Joe Biden

Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy Dream Team Is Disappointing

Anyone who hopes that a Joe Biden presidency might adopt new thinking in foreign policy and a greater sensitivity to the concept of restraint should give up such hopes now. Most of the staff selected by the president-elect for defense and foreign policy posts were members of the “junior ranks” of the Obama administration. Their undeserved elevation to the new team reflects a widespread attitude in the ruling wing of the Democratic Party that everything was just fine with U.S. foreign policy until the irresponsible, “isolationist” Donald Trump destroyed America’s position in the world. The correct goal, according to this view, is to restore the status quo.

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But there was nothing wrong with U.S. foreign policy when Obama left office. Not at all. The administration undertook not one, not two, but three disastrous military interventions – in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, thereby wreaking more destruction and chaos throughout the Middle East. Obama and his henchmen have also further damaged already shaky relations with Russia by supporting the demonstrators who overthrew the legally elected pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. Too many of Joe Biden’s announced appointees were supporters of these misadventures.
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Studying the views of Biden’s foreign policy team, one is struck by the scope of utterly conventional thinking.

As I have written elsewhere, Biden himself has been remarkably cautious about missions in the Muslim world. He opposed the decision to overthrow Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and with good reason, as the subsequent tragic situation in that country confirmed. Biden was also extremely concerned that radical Islamist elements were dominating the Syrian uprising against Bashar al-Assad, which Washington and its allies supported. His instincts proved correct in this case as well. According to Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, “the only senior official who consistently opposed sending more troops to Afghanistan was Joe Biden.

Unfortunately, Biden has not shown such decent instincts in U.S. policy toward Ukraine and Russia. Indeed, as the transcript of the infamous leaked phone conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Jeffrey Pyatt showed, Biden was the designated man to bless the successor to the regime in Kyiv that Washington was helping to take over. Nuland was confident that the vice president was ready and willing to play this role.

While Biden’s views on foreign policy seem mixed, those of his new appointees are almost uniformly troubling. Tony Blinken, Biden’s choice for secretary of state, favored an activist, militarized approach in both Libya and Syria. In the latter case, his policy preferences included arming the disparate Syrian rebels.

Some of Biden’s other candidates for key posts, including Jake Sullivan, appointed national security adviser, and Avril Haynes, candidate for director of National Intelligence, have a well-deserved reputation for advocating regime change wars and other questionable actions.

His choice for Secretary of Defense was retired General Lloyd Austin, who was head of the Central Command of the U.S. Armed Forces, and there is little evidence that he has ever expressed dissent over Washington’s ill-fated interventions in the Middle East. Perhaps worse, Austin is a board member of Raytheon, one of the corporations profiting most from Washington’s continued strong military presence in the region. We are unlikely to get a more restrained Middle East policy from the team Biden is forming.

The prospects for “new thinking” are no better on other foreign policy issues. Members of Biden’s team seem to be an incomplete agreement with maintaining or even strengthening a tough policy toward Moscow. In a Nov. 25, 2020 interview, Blinken stated:

President Biden should have confronted Mr. Putin for his aggression, not embraced him. Not to defeat NATO, but to strengthen its deterrence… and provide strong security assistance to countries like Ukraine, Georgia, and the Western Balkans.

There was no sign of flexibility on Blinken’s part; he was not willing to wave even a small olive branch in Moscow’s direction.

An equally barren mindset on European issues is evident in the comments of Biden’s other candidates. His candidate for undersecretary of defense, Kathleen Hicks, even spoke out against Trump’s plan to withdraw some 11,900 U.S. troops from Germany. She did so despite the fact that about half of those forces were simply going to be redeployed to other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries, including about 1,000 to Poland, which was consistent with a more confrontational policy toward Russia.
Joe Biden
Moreover, this move made little sense in terms of operational military significance: Washington still intended to keep almost 25,000 troops in Germany. It is worth recalling that during the Cold War, the United States had almost 400,000 troops in Europe – most of them in Germany. If reducing the number of troops from that figure to 34,500 (the level that existed when the Trump administration announced the drawdown) has not fundamentally changed the military, it is hard to see how the withdrawal of 11,900 more troops will have much impact.

The attitude demonstrated by Hicks confirmed that proposals for even the mildest change in NATO policy toward a less dominant U.S. role are likely to be ruthlessly rejected in the Biden administration. Once again, we should not expect policy innovation.

Studying the views of Biden’s foreign policy team, one is struck by the scope of completely conventional thinking. It might not be so bad if the underlying assumption that U.S. foreign policy was in good shape before Trump came to power were correct. But U.S. policy showed numerous signs of dysfunction in the pre-Trump era, and these problems are in dire need of addressing and correcting. Unfortunately, the political team that Biden has assembled is almost incapable of accomplishing this vital task.

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