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How Biden's 'A-team' squandered its foreign policy opportunity

A lot has changed since of the end of Alex Ward's The Internationalists. Not much of it is good for the administration.

Analysis | Washington Politics

“America was ready for renewal. The world was there to remake. There were at least two more years to get it done.”

So concludes Alex Ward’s recent book “The Internationalists: The Fight to Restore American Foreign Policy after Trump,” a detailed account of President Joe Biden’s first two years in office. Ward’s deeply reported narrative ends in late April of 2023, with national security adviser Jake Sullivan delivering a speech at the Brookings Institution that symbolically brought the neoliberal era to an end.

The story that Ward — national security reporter at Politico — tells is a compelling one. Biden’s foreign policy team — led by consummate DC insiders who dubbed themselves “the A-team” — understood their mandate as working to bring Washington out of the abyss of the Trump years. Watching Donald Trump win the White House had led to a soul-searching moment for Democrats in the foreign policy establishment, pushing those who eventually became Biden’s braintrust to embrace a new paradigm.

“Sullivan had changed during the Trump years after working to define a progressive foreign policy, one that would appeal to denizens of the heartland as well as the well-heeled and well-intentioned urban elites,” writes Ward. “The Democratic candidate, having watched his opponent in the Oval Office and the campaign trail, had also come to the conclusion that the usual message on foreign policy needed a first-page rewrite.”

The party would work to overturn what they perceived as the ills of Trumpism by re-embracing international allies and partners, and restoring American global leadership of the global “rules-based order.” But, Ward writes, “force would be used only when the foundations of the world that the United State had helped build since 1945 were at risk. Otherwise, the guns would be holstered.”

The theme that Sullivan and others settled on to define Biden’s foreign policy was “a foreign policy for the middle class.”

At times, Ward treats this approach with a critical eye, pointing to a number of inconsistencies in administration policy. But the ultimate narrative arc in the book is more clean: After a rocky start, with the nadir being the courageous but poorly managed conclusion to the United States’ two-decade war in Afghanistan, the Biden administration recovered its mojo with its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Despite some bumps in the road, Biden and his team had begun to rebuild U.S. foreign policy, with a renewed focus on working with allies, upholding democratic norms, and protecting the so-called rules-based international order.

That story has changed dramatically since the book’s conclusion, which brings the reader up to April 2023, nearly a year ago. A lot has happened since then, and not so much in favor of Ward’s narrative arc. If it were a classic VH-1 Face the Music episode, this is the exact point where the clouds roll in on our A-Team and everything goes careening off track, perhaps forever.

And so, the response to the war in Ukraine is presented by Ward as a success. The methodical and comprehensive preparations in the months leading up to the invasion serve as a foil to the haphazard approach that marked the withdrawal from Afghanistan. According to Ward, the Biden team prepared for many possible contingencies, even though the political leadership in Ukraine was doubtful of U.S. intelligence that suggested an invasion was likely.

The final chapter of “The Internationalists,” before the epilogue that lays out Sullivan’s speech at Brookings, features Biden’s triumphant visit to Kyiv. During his address in the Ukrainian capital, says Ward, the president “wanted to prove that Bidenism worked — and the world just needed more of it.” For Biden, Russia’s invasion had served as a global test of democracy, and democracy had prevailed.

Over the last year, however, the war has reached a “stalemate” — others say a war of attrition, with Moscow winning it. Despite these changing realities, the Biden administration has proven unwilling and unable to shift its strategy or messaging away from an understanding of the war as a fight for democracy that can only be won through military means. The message is losing favor in Washington, particularly among congressional Republicans, and politics in Washington have moved slowly against continued aid for Ukraine.

Meanwhile, in its reaction to the Hamas incursion into Israel on October 7, the Biden administration has squandered any global legitimacy and consistency it had built in its first two-plus years in power, and undermined its message on the war in Ukraine.

In just over five months, the White House has laid bare the hypocrisy and inconsistency of its stated commitment to human rights and the international order and left Washington isolated on the world stage.

Things were different in May 2021 when war broke out in Gaza. Just like today, Biden chose to fully back Israel’s war publicly while reportedly pressuring the Israeli prime minister behind closed doors.

Biden chose to negotiate “methodically and quietly” with Benjamin Netanyahu and opted against playing a significant public role. The White House, according to Ward, welcomed the pressure from their left flank that played a role in the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, reached after 11 days of conflict.

It was, according to the author, indicative of Biden’s broader foreign policy vision: “Core issues that challenge the world order or America’s leadership get his full effort. Everything else, the United States will help if it can.”

The response to that war is treated by the administration as a success, as it helped keep the conflict relatively short and contained. The opposite has resulted from that strategy today. Biden continues to publicly back Israel’s war, both rhetorically and materially. Despite a breathless string of reports that Washington has privately expressed its “frustration” or “concern” with Tel Aviv, Israel’s war continues seemingly without restriction as the Palestinian death toll surpasses 30,000.

The White House has been largely dismissive of progressives calling for a sustainable ceasefire, and the risk of a regional conflagration persists.

The Biden administration’s response to what is happening in Gaza has also blatantly betrayed any ostensible commitment to human rights and international law, which had been so important to the White House when it came to Ukraine.

“The reason the administration was set to dive headfirst into intense preparations was to defend the rules-based international order,” Ward writes about Biden’s mindset after receiving intelligence that Russia might go into Ukraine in late 2021. “If Putin succeeded in wiping Ukraine off the map, the world America helped build would crumble on this administration’s watch.”

The White House has consistently made the case that the stakes of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are the future of democracy itself. The Biden administration has lambasted Moscow’s violations of international law. In April 2022, Biden even accused Vladimir Putin of committing genocide in Ukraine.

Yet when the International Court of Justice ruled earlier this year that it was “plausible” that Israel was carrying out a genocide in Gaza, the White House called the accusation “unfounded.” Administration officials have consistently refused to condemn alleged Israeli war crimes, including the bombing of hospitals and the forced displacement and starvation of the civilian population.

Instead of pushing for a ceasefire, the U.S. has continued to support Israel’s war. Biden himself often ties the wars in Ukraine and Gaza into one larger, global project, including the ongoing effort to pass a spending package that combines $60 billion in aid for Kyiv with $17 billion for Tel Aviv.

In addition to Joe Biden’s campaign slogan of “a foreign policy for the middle class,” Ward tries to tack on a few more principles that could define the president’s approach. “He had developed a doctrine of sorts over two years in office,” Ward writes. “Stand true with allies. Defend democracy. Avoid escalatory conflict. Preserve the rules-based order.”

On almost every count, he has failed to live up to those lofty goals.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan deliver statements to the press following their meetings with Chinese officials, in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 19, 2021. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain]
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