The president has disappointed those who hoped he would begin extricating us from the Middle East.
“Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy,” President Biden told a happy crowd at the State Department soon after taking office. “We must start with diplomacy.”
In the four weeks since making that speech, Biden has bombed Syria, failed to begin talks with Iran, and given Saudi Arabian leaders a pass for murdering a journalist who lived in Washington. He seems likely to repudiate the accord under which American troops must leave Afghanistan in May. If this is diplomacy, what would militarism look like?
The Feb. 25 bombing of a target inside Syria was Biden’s first military action. Officially it was a counterattack. According to the Pentagon, a pro-Iran militia had fired rockets into an American base in Iraq, killing a civilian contractor, so the United States retaliated by hitting another supposedly pro-Iran position several hundred miles away in another country. It was precisely the kind of tit-for-tat escalation that we can expect as long as we keep troops in the Middle East. There will always be someone who wants to attack them, meaning there is always an excuse for counterattack and escalation.
A few members of Congress protested Biden’s decision to bomb Syria. “There is absolutely no justification for a president to authorize a military strike that is not in self-defense against an imminent threat without congressional authorization,” Democratic Representative Ro Khanna asserted. Yet for the most part, the bombing was either unnoticed or cheered. Progressive heroes like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez remained silent. Republicans who applaud whenever the United States attacks anyone, like Senators Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, were delighted. Both framed the bombing as a warning to Iran. They were right.
Powerful figures in Washington hate the idea of negotiating with Iran. Biden wants to placate them. Rather than quickly rejoining the 2015 nuclear deal, from which President Trump gleefully withdrew, he is hesitating. He could have sent diplomats to deliver a message to Iran, but instead he sent F-15 fighter jets firing “precision guided munitions.” That’s always popular in Washington. The rally-round-the-flag effect has taught American presidents that bombing another country usually wins votes at home. Diplomacy, not so much.
In Afghanistan, as in Iran, Biden has declined to take an open path toward peace. Donald Trump left him with an invaluable gift: a signed accord with the Taliban under which US troops will leave Afghanistan in May. But Biden apparently fears that if he accepts this gift, he will go down in history as the president who admitted American failure in Afghanistan. To make sure that doesn’t happen, he is evidently preparing to kick the Afghan can down the proverbial road. His three immediate predecessors did the same. Like them, Biden would rather condemn unknown numbers of Afghans to suffering and death than pay the domestic political price of accepting reality and withdrawing American troops.
During his presidential campaign, Biden called Saudi Arabia’s leaders “vile,” in part because of their role in the 2018 dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. An American intelligence report released in late February confirmed the Saudi government’s responsibility for Khashoggi’s killing, but Biden made clear that he will not punish the guilty prince. Aides said he might limit sales of offensive weaponry to Saudi Arabia. No decision is expected soon — meaning that despite much talk, relations between Washington and the bone-sawing Saudis will remain strong.
If Biden truly wants to make diplomacy the centerpiece of his approach to the world, he has no lack of opportunity. He could start by announcing that he is easing sanctions on Iran to jump-start nuclear negotiations. Then he could pledge to uphold last year’s accord under which US troops are to be withdrawn from Afghanistan. He could seek a negotiated settlement of the Yemen war, make a diplomatic overture to Russia or China, launch new talks on the Korean peninsula, or reopen our embassy in Cuba. None of that, though, seems likely anytime soon.
Biden’s first full month in office has been an immense disappointment to those who hoped he would begin extricating us from the Middle East. He and those around him appear frozen in the paradigm of conflict and “strategic competition” that shaped their Cold War generation. That is what allows them to preach diplomacy while bombing Syria — or, in the Pentagon’s Orwellian formulation, launching a “defensive precision strike” intended “to de-escalate the overall situation.”
Biden’s reluctance to take the path of diplomacy is shaped in part by Washington politics. He may logically calculate that if he rejects diplomacy — say, by keeping troops in Afghanistan or dragging his feet on talks with Iran — he will appease Republicans whose support he may need to pass an economic stimulus package or other domestic bills. In this Beltway bargain, Democrats, Republicans, and arms makers all win. Citizens of war-torn countries lose.
In his State Department speech last month, Biden asserted that diplomacy “has always been essential to how America writes its own destiny.” Conflict, however, has been at least as essential. If Biden’s first weeks in office are any indication, we are in for four more years of it.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.