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The biggest foreign policy losers of 2023

The biggest foreign policy losers of 2023

From the Biden team and humanity to our wrongheaded TV generals, this was a year of catastrophe and political failure

Global Crises

The year in foreign policy was marked by bloody conflict, humanitarian catastrophe, and grief, plus political failures and missteps. Let's take a look at the most notable ones as we approach 2024.

Losers in major conflicts and geopolitical shifts

Ukraine: The bravery and endurance of the Ukrainian people and its military forces have been extolled time and again. But the failure of its counteroffensive in the spring and the summer of 2023 has led in part to a loss in confidence that the country can ever hope to expunge the Russians from all of its territories. This of course has been not only the goal of President Volodymyr Zelensky, but of his Western supporters. Many of those allies, including the mainstream press, are now suggesting that not only will Ukraine have to find a way to end the war diplomatically — which critics including contributors at RS and at the Quincy Institute have been saying all along — but may have to make territorial compromises.

The goal of Ukrainian NATO membership seems like a faraway dream now, and as of the end of the year, the flood of weapons and money from Washington and Western capitals has slowed immensely. Zelensky, now being pegged as increasingly isolated and unrealistic, has seemingly fallen from grace. Unfortunately for him, this is not the first time in U.S. foreign policy history that Washington has turned its favor elsewhere, to the grave detriment of its former beneficiaries.

Israel, and the Palestinian people: The government of Israel, blind-sighted by a brutal Hamas attack that left 1200 Israelis dead and 240 hostages whisked away on Oct. 7, has retaliated with such force in Gaza strip that it is squandering much of the rest of the world’s goodwill and sympathy. Israelis, as wracked by grief and anger as they are, are not confident that their government has a plan for Gaza after the war, but are steadfast (at least according to polls) that the Netanyahu regime can destroy Hamas, and that care to avoid Palestinian civilian suffering should not be a consideration in executing that.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian death toll in Gaza as of this week was well over 21,000. Israel claims to have killed 7,000 Hamas fighters but, according to the New York Times, does not explain how it came to that number. This has created a situation in which Israel (and its U.S. supporters) are increasingly isolated, whether it be at the United Nations or in public opinion across the globe. Furthermore, the Palestinians in Gaza are suffering from catastrophic hunger and a lack of healthcare (there are reportedly no functioning hospitals left in northern Gaza). Nearly 90% have been displaced due to Israeli military bombardments, and infectious diseases are ripping through the traumatized population.

Joe Biden: The president of the United States has been backed into a corner on two major fronts this year. On Ukraine, his framing of the war as a Manichaean battle — and a struggle for freedom that will have global repercussions if America doesn’t help Zelensky “for as along as it takes” — is coming back to bite his administration. Calls are increasing to begin diplomatic talks in earnest with a government that Washington had relegated to Hitler-like status. Meanwhile, Congress is pushing back on giving Ukraine the billions more in weapons and cash it needs to survive.

Biden’s team looks indecisive and vulnerable as it moves into what promises to be a brutal re-election. This has only been compounded by the administration’s complete inability to rein in the military excesses of the Israeli government in Gaza and the West Bank too. While supposedly making “it clear” to Benjamin Netanyahu that the U.S. wants civilians protected, Biden’s administration did all it could to water down the UN Security Council ceasefire at the Israelis’ behest, and even a resolution to institute humanitarian “pauses” has, as of this writing, not been put into effect.

Biden has also greased the skids for all the weapons the Israelis have asked for, with American-made "dumb bombs” responsible for the multitude of deaths and property destruction in the Gaza strip today. Not only is Washington viewed as having no influence over the Israelis (despite the enormous sums of money and weapons sent there annually); it looks duplicitous when it comes to grand assertions about upholding the “rules-based order.”

Losers we might have missed ...

The Armenian people: Every single Armenian — some 100,000 — was pushed out of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory by Azerbaijan in October. Earlier this year, Azerbaijan and Armenia had pledged to work toward peace after decades of conflict. But hopes waned as Azerbaijan continued a crushing blockade of goods and humanitarian aid to Armenians in the region. An Azeri military operation, launched in September, led to the ultimate takeover of the disputed land and the expulsion of Armenians within days back to Armenia.

African coup and civil war victims: West Africa saw a continued rash of coups with two more in Niger and Gabon this year. In Niger, the military overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum in July and put him and his family in the palace basement where they remain today. Niger joins Burkino Faso and Mali as what Quincy Institute non-resident fellow Alex Thurston calls “the epicenter of mass violence and displacement in the region, and one of the worst conflict and humanitarian disaster zones in the world.” The military seized power in Gabon in August, ousting President Ali Bongo after he had just won re-election.

Meanwhile, a bloody civil war broke out in Sudan in April and soon became a proxy fight involving regional interests, with the Sudanese people, of course, caught in the crossfire. The conflict involves General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (himself a coup leader), pitted against his deputy and head of the Rapid Support Forces, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known as Hemedti. By June, fighting in the capital city of Khartoum had left scores dead, massive property damage, and an exodus of some 100,000 to points abroad. Fighting not only continues, but is spreading, imperiling millions of civilians and throwing the entire country into a humanitarian disaster. The U.S appears to have little left, diplomatically, to offer.

Sweden: The Northern European nation wants into NATO. But what seemed to be a no-brainer — its accession was linked to regional security and Western unity in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 — has become a victim of cross-state politics and recrimination. Though as of this writing Sweden seems one step closer to joining Finland as a new member of the alliance, Turkey continues to use its leverage as a NATO member to get F-16s from the U.S. and force Sweden to amend its anti-terrorism laws. Hungary has been slow walking its vote too, accusing Sweden of telling “blatant lies” about the condition of Hungary’s democracy.

The American taxpayer: Before Congress left for the holidays, it passed $886 billion in defense spending as part of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). These funding levels are the highest since World War II and, as the Quincy Institute’s William Hartung points out, they are mostly directed toward “costly, dysfunctional weapons systems that are ill-suited to addressing current challenges.”

Aside from a pay increase for personnel, the 3% hike over last year represents a boon for the defense industry (which was accused this year in an important 60 Minutes report of gouging taxpayers) and the members of Congress who love them. As RS has reported many times, the defense budget does not reflect sound military strategy or even the national interest, but a wish list by contractors and politicians who benefit from funding expensive programs that in some cases, like the Osprey aircraft, put American troops in real danger. To make it worse, the Pentagon still can't pass an audit.

And these guys  ...

Jake Sullivan: Biden’s National Security Advisor penned a Foreign Affairs article entitled “The Sources of American Power,” a 7,000-word attempt to put the best sheen on the Biden Administration’s handling of current geopolitical events. Unfortunately, like much of the White House foreign policy approach over the last three years, it was out of step.

Acknowledging “perennial challenges” in the Middle East, Sullivan said “the region is quieter than it has been for decades” and that “(we) have deescalated tensions in Gaza and restored direct diplomacy between the parties.” The article was sent to print on Oct. 2, five days before the Hamas attacks on Israel. “Nobody can be expected to predict the future, but the essay offers a rare insight into how the United States misread an explosive situation in the Middle East,” wrote the New York Times, which pointed out that the embarrassing comments were later scrubbed from the online edition of Foreign Affairs. However, Sullivan had been making public comments to the same effect all fall.

American Generals: This year the retired generals and admirals who had been talking a big game about the Ukrainian counteroffensive and the failures of the Russian military have been forced to eat their words. Special attention should be given to all these four stars and flags (Petraeus, Stavridis, Keene, McCaffrey, Hodges, etc.) who make incessant rotations on major media and provide wrongheaded strategic assessments that are never corrected. They just pop up again in the next conflict.

Malcolm Nance: One of the most visible pro-Ukraine commentators on major cable and on Twitter, the former Navy cryptologist left MSNBC in 2022 to help train the International Legion of foreign volunteers in Ukraine. His videos and tweets boasted his mission — as he was typically beefed up in uniform and weapons, ostensibly reporting from the combat zone — and drew a massive following of pro-Ukraine partisans.

Then a New York Times expose dropped the bomb: Nance was enmeshed in a climate of petty squabbling and chaos and among those outsiders in Ukraine who were “fighting with themselves and undermining the war effort.” He left the country and is still a commentator — on his paid subscription-only Substack. He’s shifted to the Gaza War now, including a (week-long) visit to the Gulf States in October, penning posts like, “Ask Yourself, Are You Really for Palestine or Do You Just Hate Jews?” and, very much like his pro-Ukraine Twitter persona of 2022, accusing critics of Israel of "misguided ill informed myopia & latent antisemitism."

Jake Sullivan (photowalking/shutterstock); Palestinian woman cradling the body of her child killed in Gaza in Oct. 2023 (Anas-Mohammed Shutterstock); President Zelensky (SHUTTERSTOCK/paparazzza)

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