Lack of Credibility Places U.S. Deterrence Under Great Strain

American national security and the security of many of our allies depend upon the ability of the U.S. to deter aggression. Deterrence depends upon having robust military capabilities. These are the conventional and nuclear might of America’s military. Deterrence is also dependent upon political considerations like America’s credibility and willpower to meet aggression against American soil should deterrence fail or against the territory of our allies with whom the U.S. has an extended deterrent commitment, like Australia, Japan, and our NATO allies. Hence, deterrence is about military capabilities—they must be strong—but also political considerations. The U.S. must be credible and evince the willpower to follow through on the explicit and implicit threats to use military force, including nuclear weapons, to deter formidable conventional and nuclear powers like the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

U.S. presidents should be symbols of strength, stability, and power, speaking firmly and quietly to convey credible threats that will be executed if U.S. enemies aggress, while carrying a big stick, overwhelming U.S. military might. As Air Force General Curtis LeMay said if the Soviet Union aggressed, it would be “a smoking, irradiating ruin at the end of two hours.” This was a credible threat when the U.S. had both the capabilities and demonstrated willpower to accomplish this during the Cold War.

Viewed through the perspective of international politics, the mental incapacity of President Biden is deeply troubling because it has very clearly weakened U.S. deterrence—just ask the people of Afghanistan, Ukraine, or Israel. The president’s illness projects weakness, not strength, vacillation, not determination, and senescence rather than a crystalline strategic focus. He is not a voice of stability and strength but is an incarnation of confusion and uncertainty, compelling the world to ask who is in charge of the United States.

In a peaceful world, this would be disheartening to the American people and of considerable concern to allies. In today’s dangerous world with a hyper-aggressive Xi Jinping, this is alarming and must be addressed. It is historically unique; never at a time of such considerable threat, when the U.S. faces a peer enemy, has a president been non compos mentis. President Woodrow Wilson was incapacitated by a stroke in the last year of his presidency, but the U.S. did not face a peer enemy in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was gravely ill in his last years but maintained mental coherence. He possessed the strongest military on the planet. With President Biden, the United States is in unchartered and perilous national security waters at a time when a dynamic president is needed to reassure allies and partners, inspire the American people and people of good will around the world, and convey to America’s enemies that grievous harm will come to them if they aggress.

With the president removed from the public face of American national security, a vice president who is incapable of fulfilling that role, a secretary of state who is feckless, and a secretary of defense who is ill, it falls to senior civilian and military officials, like the Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, to step into that mission. Although some may accomplish this role with aplomb, this is not their principal responsibility, and we should expect their performance to be of uneven quality. In sum, this is not normal. The U.S. has never run this risk during the wars of the twentieth century, but it does today. It is a national security risk and a grave strain on civil-military relations.

This is why the report from Special Counsel Robert Hur was singularly damaging. Hur identified President Biden as having committed felonies but who could not be prosecuted because of his mental incapacities. This confirms for global audiences—friends and foes alike—that Biden is unable to meet his responsibilities at a time when dynamic leadership is necessary to deter PRC aggression. Of equal concern is the fact that a two-tier system of justice means that the rule of law has ended in America, which had once been known and respected for a justice system that was blind to rank, race, or creed. The implications of this for the U.S. global position are profound. It weakens the ability of the U.S. to explain to global audiences the superiority of the U.S. political system. It also suggests a great change from the position of the U.S. during the Cold War to today. This suggests to allies and enemies alike that the strengths of the U.S. system that defeated the Soviet Union have eroded.

In a curious and even bizarre coda to a month of worrying incidents, the Chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH), warned of a “serious national security threat” and called for information about it to be declassified by the Biden administration. This generated a panic on financial markets and great concern among the American people. The White House at first rejected this and later warmed to an indication that it related to Russian capabilities in space. There were indications that this was hyperbole to pressure the House to pass funding for Ukraine. In truth, this made a senior member of Congress, one of the key “Gang of Eight,” look like he was employing a major and imminent national security threat to manipulate Speaker Johnson and Republican House leadership to address the issue of Ukraine funding. This does not look good to allies and partners around the world. It has eroded confidence in American deterrence. If this were a one-off, this would be bad enough, but within the context of an enfeebled presidency, it may be taken as a sign that U.S. national security leadership is incapable of addressing the contemporary threat environment.

This lack of seriousness and insouciance regarding the national security of the country cannot continue. It opens a window of opportunity for U.S. enemies. The supreme interest of the United States is to protect U.S. national security—its citizens. That requires leadership. The U.S. does not now possess it—and Beijing is using this reality in their calculations on when to strike at America in the Far East.

James E. Fanell and Bradley A. Thayer are authors of Embracing Communist China: America’s Greatest Strategic Failure.

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About James E. Fanell and Bradley A. Thayer

James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is a Founding Member of the Committee on Present Danger China and the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.

Photo: WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 16: U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the reported death of Alexei Navalny from the Roosevelt Room of the White House on February 16, 2024 in Washington, DC. Navalny, an anticorruption activist and critic of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin was reported by Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service to have died in a prison he was recently transferred to in the Arctic Circle. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Notable Replies

  1. The authors lay out some very valid points about JRB’s obvious decline & it’s ramifications on the world stage, yet they treat another aspect of our current situation as a sort of throwaway line. Eight years of lawfare waged against a sitting, then former President in openly biased courts, the overt antipathy of multiple bureaucratic agencies, an intelligence community gone rogue and several questionable election cycles have done as much, if not more, to erode U.S. standing.

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