Biden’s Foreign Policy Woes – Analysis


By Kerry Boyd Anderson

At the start of 2023, US President Joe Biden was halfway through his presidential term. Many foreign policy experts felt that Biden had made good progress in repairing the damage to traditional alliances from Donald Trump’s presidency. The Biden team had reason to feel good about Washington’s approach toward the war in Ukraine. The widely criticized 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan was in the rearview mirror.

There were challenges and disappointments, such as the lack of progress toward renewing a nuclear deal with Iran. Yet, overall, the Biden foreign policy team had reason for optimism at the start of the year. However, at the end of 2023, the outlook is less positive.

All US presidents enter office with foreign policy priorities and all of them must cope with international events that threaten to derail their plans. The war in Ukraine demanded some shifts in policy and resources, but the White House was prepared for the war, which neatly fitted into Biden’s approach toward foreign policy. The war in Gaza, however, does not fit the president’s preconceived worldview or his administration’s approach to foreign relations. Furthermore, domestic political divides increasingly threaten to undermine foreign policy.

At the same time, the Biden administration must continue trying to address other priorities, including China and climate change. Looking ahead, 2024 already appears challenging for foreign policy — even before considering the potential for new surprises in foreign affairs and the effects of a US presidential election.

When Russia attempted a full invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, the US was ready. Forearmed with accurate intelligence, Washington was prepared for the Russian attack. Moscow’s efforts to subjugate a sovereign, democratic country fitted very well into Biden’s framework of a world shaped by competition between democracies and autocracies, with Russia and China as the most problematic of the latter. It also helped that Biden had already invested in strengthening relations with European allies.

Washington’s policy toward Ukraine initially went well. The president and his officials were able to quickly rally European and, to some extent, international support for Ukraine. The US provided significant economic and military aid to Kyiv. Ukrainians impressed the world with their ability to derail Russian plans to control their country.

The US tends to be very good at the first six months or so of warfare. Whether engaged directly in a military conflict or supporting an ally such as Ukraine, Washington tends to be decisive and capable of quickly drawing on massive military and economic resources. For example, so far, the US has provided more than $44 billion in military assistance to Ukraine since February 2022, according to the State Department, plus billions of dollars in other forms of assistance.

However, most wars do not end quickly and cleanly. In recent decades, Washington has struggled as a war gets messy. In a context of less decisive victories, frozen lines and asymmetric warfare, US leaders struggle to clearly delineate crucial political and military objectives.

The last year of war in Ukraine has demonstrated the complexity of warfare. After impressive initial efforts to push back Russian forces, the war has stalled and could last a long time.

Enemies of the US are well aware that Americans seem to have relatively short attention spans, or at least that American unity behind a cause tends to fray over time. Russian disinformation has exacerbated fractures within American politics. Democrats are largely in favor of helping Ukraine, but Republican leaders are divided over the issue. A recent Gallup poll found that 62 percent of Republicans said that the US is doing too much to help Ukraine, compared to only 14 percent of Democrats who agreed.

Moscow and Kyiv know that Republican wins in Congress or the White House in next year’s election would undermine aid to Ukraine. This presents a huge threat to Biden’s policies; while the White House will continue supporting Ukraine for now, the mere reality that such support might be short-lived puts those efforts at risk.

Unlike Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 took Washington by surprise and US leaders struggled to adjust.

Understandably, the immediate response of Biden and many American leaders to the Hamas attack was horror and fury at its brutal nature. Biden offered full support to Israel and he prides himself on being “the first US president to visit Israel in time of war.” Biden has a long-standing personal commitment to Israel and comes from a generation of leaders who have long provided unquestioning support to the country.

Biden and many senior officials appear to have failed to fully anticipate what would happen next, although many younger foreign policy practitioners could have easily predicted it. The massive death toll and humanitarian disaster that came with Israel’s military and economic response to the Hamas raid seems to have taken Biden and his senior team by surprise.

US support for Israel has long made it vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy, complicating its diplomacy in the Middle East. For years, US leaders felt that the cost was worth it. However, the far-right shift in Israeli politics and the incredible suffering in Gaza since Oct. 7 threatens to seriously damage US diplomatic goals in the region and globally. One of the Biden administration’s main goals in the region was expanding normalization deals between Israel and Arab states, but the war in Gaza complicates those efforts. Furthermore, there are concerns about the risk of a broader regional conflict.

More generally, strong US support for Israel under the current circumstances intensifies the feeling throughout much of the world that Washington is not serious about supporting democracy, human rights, stability and prosperity. This puts many diplomatic goals at risk.

Domestically, Biden is facing a backlash among younger Democrats, who object to providing billions of dollars in military and other aid when the Israeli government kills thousands of civilians in Gaza and often ignores advice from US leaders — and when those funds could be used to benefit Americans at home.

Biden has repeatedly tried to convince Americans that combating Russian aggression in Ukraine and Hamas terror in Israel are closely linked. In an Oct. 20 speech, he said: “Hamas and (Vladimir) Putin represent different threats, but they share this in common: They both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy.” He has argued that allowing terrorists to get away with terror and dictators to get away with aggression leads to more “death and destruction.” His administration has presented both Putin’s regime and Hamas as threats to global order.

Biden’s efforts at linking the two wars in order to gain support for US aid to both Israel and Ukraine does not appear to be convincing many Americans. The Republican Party is divided about continuing support to Ukraine, while Democrats are increasingly willing to question unconditional support to Israel.

The two wars do have something in common in foreign policy terms, however: no clear endgame. The Biden administration has not been clear, at least publicly, on what it hopes to achieve through ongoing aid to Ukraine, besides generally supporting Ukraine and halting Russian aggression. Similarly, Israel’s lack of a viable endgame in Gaza is already creating cracks in the Israeli government’s relationship with the White House.

For the foreseeable future, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza will continue to be top issues for US foreign policy. At the same time, as a global power, America will continue to try to pursue objectives in other areas.

China remains a top priority. In November, Biden met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in an effort to stabilize relations that had become increasingly hostile. Washington sees Beijing as a competitor and wants to limit China’s global influence, while continuing to partner with the country on economic and other issues where the two countries have shared concerns.

Addressing the climate crisis is another priority. Biden has had some notable successes in addressing climate change through domestic policy; however, in foreign policy, success is less clear. For example, at COP28, Vice President Kamala Harris pledged $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, but it is unclear if Congress will approve those funds.

Other top issues include security at the southern border, managing threats from Iran and expanding the US presence in the Indo-Pacific.

With an election in November 2024, domestic politics will have significant impacts on foreign policy. Biden will have to contend with Republicans’ growing objections to support for Ukraine, Democrats’ increasing concern about Palestinian civilian deaths, ongoing pressure from Democrats to address climate change, and so forth. Foreign policy was often considered an area of strength for Biden, but a Gallup poll from November found that only 32 percent of Americans approve of his foreign policy.

If Trump is the Republican nominee, which is likely, then a second contest between Biden and Trump will highlight two extremely different approaches to the US’ role in the world.

• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. X: @KBAresearch

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Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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