Salvo 06.06.2023 7 minutes

The Buck Stops Nowhere


It’s amusing to watch the Biden circus but frightening to consider that nobody’s in charge.

I’ve taken to tuning out whatever the media happens to be peddling as the latest crisis—there’s only so much panic one can ingest in any given week. In fact, the first current affairs-induced shiver I’ve had in decades was two months ago.

Not coincidentally, it was during President Biden’s three-day visit to Ireland.

Even when the U.S. commander-in-chief is entirely compos mentis, these first-term visits are embarrassing rituals, with more stage-Irish blarney than whichever Martin McDonagh play is currently running Off-Broadway. Still, for the political class on both sides of the Atlantic, these visits are good for business. POTUS gets to shore up the Irish-American vote. Our guy gets to take selfies with the king of the world.

Months before Air Force One lands in dear old Erin, genealogists are tasked with finding distant relations so the president can sit ’round their turf fire, drinking weak tea and reminiscing about how Great Aunty Maire swam to Ellis Island after the Titanic was attacked by a Protestant iceberg.

All sensible Irish folk averted their eyes throughout this ordeal. Fool that I am, I forgot to block my ears—so I happened to hear Joe Biden speaking in a pub about a rugby player, Rob Kearney, whom he claimed as a distant cousin. Describing how Kearney played against New Zealand’s All Blacks and won, Biden said his cousin “beat the hell out of the Black and Tans.” The Black and Tans, as Joe Biden once surely knew, are Irish history’s boogeymen, a mob of British paramilitaries who set about winning Irish hearts and minds during the War of Independence in 1920 by burning down Cork city.

A trivial slip perhaps, but you won’t find it in the official transcript. It was “corrected.” Now the record records what he meant to say. Documenting presidential speech without presidential inaccuracies has become a full-time role. I hear there’s a dedicated team of interns in the White House basement scrubbing away. Their creative stenography spares the DNC embarrassment, but it does make it hard to tell what was actually said in less public events like state banquets. Did President Biden order a Bloody Sunday for dessert instead of an Ice Cream Sundae? A Cromwell instead of a crème brûlée? We may never know.

And who cares anyway? An octogenarian with two brain aneurysms to his name who can get through the day and stay mostly upright is doing OK. Sure, it matters a little since he’s supposed to be the leader of the greatest military power in history, but the key part is “supposed to be.” Biden’s advancing senility was obvious to anyone who voted for him in 2020, and that doesn’t make their choice especially irrational. The office is greater than the guy who gets sworn in. It’s a ragtag gang of ambitious folks whose agendas briefly align. In foreign policy, that gang merely sets the mood music—administrations come and go, but strategic consensus is eternal. Yes, it helps to have a strong executive but, again, that needn’t be the guy on the ballot—just ask Dick Cheney.

So I really shouldn’t fret about Biden’s mislaid marbles. The only reason the snafu made me sweat is that it reminded me of Winston Churchill. No friend of Ireland, it was Churchill who set loose the Black and Tans. Churchill was also part of the British cabinet during that calamitous decade that changed the world. Writing later about the cascade of misunderstandings that began World War I, he recalled that after a certain point it was not men in charge but forces. It’s a terrifying thought. At the same moment statesmen across Europe became aware disaster was looming, they realized they were powerless to stop it.

Are we at that point again? Have we passed it? Or will we only know when bombs rain on Philadelphia, Paris, and St. Petersburg?

Runaway escalation is a problem that the generation who fought WWI took seriously. So disgusted were Americans with that unprecedented slaughter that hearings were held on war profiteering. From 1934, the Nye Committee investigated the munitions industry and its financiers. They found that Wall Street, fretting about loan defaults if the Allies capitulated to Germany, pressured Woodrow Wilson to enter the war. In 1936 the Nye Committee was unceremoniously shut down, ostensibly for impugning the memory of the late president.

In truth, America could hardly afford to prosecute the profiteers, not with the bell for Round Two about to ring. After Pearl Harbor, the Merchants of Death were rebranded the Arsenal of Democracy. The dawn of the nuclear age in 1945 put the world’s fate in their hands, an arrangement that worried the mathematician Bertrand Russell. He didn’t like our odds. “You may reasonably expect a man to walk a tightrope safely for ten minutes,” he remarked. “It would be unreasonable to do so without accident for two hundred years.”

For a time, occupants of the Oval Office took their new responsibility seriously. Harry Truman, having dropped two atomic bombs in Japan, fired General MacArthur, who wanted to drop them in Manchuria during the Korean War. No wonder that Truman’s successor warned about the risk to America posed by a permanent war economy. As the Cold War was fought through a squalid series of proxy wars, the threat of Armageddon kept military aims carefully circumscribed.

That era of caution is not a distant memory; it’s altogether forgotten. Yet the nuclear arsenals still stand ready. They can kill you and everyone you love by Tuesday. What can explain the silence of the professional doom-mongers? Especially now as the risk rises daily.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was certainly wicked, but ritualistic descriptions of it as “unprovoked” prevent us from asking questions that might keep us alive. If the invasion was even partially motivated by Russian fear of encirclement, then this last year has been the most dangerous year in human history. Did you notice?

Let’s see how far we’ve advanced on the tightrope.

A month after the invasion, Joe Biden announced in Poland that Putin “cannot remain in power”—another gaffe for the stenographers. In August, rockets landed near Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. That same month a car bomb near Moscow killed the daughter of a prominent Russian hawk. In October, the Crimean Bridge was disabled, with some combination of truck bomb and maritime drone, but likely with NATO expertise and assistance. In November, a missile landed in Poland, which President Zelenskyy described that night as an attack on NATO’s “collective security.” It turned out to be a Ukrainian misfire.

In September, the Nord Stream gas pipelines were blown up by—wink, wink—persons unknown. Gas which should have kept German homes warm last winter entered the atmosphere, about 15 million tons of CO2 in a week. That same month, a British spy plane over the Black Sea was almost shot down by a Russian pilot. In the same airspace this March, a Russian jet collided with a U.S. MQ-9 drone. And Finland, a country which shares 830 miles of border with Russia, joined NATO in April.

Each of these steps was an escalation. Any could have been a tipping point.

The week after Biden visited Ireland, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Ukraine. “We had nothing do with this,” said White House NSC spokesman John Kirby last month. “This” being a drone attack on the Kremlin. Cool, cool, cool.

Recent Pentagon leaks revealed what Russians knew and ordinary Americans could not be officially told—that Western special forces are in Ukraine. What if one is killed in action, on camera? If things really go south, who’s to blame?

Certainly not Biden. You might as well hold the First Lady accountable. She sleeps in the White House too. The difference is her husband naps during working hours. Truman famously had a sign in the Oval Office—“The buck stops here.” Where does the buck stop today? With Victoria Nuland? Mitch McConnell? Nancy Pelosi? John McCain’s grave? None of these hawks are innocent, but responsibility is too defused to point fingers—another ominous parallel to 1914.

American military spending was $331 billion the year the Twin Towers fell. That budget now stands at $842 billion. Only arms dealers believe that money was well spent. Toleration of this escalation is a bipartisan problem. If the brinkmanship was happening in Taiwan instead of Ukraine, most Republicans would cheer.

By coincidence, the last presidents to face similar crises were Democrats: Truman in Korea, JFK in Cuba. Kennedy’s brain suffered permanent damage at Dallas, so can someone please defrost Truman’s head? It’s in the cryogenic freezer at the back of the Library of Congress. The current generation urgently needs schooling in nuclear diplomacy.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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