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Sensemaker: The Biden scorecard

Sensemaker: The Biden scorecard

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Saudi officials announced a ceasefire in fighting between Saudi-led coalition forces and Houthi rebels in Yemen.
  • Five people were killed by a gunman in Tel Aviv in the third fatal attack in Israel in a week. 
  • A report on maternity care at the Shrewsbury and Telford NHS trust in the UK said better care might have saved 201 babies. 
  • Despite the war in Ukraine, a US astronaut prepared to return to earth from the International Space Station with two Russian cosmonauts.

The Biden scorecard

Free speech is a dangerous thing. When Joe Biden used it last Saturday to veer off-script and say of Putin, “for God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power”, he handed the Russian leader apparent proof that the America that asserted the right to change regimes in Iraq asserted the same right in Russia. 

Putin has pocketed the remark but hasn’t made much use of it yet (see below). In the meantime, Biden gave his critics more evidence that he’s a liability. But the data on Biden’s Ukraine scorecard has not all been in the same column, and in fact it’s easy to cherry-pick from the headlines to create two quite different presidents:

The unifier, who has…

  • deployed high-quality US intelligence to warn the world early and publicly of Putin’s intentions in Ukraine and has thereby revived Nato as the unchallenged guarantor of European security;
  • hired high-quality foreign policy and national security staff including especially Tony Blinken at the State Department and Jake Sullivan as National Security Advisor, who have kept his administration on message and rescued him quickly from his own gaffes; and
  • represented America abroad backed by the (by contemporary standards) rare spectacle of bipartisan accord in Congress on the overwhelming need for the world’s democracies to confront Putin as one.

The first of these deprived Putin of the advantage of surprise and of any scope for credible false flag operations to give him a pretext to invade. The second may have prevented World War Three by preserving clarity on a no No Fly Zone policy. The third has ensured rapid funding for and airlifting of urgently needed military materiel to Ukraine via Poland and Romania.

But Biden has at times seemed ready to undo all this good work as…

The blabbermouth, who, besides appearing to advocate regime change in his speech in Warsaw, has

  • suggested in January that a limited Russian military deployment in eastern Ukraine might amount to no more than a “minor incursion”;
  • implied despite clear official policy to the contrary that there might be US boots on the ground in Ukraine when telling some of his own troops they would see Ukrainian bravery “when you are there”;
  • appeared to threaten Nato use of WMD by warning the US would respond “in-kind” to any Russian use of chemical weapons in Ukraine.

The White House walk-back on the Warsaw remarks was immediate – the president wasn’t advocating regime change, officials said unconvincingly; just noting Putin can’t be allowed to intimidate his neighbours – but the feedback has been largely damning. Macron said he wouldn’t have used such words. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Putin would see this “as confirmation of what he’s believed all along”. Gerard Baker in the WSJ said Biden had risked “the annihilation of much of humanity”.

The acid test is Russia’s reaction. Putin’s spokesman called Biden’s nine words astounding and alarming and noted that it’s not for Biden to decide who runs Russia. But Putin himself has so far been silent, and some of his troops are moving back from Kyiv and Chernihiv.

To consider: Biden’s words may not have been policy but they did have the merit of being true. As such they might resonate inside as well as outside Russia. No wonder they have not been rebroadcast there on a loop. If Biden was reaching for a “tear down this wall” moment, historians may yet conclude this was one.

Know more

The pull

Antonia Cundy

At Przemysl train station in Poland, the first stop before Lviv in Ukraine, a young family queues for a train heading east that will take them home to a country at war. 

Sasha, with seven-year-old Artem and thirteen-year-old Zara, made the exact same journey in reverse at the beginning of March, when Sasha rushed to take her children to safety in Poland a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine. Now they’re heading back to Odessa.

A growing number of Ukrainians are heading home, either reversing journeys they made when Russia invaded, or returning to the country they found themselves outside of when war broke out. 

But while their reasons for returning vary — to reunite with relatives, to return to work, to fight, to volunteer — one thing unites everyone I spoke to: when back at home a few days later, they were all content with their decision, even those who returned to the war’s frontline.


P&O collapse?
British ministers are busy rewriting the law so that cross-Channel ferry companies can’t get away with paying workers less than the national minimum wage. Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, will make a statement in the House of Commons today to that effect, forcing P&O to raise basic wages from £5.50 to £9.50 an hour. That would scupper the whole business and cost 2,200 jobs, the company’s CEO, Peter Hebblethwaite, tells Shapps. It would certainly be a big rise, but Hebblethwaite is on thin ice having fired 800 workers in a zoom call and rehired others at the new low rate. Two questions: how on earth could P&O ever have evaded both British and French minimum wage laws on cross-Channel routes given those routes never leave British and French coastal waters? And if paying minimum wage would put P&O out of business, what about the other operators? Are ferries doomed?


Beatles’ trial
The trial begins today in Virginia of El Shafee Elsheikh, one of four ex-Isis members nick-named the Beatles because of their British accents, and linked to the murders of, among others, four US citizens. Elsheikh, a British citizen, has pleaded not guilty to charges of lethal hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit murder, but another member of the group, Alexanda Kotey, has pleaded guilty to the murders of the US citizens – the journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and the aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig. Kotey was also a British citizen but has had his citizenship revoked. Both could in principle face the death penalty under US law, but US prosecutors have promised the UK they won’t seek it. Of the other “Beatles”, one was killed in a drone strike in 2015 and the other is in jail in Turkey.


Personal fresh air
Dyson, the people who claimed to reinvent the vacuum cleaner, have produced a personal air purifier to be worn with headphones. It is highly evolved – Techcrunch says there have been 500 prototypes over six years – and is aimed at people, mainly in the US, who are fed up with breathing smoke from wildfires. But Dyson also seems to hope Covid has made people generally used to walking around with face coverings. In any case, the Dyson Zone shoots two streams of filtered air upwards at your mouth and nose and the accompanying headphones can cancel out their noise. NB. This story is dated 30 March, not 1 April.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

NHS disapproval
The UK’s health service has come a long way from the rainbow flags and ritual weekly applause of lockdown. New data from the King’s Fund and Nuffield Trust shows overall satisfaction with how the NHS runs is at its lowest level in a quarter of a century. The current 36 per cent approval rating is 17 per cent lower than in 2020. The service’s founding principles – free care at the point of need, available to everyone and primarily funded through taxes – still have overwhelming support, but as Dan Wellings of the King’s Fund put’s it: “the public do not seem to want a different model, they just want the one they have got to work”. Waiting times, staff shortages and funding are the public’s biggest concerns, and satisfaction with GPs has fallen to its lowest level – 38 per cent – since this survey began in 1983. As mentioned earlier this week, staff absences because of the continued spread of the BA.2 Omicron sub-variant won’t help. 

world by numbers

405 million – children Unicef believes are still affected by partial or full closures of schools because of Covid, in 23 countries. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Saturn’s rings
Saturn’s rings are disappearing. Meteorites and the sun’s radiation are disturbing the particles that form them, and making them susceptible to the massive planet’s gravitational field. The particles (and bigger things, like rocks) then spiral towards the planet itself and burn up in its outer atmosphere. The rings were originally thought to be as old as the planet, which was formed about 4.6 billion years ago, Marina Koren writes in the Atlantic. But Nasa’s Voyager probe began to erode that consensus with a fly-by in the 1980s, and the consensus now is that the rings are only 10 to 100 million years old, and could be gone in another 300 million. Which by terrestrial standards is the perfect slow news story even if by celestial ones it’s a blip.

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

With additional reporting by Phoebe Davis and Ella Hill.

Photographs Tom Williams via Getty Images, Henry Nicholls via Getty Images, Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images, NASA, Dyson

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