When President Joe Biden won the election, his surrogates repeatedly declared, “The adults are back in charge.” Especially on the foreign policy front, Biden’s team promised expertise and a steady hand. They have delivered anything but.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan was a disaster that will blight not only America’s strategic reputation for generations but its moral standing as well. The fact no Biden administration officials resigned in the wake of that disaster just adds to the shamelessness.
Biden aides may believe that nonstop crises are just bad luck. They are wrong. While dictators have agency, credibility and posture also matter. For too long, since the twilight of the Cold War, a successive array of presidents have projected weakness and ambivalence.
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan sent Marines into Beirut as part of a four-nation peacekeeping force to end Lebanon’s civil war. Rules of engagement forbidding loaded weapons hampered the contingent and proved fatal on Oct. 23, 1983, when the nascent Hezbollah movement sent a suicide truck bomb into the Marine Barracks, killing 241 U.S. service members. In one of his greatest mistakes as president, Reagan ordered a withdrawal.
However, what happened in Beirut did not stay in Beirut.
Years later, al Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden cited Reagan’s withdrawal, as well as President Bill Clinton’s subsequent withdrawal from a humanitarian mission in Somalia following the “Black Hawk Down” incident, to justify his belief the United States was a paper tiger and that terrorism could work.
President Barack Obama, to whom Biden and many on his national security team owe their careers, saw real-world calculations of strength versus weakness and credibility versus prevarication as lacking sophistication. In effect, he turned his back on the real world and replaced it with theories bantered about in university seminar rooms. This was certainly at play when he voided his own red line on the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. Not only did Syria not subsequently forfeit its chemical stockpiles (despite White House pronouncements to the contrary), but it also paved the way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to conclude Obama was a paper tiger and that there would be few consequences for invading Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
That same weakness has been on display with Iran. When in the face of provocation, the U.S. turns the other cheek or offers new concessions — the message learned in Tehran is not that the time for diplomacy is here, but rather that they can exploit U.S. weakness. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki last week blamed malign Iranian activity on President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but this is anachronistic. Tehran ramped up its terrorism and support for regional proxies against the backdrop of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s limp-wristed diplomacy.
The same pattern holds true with Iranian, North Korean, and Chinese hostage diplomacy. During the Lebanese civil war when an Iranian-backed group seized a Russian hostage, the Russians seized the relative of a hostage-taker and delivered him in pieces. That was the last Russian they took. That may not be something Washington could do, but there is a wide gulf between that course of action and offering billions of dollars in ransom, a practice in which Obama engaged.
Biden’s aides may now scramble to reverse his gaffe green-lighting a further Russian “minimal incursion” into Ukraine, just as a couple of months ago when they sought to walk back a blunder about U.S. commitment to Taiwan. But the problem is not simply a single or series of gaffes. Instead, it is a projection of weakness and denial that such weakness has consequences. The simple fact is that dictators are attracted to weakness in the way flies are to honey.
For Putin, Xi Jinping, and Ali Khamenei, Biden is the honey pot of their dreams.