Biden’s first year adds progressive shakeups to centrist foreign policy agenda

Despite aggressive moves in Afghanistan and an early stance in Yemen, President Biden has largely conducted his foreign policy as a centrist Democrat

Former President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani meets US President Joe Biden in Washington in June 2021, a few months before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. AFP
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US President Joe Biden ran his 2020 election campaign as the unabashedly centrist candidate in a field dominated by Democratic primary opponents making broad appeals to the left and a Republican general election opponent leaning further and further to the right.

Throughout his first year in office, Mr Biden has kept most of his foreign policy agenda in line with the traditional centrist ethos that has long dominated much of Washington’s Democratic foreign policy establishment.

Still, he has made some slight adjustments — coupled with one major overhaul in Afghanistan — to his centrist agenda with initiatives favoured by progressive foreign policy advocacy groups that had gained increasing clout among Democrats in Congress under former president Donald Trump.

“Biden has been an interesting mix,” said Greg Treverton, an international relations scholar at the University of Southern California and former chairman of the National Intelligence council.

“On balance, with a couple of exceptions like Afghanistan, I think he’s been a fairly traditional centrist Democrat on foreign policy.”

The notable exception to Mr Biden’s centrist track record was the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, a move lobbied for by an alliance of both progressive and conservative advocacy organisations that occurred despite warnings from the congressionally mandated Afghanistan Study Group.

Mr Biden had opposed US troop surges in Afghanistan under the Obama administration and had pledged to withdraw US combat troops from the country while campaigning for the presidency.

“He long wanted to get out of Afghanistan, however badly that got executed,” said Mr Treverton. “And I still think on balance, it was the right thing to do, but it would have been nice to do it a little more gracefully.”

A Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll from September found that 58 per cent of American voters approved of withdrawing from Afghanistan, even as 59 per cent disapproved of the way Mr Biden did it.

Trita Parsi, executive vice president at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, noted that large parts of both the Democratic and Republican electoral bases supported withdrawing from Afghanistan despite widespread resistance to the move among Washington foreign policymakers.

“It’s more whether Biden has pursued the status quo, pro-blob foreign policy or if he has deviated from it,” said Mr Parsi. “I can’t point to a lot of things besides Afghanistan or the early policy on Yemen to indicate that we’re going to shift away from the blob.”

“Blob”, in reference to Washington’s foreign policy establishment, is a concept first coined by Mr Obama’s then-foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes in response to critiques over the former president’s policies in places such as Iran and Syria.

Upon taking office, Mr Biden announced the end of offensive American support to the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen and revoked Mr Trump’s last-minute designation of the group as a terrorist organisation — an action that had blocked the delivery of US humanitarian aid to areas in Yemen controlled by the Iran-backed rebels.

But the Biden administration has approved a $650 million arms sale to replenish Saudi Arabia's stock of air-to-air missiles depleted by countering Houthi drone attacks and a separate $500m deal to service and maintain attack helicopters that the kingdom already has in its possession.

“Saudi policy, certainly early on, was absolutely a nod to the progressives and their desires to castigate Saudi Arabia,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.

Still, Mr Schanzer called Mr Biden’s foreign policy “a mixed bag” between the centrist and leftist forces within the Democratic party and framed it as to “an attempt to hearken back to Obama administration policies, which are left but not hard left".

“A prime example of that would be the Gaza war in May of last year,” he said. “For the first nine days, there was a sense that Biden was hewing to that centrist Democrat pro-Israel perspective to let Israel take care of its own business.”

However, Mr Schanzer noted that “the president began to issue harsher statements with regard to Israel” and “specifically to then-prime minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu” before an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire took effect.

At the same time, Mr Biden has resisted growing calls within his party to restrict military aid to Israel and has endorsed a $1 billion increase in Iron Dome missile defence funding for the close US ally.

Nonetheless, an August poll from the Chicago Council survey found that only 22 per cent of Democrats view Israel as an ally while 62 per cent of the party’s voters support restrictions on US military aid to the country.

Iraq and Syria mark another area where Mr Biden has resisted domestic calls to scale back the US military presence in the Middle East.

Mr Biden said during the Democratic primary that it would be a “mistake to pull out the small number of troops” in Syria and Iraq, citing ISIS as a concern.

In addition to maintaining the 2,500 US troops in Iraq and 900 soldiers in Syria, Mr Biden has also launched air strikes against Iran-backed militias in each country after attacks on American forces.

“Pulling out of Iraq would not have led to the chaos of Afghanistan, would not have led to the falling of the Baghdad government, would not have led to people falling [off] planes on to the tarmac,” said Mr Parsi. “In Syria, we don’t even have an authorisation there.”

While Mr Biden has lined up behind Democratic efforts in Congress to revoke the 2002 authorisation that allowed for the invasion of Iraq — a repeal that would not affect the current US force posture there — his White House has balked at efforts to repeal the 2001 authorisation that serves as the basis for American counter-terrorism operations across the globe.

The Biden administration has cited the authorisation as the legal rationale to maintain US troops in Syria as well as continue counter-terrorism operations throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

“He’s snakebitten after Afghanistan,” said Mr Schanzer.

“It’s very hard to do that again in another place and precipitate a collapse of the US-led order after having already done it.

“I think a lesson must have been learnt, and at a minimum, it’s probably prompting the White House to take a beat, if not longer, before considering something like that again.”

Updated: January 20, 2022, 7:25 PM