Inconsistencies in Biden Foreign Policy
The US National Security Strategy (NSS) document is of critical importance in providing the final say on current foreign policy. The NSS has always been presented as a carefully assembled finished product, and thus the decision by US President Joe Biden to issue an interim NSS guidance represents a major departure from the norm. Far from promoting a more focused, disciplined approach toward policymaking, Biden’s interim NSS guidance may well come back to haunt him. In fact, it highlights the policy inconsistencies and unrealistic expectations of the administration, especially when it comes to the Middle East and Central Asia.
The preparation of an NSS document by the White House is mandated by law. One of its primary purposes is to facilitate better communication between the executive branch and Congress, thereby formalizing and legitimizing requests for taxpayer resources through the budget process. The document also facilitates smooth functioning of the interagency processes involved in making policy. It also communicates the president’s vision to both foreign and domestic audiences to build support for these policies.
President Biden’s decision to break from past precedent has been hailed by his supporters in the national security establishment who are eager to put the Trump era behind them. Their goal is to get on with the business of repairing frayed relations with valued allies and reasserting US leadership across a broad spectrum of issues. Seen in this light, the interim NSS guidance is the equivalent of a divorce decree, creating separation with the policies of the past. “I am issuing this guidance,” Biden wrote in his introduction, “to convey my vision for how America will engage with the world.” Biden directed the departments and agencies “to align their actions with this guidance” even as work was initiated on the formal NSS document. “We have no time to waste,” Biden declared. “America cannot afford to be absent any longer on the world stage.” Sounding like he was still on the campaign trail, Biden repeated what has become the mantra of his administration: “America is back. Diplomacy is back. Alliances are back.”
But once the campaign thematics are stripped away, the interim NSS guidance offers little in the way of a viable road map forward. Instead, it often highlights existing contradictions in the Biden foreign and national security policy. Biden’s interim NSS often comes across as all cheer, little game. Moreover, as the world’s hotspots begin heating up, the reality on the ground will undoubtedly begin to overtake policies set forth in the interim guidance.
No End to the ‘Forever Wars’
No issue underscores the disconnect between intent and reality in the interim NSS guidance more than Afghanistan. “The United States,” Biden declared, “should not, and will not, engage in ‘forever wars’ that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. We will work to responsibly end America’s longest war in Afghanistan while ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorist attacks on the United States.”
President Biden inherited a peace plan and accompanying policy from his predecessor that would have resulted in all US troops being withdrawn from Afghanistan by May 2021. Full implementation of the Trump plan would have ended “America’s longest war,” as Biden described it. Instead, Biden is extending the timeline of the US and Nato military presence in Afghanistan, violating the peace plan negotiated between the US and Taliban in February 2020. This decision almost guarantees a resurgence of heavy fighting and runs the real risk of requiring the US to reinforce its position in Afghanistan. The evolving position of the Biden administration seems to reflect the policy positions of the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency, which are anchored on the continued presence of US combat troops in Afghanistan rather than the wording of the interim guidance.
The Biden administration is well on its way to opening a new, bloody chapter in the history of “America’s longest war,” one that will not only continue to waste US taxpayer dollars and shed US blood, but which also sets the tone for the presence of the US in the region as a whole. “We do not believe,” Biden noted in his interim guidance, “that military force is the answer to the region’s challenges.” Moreover, Biden wrote, “we will not give our partners in the Middle East a blank check to pursue policies at odds with American interests and values.” Biden singled out the decision by his administration to “withdraw US support for offensive military operations in Yemen and backed UN efforts to end the war.”
But Biden’s announcement came prior to the recent escalation of fighting between the Houthi rebels in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The incessant attacks by Houthi ballistic missiles and armed drones on Saudi targets, including several affiliated with its oil industry, are prompting the US to increase “defensive” support for Saudi forces, including intelligence used to target Houthi missile and drone forces. In reality, there is little difference between an offensive and defensive attack when the objective is interdicting Houthi missiles before they are launched. Far from facilitating an end to the Yemen conflict, the Biden administration has found itself caught up in an escalation of military action that supports the continuation of the war in Yemen.
Complicating matters further is the inconsistency between stated policy objectives in Yemen and Israel. In Yemen, US policy seeks to deny Saudi Arabia a “blank check” in prosecuting a war that the Biden administration has defined as being “at odds with American interests and values.” But at the same time the US gives Israel a free hand to conduct military operations in Gaza. The US contends that this support is a byproduct of the “ironclad commitment to Israeli security,” but regional actors — both those partnered with the US and those opposed — have a hard time distinguishing between “bad” military action in Yemen from “good” military operations in Gaza.
Iraq and Syria
Inconsistency is a hallmark of the Biden administration’s approach toward policy implementation in the Middle East. Two nations — Iraq and Syria — where the US continues to maintain significant military forces, are characterized in the interim guidance as being part and parcel of a US-led effort to “deter Iranian aggression and threats to sovereignty and territorial integrity” and a parallel policy that seeks to “disrupt Al-Qaeda and related terrorist networks and prevent an [Islamic State] resurgence.”
The Biden interim guidance seeks a diplomatic path toward achieving regional stability, but military responses are so engrained in US policy that this will be difficult. The recent decision to bomb targets inside Syria affiliated with Iraqi militias in retaliation for an attack on a US base in northern Iraq by a different militia, is an example of how the US has spent so much time and effort defining every problem in the region as a nail that the only tool deemed acceptable becomes the hammer. As things stand, there is no viable diplomatic option available to resolve the complicated situation on the ground in both Iraq and Syria. While Biden may fervently believe that there can be no military solution to these problems, the only option currently available to him is the continued use of military force, thereby guaranteeing that the US will remain bogged down in Syria and Iraq — and the Middle East as a whole — for the foreseeable future.
The importance of the conclusion that the US will remain bogged down in the Middle East and Central Asia cannot be overstated. The essence of Biden’s national security strategy hinges on the US disengaging from two decades of conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and redirecting precious military and diplomatic resources to what Biden believes are the more pressing issues of confronting an expansive China and a destabilizing Russia. This shift may not be possible. Then there is also the need to focus limited budget resources on Biden’s goal of a carbon-neutral economy to combat global climate change. Something will have to give. Based on the historical reluctance within the US national security establishment to withdraw from Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, the chances are that other compromises will be asked of other policies. This means that the final NSS document, if and when it is published, will need to be far removed from the policy utopia set forth in Biden’s interim guidance.