Joe Biden and the politics of appeasement 

Joe Biden and the politics of appeasement 

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Since Joe Biden became president, the United States has suffered one foreign policy set-back after another, from the humiliating U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, to the Chinese spy balloon drama in January 2023. Add to these the administration’s failed attempts to curry favor with Iran — which Tehran returned by helping initiate the current explosion of violence across the Mideast — and it seems no corner of the world has been spared.

Much expert opinion has defended (or excused) Biden’s foreign policy record over this time — reminding us that he has decades of foreign policy experience, praising him as the “adult in the room” on foreign relations, and claiming he simply “inherited” these global challenges. And, to be fair, there are examples of Biden acting decisively as commander-in-chief, such as forming new alliances against China in the Indo-Pacific, and committing to boosting U.S. production of military-grade semiconductors.

However, any clear-eyed assessment of Biden’s performance in foreign policy — past and present — reveals one consistent thread, which certainly helps explain the dire state of world affairs during his presidency: his unusual commitment to choosing the weakest or least confrontational path.

For those who grasp the importance of hard power in deterring adversaries and maintaining global stability, this connection will be obvious, and instructive. But with threats reaching fever pitch in key parts of the world — Eastern Europe, the Mideast, the Taiwan Strait — it is imperative that the Biden administration swiftly acts to re-assert U.S. military power. A good start would be taking decisive action against Iranian proxies attacking U.S. installations and global shipping in and around the Persian Gulf.

Unfortunately, Biden has much work to do if he wishes to assure allies and convince adversaries he means business when it comes to using military force: he has a lengthy track record of taking a softer, appeasement-oriented, approach. In the 1980s, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he opposed Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup against the Soviet Union, considering it too threatening. In 1991, he opposed the Persian Gulf War, favoring the softer tactic of economic sanctions to liberate Kuwait. In the mid-2000s, he opposed the Bush administration’s troop surge in Iraq, claiming the war was already lost. In 2011, as vice president, he opposed the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

As president, he famously ordered (against the advice of his military advisers) the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, resulting in a swift Taliban takeover. And while Biden has firmly supported Ukraine in its war against Russia, early blunders by the administration helped set the war in motion, including signing an agreement with Ukraine supporting its “aspirations to join NATO” (a blinking red line for Vladimir Putin) while simultaneously refusing it defensive weapons — such as anti-tank javelins and anti-air stingers — in case Russia were to invade. The boldest of proclamations was backed up by the weakest of actions. And now, Biden seems willing to assist Ukraine just enough not to lose, rather than providing what it needs to win — again, out of fear of provoking Russia.

Iran has similarly only witnessed this side of Biden, who entered office so eager to bring Tehran back into a nuclear agreement his administration loosened (or ceased enforcing) U.S. and global oil sanctions, resulting in tens of billions in new oil and gas revenue since 2021. It also delisted Yemen’s Houthi rebels — Iran’s main proxy on the Arabian Peninsula — from the State Department’s list of designated terrorist organizations; which is now one of the Iranian-backed groups freely firing at U.S. assets across the region.

Watching all of this unfold from East Asia, of course, is Chinese president Xi Jinping, who just this week reiterated his certainty Taiwan will be reunited with China, and sent sorties of war planes across the Taiwan Strait, in only his latest provocation. Xi has every reason to ask: why would the United States be so unwilling to help Ukraine win its war outright against Russia, and so fearful of any military confrontation with Iran, but also willing to involve itself in a potential all-out war over Taiwan?

The fact this is now a reasonable question, shows how far the credibility of U.S. military deterrence has fallen under the Biden administration. And, if history is any guide, once such questions are asked — as they were in the 1930s, and again in the 1970s — negative outcomes are typically the result.

That’s why it is so vital for the Biden administration to reestablish U.S. deterrence, starting with warning Tehran it will be held accountable for attacks by its proxies against U.S. assets — and following through with tactical strikes inside Iran if necessary. The administration must also make clear to Russia that if it does not accept a territorial settlement agreeable to Ukraine, the United States will begin providing weapons, such as longer-range missiles, that will significantly up the pressure on Moscow.

Both Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940s, and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, faced a world doubting U.S. power and resolve — only to turn history around with a clear assertion of U.S. military power mixed with the force of American ideals.

The question now is whether Joe Biden can meet the present moment and do the same.

Stuart Gottlieb teaches American foreign policy and international security at Columbia University, where he is a member of the Saltzman Institute of War & Peace Studies. He formerly served as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter in the United States Senate (1999-2003).

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