadulterated evil,” though that was an afternoon statement, not a “breaking news,” prime time address to the nation, one commanding attention.

He has not made the case that one can oppose Netanyahu and be a supporter of Israel. He has not made the case that one can be a supporter of Israel and favor Palestinian rights. He has not made the case that one can support the Palestinians and oppose Hamas and their terrorist cousins Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

Many Americans will not make these links. They will listen to those who spread false truths, to the former president who is beholden to both Putin and the Saudis. They will listen to the voices on the extreme who give easy answers to difficult problems — because that is what people like to hear.

Real leadership requires more. Biden’s strength is in one-to-one conversations, in building expertise and forging relationships, in keeping his word when he makes a deal. His glaring weakness is his public rhetoric. But that is exactly what is called for now. 

The nation craves leadership — and the test of Biden’s presidency will be whether he can call that forth in this time of crisis.


L. Sandy Maisel

L. Sandy Maisel is the Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government (emeritus) at Colby College, where he taught for fifty years and served as the founding director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs. He is the author or editor of more than twenty books, including From Obscurity to Oblivion: Running in the Congressional Primary, which chronicles his own unsuccessful campaign for Congress in Maine's first district. He and his wife, Colby professor Patrice Franko, live in Rome, Maine.
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