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Biden's 2023 foreign policy was a bust

Between Ukraine, Gaza, and the loss of US global authority, he won't be able to boast much ahead of the election.

Analysis | Washington Politics

The Biden administration’s foreign policy record in 2023 won’t give the president much to boast about in next year’s election.

The U.S. is even more overstretched at the end of 2023 than it was at the beginning, and the president has had very few policy successes. For most of the year, there weren’t any major debacles, but that changed over the last two months as the president gave the Israeli government a blank check to wage a brutal war in Gaza.

The president committed Washington to support another foreign war in the wake of the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel while the conflict in Ukraine settled into a stalemate. Even though the U.S. was under no obligation to support this war, the president made a point of turning it into one of his signature policies and linked it closely with support for Ukraine in his public rhetoric. Biden did not, and has not made a compelling case that unconditional support for Israel’s campaign is in the best interests of the United States, and the costs of that support have been rising ever since.

Furthermore, backing the war exposed U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria to renewed attacks from local militias, and it has also led to increasing risks for U.S. ships in the Red Sea as the Houthis have been launching attacks on commercial shipping to protest the war. The risks that the conflict could escalate and spread into other parts of the region have been growing, and so has the risk that the U.S. could become directly involved in a multi-front war.

The president’s instinct to back Israel to the hilt has made a wider war more likely and it has put U.S. forces in greater danger.

U.S. support for Israel in Gaza has not only overshadowed the rest of Biden’s foreign policy agenda, but it has also tied the U.S. to an indiscriminate bombing campaign and a punishing siege that is driving hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians into famine conditions. The Biden administration has not only torched whatever remained of Washington’s credibility on human rights and international law, but it has closely associated the U.S. with the war crimes committed against Palestinian civilians.

The damage to America’s reputation has already been considerable, and the damage to American interests in the Middle East and beyond over the longer term will likely be significant.

The setback for Biden’s own agenda has been undeniable. The administration’s biggest diplomatic initiative of 2023 — the ill-advised pursuit of Saudi-Israeli normalization — stalled when the war in Gaza showed the administration’s understanding of the region to be fundamentally flawed. Having bought into the false assumption that U.S.-facilitated normalization agreements between Israel and Arab clients would stabilize the region, the administration failed to recognize how bad things were getting in occupied Palestine.

Like their predecessors, the Biden administration did nothing to keep Netanyahu’s coalition government in check as it pursued its creeping annexation of the West Bank. Believing that the Palestinians could be safely sidelined and that their grievances could be ignored, the administration was trying to find out what inducements it would take to get Mohammed bin Salman to endorse normalization. If they had been successful, it would have meant another security commitment and more costs for the United States, so it was just as well that this policy was derailed.

It isn’t clear how much of a factor the push for Saudi normalization was in contributing to Hamas’ decision to attack, but it clearly wasn’t helpful for the U.S. to waste so much effort on trying to entice the Saudis into a deal while tensions between Israel and the Palestinians was about to explode. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s infamous line uttered shortly before the start of the war about how the region was quieter than it had been in decades reflected how much the administration had come to believe its own press releases.

Support for the war has cost the U.S. a lot of goodwill in countries of the Global South, and the administration’s stubborn opposition to a ceasefire has left the U.S. as deeply isolated at the United Nations as it has ever been on a major issue. The administration had earlier emphasized the importance of competing for influence with other major powers in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, but with its hardline position on Gaza it seems to have frittered away most of whatever gains it has made. Especially for an administration that constantly talks about the importance of America’s leadership role, it has outdone itself in alienating and driving the rest of the world away from the U.S. on this issue.

U.S. support for the war in Ukraine has been undermined by backing for the war in Gaza in two ways. First, it has diverted U.S. attention and resources away from Ukraine as the U.S. has turned its focus once again to the Middle East. It has also made a mockery of the administration’s rhetoric in support of Ukraine. The U.S. spent the better part of two years extolling the importance of international law to rally support for Ukraine, and then demonstrated that the U.S. doesn’t hold its own clients and partners to the same standard that it expects from other states.

The Biden record this year wasn’t all bad. On the plus side, the U.S. made some modest progress in stabilizing relations with China near the end of the year after months of deteriorating ties in the wake of the spy balloon incident in February. There was a small diplomatic breakthrough with Iran in the summer that led to the release of five Americans that had been wrongfully detained by the Iranian government. Unfortunately, the administration then reneged on releasing Iranian funds that had been frozen under “maximum pressure” sanctions because they didn’t want to be seen as “rewarding” Iran following Hamas’ attack.

The administration also recently secured another prisoner release agreement with the Venezuelan government. While these were positive results, they were also hardly earth-shattering.

The Biden administration had more success in working with established allies. They further developed the technology-sharing AUKUS arrangement with Australia and Britain, and they took advantage of a temporary improvement in relations between South Korea and Japan to strengthen ties with both. In both cases, the administration was pushing on an open door, and it is questionable whether either arrangement will endure, but they can at least point to these things as examples of advancing Biden’s agenda.

Even more than in previous years, the Biden administration’s foreign policy in 2023 has been defined by too much reliance on military tools and too little effort put into diplomatic engagement. That may be one of the reasons why the public now broadly disapproves of Biden’s handling of foreign policy. Both for his own sake and for the sake of U.S. interests, the president needs to make some major course changes in 2024 in Gaza and in his overall approach to the world.
President Joe Biden delivers remarks about the situation in Ukraine, Friday, February 18, 2022, in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Erin Scott)
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