Opinion | White House

Is Joe Biden Clark Kent or Superman?

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At first glance, Scranton-born Joe Biden seems to resemble the fictional, mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet, Clark Kent, without the black-rimmed glasses. But while not possessing superpowers, Kent's alter ego, Superman, may be a better fit. The president's "American Jobs Plan" is a supersized effort that, if successful, could surpass FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society in overall impact on the nation. Of course, 50 Senate Republicans will do their Kryptonite best (or worst) to prevent that from happening.

Regarding Biden's troop withdrawal order for Afghanistan against unanimous military advice for a "conditions based" approach - something the last three presidents failed to do despite promising otherwise - Biden said: "Enough is enough," displaying "man of steel-like" determination. Of course, as a newsman, Clark Kent would ask the administration to comment on the withdrawal of the bulk of some 18,000 civilian contractors, on which the Kabul government is entirely dependent for supply, support, logistics, maintenance, security and other vital functions. 

Kent would question the costs of redeploying the roughly 3,500 American troops and where these deployments will take place to prevent the resurgence of terrorist organizations in Afghanistan. And he would report that the responses of the governments of Afghanistan, Russia, China, India, Iraq and Pakistan as well as coalition member states are uncertain.

But perhaps the "super" issue Biden must confront is the perception of what many argue is the decline of the United States to a rising China and revisionist Russia. How these and other potential adversaries will challenge Biden and a country seen to be in decline has been the subject of much commentary, debate and angst. Taiwan and Ukraine are deemed the more likely flash points for China and Russia to test this decline and the Biden administration.

Before celebrating the funeral and wake for the halcyon days of a single "superpower world," reality matters. First, in absolute terms, American power has significantly increased economically and militarily. Indeed, its vaccination record against COVID-19 so far is hardly a symptom of decline. Relatively, of course, since the end of World War II and absolute American dominance, the diffusion of power has gradually eroded this once massive superiority. The dilemma for the United States is learning to deal with the relative decline in its once sole superpower status.

Second, neither China nor Russia is going to risk conflict or a war over Taiwan or Ukraine. While America's generals will be cautious vis a vis a Chinese military takeover of Taiwan, for the foreseeable future China will not possess the forces needed for a massive amphibious assault across the 100-mile strait. Of course, China has other diplomatic, economic and ideological options for coercion and pressure and indeed working from within Taiwan to provoke regime change or compel re-unification. But that will not happen with a Normandy-like invasion.

Putin likewise realizes that a direct attack into Ukraine would be bloody, costly and almost certainly a disaster. The lessons of World War II and Ukrainian rejection of the Nazi occupation suggests what the Russian military could face if it moves west into Ukraine. That does mean that shows of force, heated rhetoric and other coercive "active measures," to include social media and cyber attacks, will not be employed. 

Third, this perception of American decline is intensified by the hyper partisanship of a divided nation on seemingly every issue; the Jan. 6 attack and attempted takeover of the Capitol; and the specter of black Americans being routinely killed or terrorized by white police officers. From Beijing and Moscow, the evidence of decline seems ubiquitous. 

One of the overriding challenges for Biden's foreign policy will be closing the gulf between the perceptions of American decline and the reality of its increase in absolute power. If indeed Biden is more Superman than Clark Kent, will he overreact or refuse to back down in order to display a certain toughness for both domestic and international reasons? Hyper partisanship can too easily distort good judgment in an effort to quell allegations from right or left as being too soft or too hard.

China, Russia and other adversaries are well aware of the state of politics in America and will continue to exploit these conditions. One can only hope that President Biden will use the best of Clark Kent and Superman in navigating the dangerous waters.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is United Press International's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book, due out this year, is "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Endangered, Infected, Engulfed and Disunited a 51% Nation and the Rest of the World."