Three major U.S. allies — Israel, Egypt and Turkey — are all signaling displeasure with the administration. Many Israelis were upset that Biden hadn’t called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upon taking office. Danny Danon, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations and now chairman of the international arm of Netanyahu’s Likud party, even took to Twitter to voice his displeasure. What gall. Netanyahu, who removed a picture of himself with President Donald Trump from his Twitter profile banner only on Jan. 11, has no cause for complaint. He got far too close with the previous president, so it’s no surprise that he is on the outs with this one. The U.S.-Israel alliance will continue (the two leaders finally spoke on Wednesday), but Biden is signaling that he will not be as solicitous of Netanyahu as Trump was.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is castigating the United States for supposedly supporting Kurdish fighters who executed 13 Turkish hostages in northern Iraq. It’s quite a stretch to blame the United States for the actions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist organization by Washington. Erdogan is trying to deflect domestic anger and to set the terms of his relationship with the new president. He will have to learn that Biden likely will be far tougher on him than Trump was.
So, too, with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, whom Trump referred to as “my favorite dictator.” Biden has pledged “no more blank checks” for Sissi. Now, Sissi seems to be taunting him by arresting six relatives of an outspoken Egyptian dissident living in Northern Virginia. Biden will need to push back hard — perhaps by threatening to withhold some U.S. aid. Biden’s emphasis on human rights has already paid dividends with another difficult ally: Saudi Arabia has released several political prisoners since Biden took office.
Enemies pose even tougher tests than allies. A barrage of rockets was fired on Monday at a U.S. base in northern Iraq, injuring a U.S. service member and killing a non-American contractor. A shadowy Shiite militia group called the Guardians of Blood Brigades claimed responsibility, but Iran is likely the real culprit.
Tehran wants U.S. sanctions lifted as a prelude to rejoining the nuclear deal that Trump exited in 2018. But Biden appointees have been saying that Iran needs to come into compliance before sanctions are relaxed. Iran is ratcheting up the pressure by increasing uranium enrichment and threatening to kick out international inspectors next week. Attacks by proxy groups in Iraq — or even in Africa — could be another way for Tehran to turn up the heat. Biden needs to send a strong signal to the Iranians to cool it if they want a deal — and, like Trump, he needs to make clear there will be harsh repercussions for killing U.S. personnel.
Then there is the Taliban. Though engaged in peace talks, the group is showing more interest in conquest than compromise. It has been blamed for a series of high-profile terrorist attacks in Kabul, and it is positioning its forces to launch a major assault across the country in the spring.
Under the terms of the Trump-Taliban deal signed last year, U.S. forces have already been reduced to just 2,500 and are due to be withdrawn altogether by May 1. The Taliban has not complied with the agreement — it has, for example, refused to break with al-Qaeda. Its offensive appears designed to send a message to Biden that the Afghan government is doomed and that the United States had better withdraw if it does not want to suffer more casualties in a losing cause.
If Biden does exit, a congressionally chartered, blue-ribbon study group predicts the “collapse of the Afghan state” and “a reconstitution of the terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland within eighteen months to three years.” The bipartisan panel recommends increasing U.S. forces to 4,500 rather than cutting them to zero. Biden should take their advice to avoid haunting images of U.S. personnel being evacuated from Kabul as from Saigon in 1975.
The entire world is watching how Biden handles these early tests. They will set the tone for his whole presidency. He should avoid getting more deeply embroiled in the Middle East, but he also needs to show the world that he is no pushover. Otherwise, the provocations will only get worse.