Foreign policy in the Biden administration
A few weeks ago, President Biden declared that “America is back” to American allies. The week after, the administration carried out an airstrike on Iranian militants in Syria as retaliation against a Feb. 15 strike against a U.S. military base in Erbil, which is situated in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. This is an easy to criticize move, and rightfully so. Why are we continuing to engage in our “forever war” doctrine in the Middle East? What is Washington gaining from doing this anymore? Doesn’t this jeopardize further diplomatic agreements with Iran?
All those are important and valid questions to ask, and Biden’s team will need to be held accountable on those points. Throughout his campaign, Biden’s foreign policy plan has painted a picture of an administration that wants Washington to find a balance between leading by the “power of America’s example” while scaling back unnecessary and expensive efforts. It will be important to see how this promise plays out, but those with high hopes may find themselves disappointed if their expectations aren’t tempered. But criticisms against Biden, including my own, will also need to be more nuanced in their approach.
The Biden administration has promised to engage more diplomatically rather than overusing hard power capabilities, which the Syrian airstrike seems to contradict. However, on its own, the basic principle of “retaliate when you’re attacked” is an understandable one. In addition, the retaliation was in response to an attack on a base in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds are not only an important partner in the region, but they rely on the U.S. military to provide safety for them given that no other government in the region really accepts their right to exist. The alliance is also inconsistent, such as when the previous administration allowed Turkey to continue shelling Kurds or when former President Bush Sr. didn’t defend the Kurds against Iraqi tanks rolling into their territory in 1991. Given the Biden administration’s desire to reinforce their alliances, their decision to retaliate for an attack on a base in Kurdistan is somewhat understandable.
With that being said, there is also a fear that these retaliatory efforts will result in another tit-for-tat series of attacks that will result in more troop presence in the region, which happened last year. Given Washington’s current desire to approach Iran with a new nuclear deal after the increase in tensions over the past few years, it would be more fruitful to cut our losses and approach Iran with a more assertive diplomatic agenda. After all, it was the U.S. who withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement despite Iran following the guidelines of the nuclear deal at the time. It would make sense to engage in less retaliatory military efforts and push more strongly to renew talks for negotiations with Tehran.
Ultimately, this is representative of a larger problem. The U.S. wants to both be a beacon of diplomacy while also asserting its dominance and refusing to make concessions. Unfortunately, there is a trade-off there, and different situations will require different strategies. While the goal of the military may be to avoid losing any battle and forcing an adversary’s hand, it often contradicts Washington’s diplomatic aspirations. The opposite is also true, where diplomatic aspirations can contradict situations where the U.S. should take some stronger action. There are also contradictions within different types of strong actions and diplomatic aspirations.
All of these contradictions exist because the U.S. has not had a clear foreign policy plan for the last several decades. Each administration has pursued some degree of throwing whatever they can at the wall and seeing what works. While Biden’s plans appear to be more focused, they fall into that same trap of inconsistency.
Let’s look at Saudi Arabia and Yemen as an example of this inconsistency. Biden’s administration has signaled their desire to end the war in Yemen, and they already have ended military aid and weapons contracts that supported the Saudi-led coalition. This is also in line with the administration’s promise to end “forever wars.” However, despite Biden’s promise to punish Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman for ordering the death of The Washington Post journalist Jamal Kashoggi, the administration walked back that promise last week since they fear losing diplomatic relations with the Saudis. This will only make it harder for us to end the war in Yemen and may end up prolonging our presence in the war despite efforts to leave it.
The relationship with Saudi Arabia is also further complicated given their power dynamic with Iran. The animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the region outlines the larger Shia and Sunni Muslim divide in the region. As unreliable as Saudi Arabia is as an ally, keeping that alliance is important for the balance of power in the region. There are vested economic and resource interests, but I wouldn’t count those as justifying allying with Saudi Arabia given that the U.S. has increased its own capacity for oil and natural gas domestically.
On the other hand, it is unjustifiable for us to continue to keep treating Iran as part of the axis of evil, which they have been on since former President Bush’s declaration in 2002. Iran thrives on living in a gray area where it's unclear what their weapons capabilities are, and they have continuously baited the U.S. into taking strong actions, which helps them justify their decision to continue staying in their gray area. To break through this cycle, the U.S. has to cut through the bait and continue to normalize relations with Iran. Unfortunately, as a means to that end, the U.S. is continuing stronger military actions to force Iran into a position for negotiation, which does not appear to be working very well.
These are just some of the complexities faced in addressing the power politics of the region, and as futile as it is, it is still manageable. Counterinsurgency and nation-building in the Middle East have been a whole other story. It is a perfect encapsulation of the strategic blunders and inconsistencies that have existed in Washington’s agenda for the region since 2001, which has entrenched the U.S. in a “forever war” in the region.
To that end, the Biden administration is also signaling that they will pull the vast majority of troops out of Afghanistan by May 1, which would officially bring an end to the war. This is the large point the Biden administration has committed to, continuing last year’s agreement made by the U.S. government and the Taliban, which the Biden team is continuing to review.
However, it is very likely that after this, Afghanistan may fall further into the control of the Taliban, and the Afghan state will end up collapsing. But those efforts were supported by a U.S. presence being a crutch to uphold stability. If you take the crutch out, it will inevitably fall. Without any domestic support for these efforts, the justification for years has been to spend some more money and spill more blood to ensure it ourselves. But that should not be our concern. Foreign policy goals need to balance our own interests with the self-determination and sovereignty of others. It is not our responsibility to maintain stability in the country, and we’re not doing local citizens who don’t want an American presence there any favors by continuing to do so. It’s a bottomless hole, and to get out of that hole, we have to stop digging first.
So as the Biden administration continues to mop up the mess of previous strategic blunders while trying to avoid their own, they will have to keep in mind and accept that sometimes the U.S. should accept failure and cut its losses. As far as it goes, U.S. hegemony isn’t going to go away any time soon, and we already greatly benefit from the current international system. Accepting a few losses won’t destroy that hegemony. He should follow through in his efforts to expand our soft power capabilities while scaling back our hard power capabilities a reasonable amount. Our retaliatory efforts should be more focused and justified, and our diplomatic efforts need to be more reliable. We have enough of our own problems to fix, so being more consistent and concentrated with foreign policy efforts will be beneficial for everyone.
In short, the U.S. needs to stop being stupid. The jury is still out on Biden’s administration, but I certainly hope he is able to follow through with that goal.