Biden distances himself from Trump and Obama foreign policies in first 100 days
President is also faced with a tug-of-war between establishment centrists and sceptics of US military intervention
US President Joe Biden has sought to distance himself from mistakes made by Barack Obama and Donald Trump in the Middle East, choosing a cautious approach that resonated with Americans and balanced Washington’s interests in his first 100 days in office.
Many of Mr Biden’s early national security actions also illustrated the pressure he is under in a tug-of-war between centrist and more hawkish elements of the foreign policy establishment and the increasing influence of anti-war activists and sceptics of US military intervention.
And it remains unclear which faction will ultimately win out in the long-run.
“We really kind of have to see which inclinations – the inclination to lower our military profile as opposed to the inclination to continue the forever wars – end up carrying the day with the president,” said Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute, a think tank that advocates for less military intervention.
“The obvious answer is it’s too soon to tell,” Dr Bacevich told The National. “The most important thing he has done is declaring that the Afghanistan war will end by September 11. It’s important in and of itself because that is America’s longest-ever war and it has failed.”
At the same time, Gen Kenneth McKenzie – the top commander in charge of US forces in the region – has said that some of the 3,500 troops set to withdraw from Afghanistan are likely to remain in the region for counter-terrorism operations in the war-torn country.
Gen McKenzie also said that he does not see the US “completely withdrawing from Iraq in the future”.
While the vast majority of the 2,500 US troops in Iraq are officially advising Iraqi Security Forces in their campaign against the remnants of ISIS, their presence has made them a frequent target of Iran-backed Iraqi militias – plaguing Mr Biden’s first 100 days.
One particularly deadly attack in Erbil in February prompted Mr Biden to retaliate by striking two Iraqi militias stationed in Syria. Republicans in Congress praised the Syria strike, while key members of Mr Biden’s own party questioned its legality given the lack of congressional authorisation.
Still, Mr Biden’s Syria strike represented a more limited form of retaliation than former president Donald Trump’s strike on Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad when Iraq served as the battleground between the US and Iran-backed militias during a similar bout of violence last year.
But reviving the Iran nuclear deal following Mr Trump’s withdrawal appears to be Mr Biden’s most urgent priority in the region. US envoy to Iran Robert Malley is on his way for a third round of indirect talks with Iran in Vienna.
At the same time, Mr Biden has not offered Iran any significant sanctions relief yet.
Mr Biden has also sought to place more emphasis on human rights in foreign policy than Mr Trump did. His decision to end offensive support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting Yemen’s Iran backed Houthi rebels and recognising the Armenian Genocide this month over Turkey’s strong objections illustrate this emphasis while maintaining distance from traditional US allies in the region.
Similarly, the Biden administration is keeping public distance from regional conflicts that hurt Mr Obama’s legacy. While Mr Obama turned a blind eye to the Saudi Arabia-led offensive in Yemen in 2015 and offered intelligence co-operation, the Biden team has crafted its messaging around the need to end a war that remains very unpopular inside the US.
But the Biden team appears content to pursue minimal diplomatic engagement in Syria. Mr Biden has not appointed an envoy for Syria, marking the first time the war-torn country has not had an envoy since 2012.
On Israel, Mr Biden has avoided both Mr Obama’s costly policy of clashing early with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr Trump’s warm embrace of the Likud leader and reversal of a three-decade-long policy towards the Palestinians. Instead, the new administration has re-established high-level contact with the Palestinian Authority that was halted under Trump, resumed aid to the UNRWA, and announced $15 million in Covid-related humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians.
At the same time, the Biden administration is not prioritising Israeli-Palestinian negotiations or issues such as a settlement freeze or Hamas rockets. While Mr Obama made his first foreign calls to Palestinian and Israeli leaders, Mr Biden has yet to call Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Mr Biden has also drawn criticism from the left-flank of his party over his proposed $753 billion defence budget for Fiscal Year 2022. And while the budget proposal is a 1.4 per cent increase over the defence spending level Congress enacted last year, Republicans contend that Mr Biden’s figure is still too low.
Under the Biden administration, the Pentagon is still determined to focus less on the Middle East in favour of “great power competition”, echoing the attempts by Mr Trump and Mr Obama to counter China in the Indo-Pacific.
“There is a very strong tendency to refrain US-China relations in terms of a new Cold War to emphasise the adversarial and competitive aspects of the relationship,” said Dr Bacevich. “The counter argument is the emphasis that [Mr Biden] is putting on climate change.”
After rejoining the Paris climate accord, Mr Biden convened a high-profile climate summit last week with 40 world leaders, including President Xi Jinping of China, which is the world’s largest carbon dioxide producer.
As part of his bid to cajole other world leaders into increasing their commitments before the UN climate summit in Scotland in November, Mr Biden announced that the United States will aim to halve its carbon emissions over 2005 levels by 2030.
“Foreign policy is domestic policy,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in February. That appears to be the default doctrine for Mr Biden’s foreign policy so far.
Updated: April 28, 2021 09:06 PM