WASHINGTON – On Thursday, US President Joe Biden marked one year since taking the oath of office.
Exactly a year ago, as he stood at the western front of the US Capitol, he vowed to “make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world,” and added: “We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.”
Two weeks later, at the State Department, he laid out his foreign policy vision. “I want the world to hear today: America is back, America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy,” he said, promising to focus on multilateralism.
His speech at the State Department placed Russia and China at the top of his agenda, addressing cyberattacks, election interference and human rights. “American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy,” said Biden.
He also set a precedent for placing climate change as a core issue of US foreign policy, right after Russia and China.
Notably, in sharp contrast to the administrations of his predecessors, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taken a back seat.
“I think we’ve made progress in reestablishing American credibility among our closest friends,” the president said at a G7 summit in June.
However, one year later, experts are divided on the question of whether he met the challenge when it comes to China, Russia, Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other issues.
On August 31, shortly after Afghanistan local time showed midnight – the US self-imposed deadline of withdrawal – the Pentagon announced that the last US flight had left Kabul.
More than 123,000 people were evacuated from Kabul in a massive but chaotic airlift by the United States and its allies over two weeks, but tens of thousands who helped Western nations during the war were left behind.
A contingent of Americans, estimated by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as fewer than 200, and possibly closer to 100, wanted to leave but were unable to get on the last flights.
The Biden administration was criticized for its botched withdrawal, seen as Biden’s most significant foreign policy blow since taking office. Members of Congress from both Left and Right slammed the administration’s decision to leave as US citizens were still looking for a way out.
On Wednesday, Biden defended the decision to withdraw. “We were spending a billion dollars a week in Afghanistan for 20 years,” he told reporters.
“Raise your hand if you think anyone was going to be able to unify Afghanistan under one single government. It’s been the graveyard of empires for a solid reason: It is not susceptible to unity.”
So, was it a success after all?
“It depends on how you define success,” said Simon Henderson, director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at The Washington Institute. “Yes, the US military managed to withdraw, but the accompanying scenes of chaos are now etched on the collective memories of political leaders and ordinary people across the world.
“The Taliban is in control and the whole world knows it, although the niceties of formal diplomatic recognition are more elusive,” Henderson continued. “The Biden administration, unsurprisingly, tries to avoid mentioning it.
“I was personally astounded that it was the view of the US government that it had six months of a transition. It was always obvious to me that the authority of the Kabul government was weak, and that the Taliban would advance rapidly and quietly,” he said. “By giving up the Bagram Air Base, the US lost the ability to organize an attack against the Taliban while also evacuating personnel from Kabul.”
This is the most pressing foreign policy challenge for Biden.
“If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies,” the White House said on Wednesday, cleaning up previous remarks by the president, who spoke about a possibility of a “minor incursion.”
As of this writing, Blinken is in Europe, ringing the alarm bells and working to coordinate a coherent NATO response.
“In the face of continuing Russian military posturing against Ukraine, Biden has maintained a strong US military posture in Europe and provided additional security and economic assistance to Kyiv,” said Stephen Flanagan, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, who served in several senior positions in government, most recently as special assistant to the president and senior director for defense policy and strategy at the National Security Council Staff from 2013 to 2015. “He has rallied NATO allies to denounce further Russian aggression and commit to imposing significant costs if Russia does take military action against Ukraine. The outcome of the Ukraine crisis will be the crucible of Biden’s Russia policy,” Flanagan added.
He said that Biden “has held Moscow to account for internal political repression and external aggression, while engaging diplomatically in limited areas of mutual interest.”
“Biden has restored a more predictable and measured dialogue with [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin,” said Flanagan. “In their initial January 2021 conversation, Biden reaffirmed the elements of his strategy, while agreeing to a five-year extension of the New START Treaty. The June Geneva Summit did not produce any breakthroughs, and Biden highlighted his objections to various Russian policies. Nevertheless, the two leaders agreed to return each country’s ambassador to their posts and to establish task forces on cyberattacks.”
One of Biden’s foreign policy objectives was a mutual return to the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. Then, Blinken promised, the administration would work to have a “longer and stronger” agreement.
After eight rounds of indirect negotiations in Vienna, the sides are yet to find a formula that would satisfy both the US and Iran. Currently, the countries are locked around the question of sanctions relief, as the clock is ticking and Iran is continuing to enrich uranium.
“The Biden administration’s current Iran strategy is a failure,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.
“A crippling problem for President Biden is that Iranian leaders understand leverage better than he does,” he said. “Tehran has expanded its uranium-enrichment program to approach weapons-grade levels, with most of its nuclear escalation occurring since Biden’s election. Tehran has continued to back proxies who attack US troops in Iraq and American allies in the Middle East. As a result of weak sanctions enforcement, Iranian oil is flowing again to China, the Iranian economy is recovering after severe contractions during the Trump administration, and Iranian negotiating leverage is increasing.
“Biden also has a credibility problem, given the Afghanistan debacle and his rhetoric about ending ‘forever wars.’ Tehran no longer believes he will use military force to curb its nuclear ambitions,” said Dubowitz. “President Biden’s maximum-carrots strategy isn’t working, Iranian nuclear intransigence is hardening and the administration refuses to use the stick and return to pressure,” he added.
According to Naysan Rafati, a senior analyst with the Crisis Group, the Biden administration’s main objective on Iran over the past several months has been clear. It’s been to “secure a return to the JCPOA, thereby reversing the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for some degree of US sanctions relief,” he said.
“They and the P4+1 made some decent progress toward that goal in the early stages of the negotiations that started last April, but the process has been in fits and starts more recently, and in the meantime Iran’s nuclear program continues to grow in size and sophistication.
“So, quite a bit is riding on what happens in the Vienna talks over the next few weeks: If they fail to deliver a breakthrough, the US may call time on the current approach and pivot to more coercive tools,” he continued. “If they succeed, then it’d be a first step in managing areas of contention with Tehran. And at the moment, which way it’ll go remains very much an open question.”
The two countries had a bumpy road during Biden’s first year in office. The administration upheld the Trump-era determination that China is committing genocide in Xinjiang; it announced it won’t send any officials to the Winter Olympic Games and said that the sources of COVID-19 should be thoroughly checked. But on the other hand, Biden said that he would seek common ground when possible – tackling climate change, for example.
“The Biden administration has sought over the past year to make two main adjustments to America’s approach to China,” said Ryan Haas, senior fellow at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at Brookings Institution. The first was to shift America’s approach from being confrontational to coalitional, said Haas. “Rather than seek to challenge China alone, the Biden administration has worked to knit together issue-based coalitions to address concerns about Chinese behavior.”
“The second adjustment was to prioritize restoring American strength at home, based on the premise that America’s domestic standing will determine its long-term competitiveness with China,” he continued. “The Biden administration wants to differentiate itself from the Trump administration by working to hold China accountable for human rights violations. It has sought to do so in coordination with allies and partners, where possible. Washington has joined with other allies in boycotting the Winter Olympics, for example.”
On COVID-19, said Haas, the administration scoured available information to explore if it could determine the origin of COVID-19. “It determined that it was not able to reach a definitive conclusion on the origin, based on available information.”
“I don’t think China or the US has high hopes of any major breakthroughs or significant expansions of bilateral cooperation in the near term,” he noted. “Both sides are in a period of mutually tolerable friction. Barring unforeseen events, I expect the relationship to remain in this zone for the next year, as both sides focus foremost on domestic events in 2022.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a low priority for Biden. The president only rarely addressed the issue, mostly around Operation Guardian of the Walls, as he worked to secure a ceasefire between the sides. Beyond that, the president did not signal any desire to present a new initiative dealing with the conflict, and he focused his efforts in calling the sides “to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tension and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution.”
“President Biden is dealing with a left-right coalition government in Israel that cannot agree on what the outcome should be with the Palestinians,” said Martin Indyk, distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“On the Palestinian side Hamas and the Palestinian Authority also cannot agree on what the outcome should be,” he continued. “As much as the president would like to make progress towards achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is self-evident that he can’t get there from here.
“Instead, the Biden administration is trying to resurrect an interim process of small, coordinated steps that can restore some level of confidence in the intentions of each side toward the other in the hope that can forestall any explosion and lead eventually to a resumption of negotiations,” said Indyk.
“But it may turn out to be too little, too late,” he said. “Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s support among his people is at an all-time low, while Hamas’s brand of armed struggle is gaining West Bank support.”
Indyk went on to say that Biden “is pursuing the right approach, but it needs to be bolstered by greater energy and higher-level attention if it is to succeed in heading off the descent into violence.”
David Makovsky, the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Project on the Middle East Peace Process, thinks that the Biden administration came in with low expectations on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
“They made a distinction between what they thought was attainable and what was not. It was one thing to repair American-Palestinian ties after a Palestinian boycott of the previous administration; it was another to succeed where others failed – a grand Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The first – restoration of ties – could be achieved, but the Venn diagram between the Palestinian minimum and the Israeli maximum on conflict resolution of core issues did not overlap,” he said.
“Moreover, two other variables contributed to this analysis. First there were the “3-C” challenges for the administration— COVID, China and climate change,” said Makovsky.
He noted that the Palestinian issue could cause the Israeli coalition to collapse. “So long as Defense Minister Gantz is deputized by Bennett and Lapid to work on the issues on the ground that economically could make a difference in improving peoples’ lives, I don’t expect a change in US policy.”
“On the other hand, if Gantz’s efforts are stymied within the Israeli government, it is bound to give rise to those critics in Washington who will ask the administration whether playing nice in the sandbox pays off. Yet Biden’s visceral sense is bound to prefer cooperation over confrontation – if possible,” said Makovsky. •