The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s foreign policy team can’t handle new threats with old strategies

President Biden speaks at the White House on Friday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Biden’s bold $1.9 trillion rescue plan is rightfully lauded. Both liberals and conservatives have suggested that it marks the end of the conservative era that Ronald Reagan launched 40 years ago. But although the new president deserves kudos for his domestic policy, when it comes to foreign policy initiatives, the new era looks hauntingly like the old.

Biden’s foreign policy team — carefully curated exemplars of the establishment — usually says all the right things: The world has changed; new crises — a climate emergency, global pandemic, crushing economic downturn, crippling corruption and inequality — demand attention; revitalizing our democracy and fixing our economy are the top priorities. Americans are “rightly wary,” Antony Blinken noted March 3 in his first major speech as secretary of state, “of prolonged U.S. military interventions abroad.” The president has emphasized addressing the climate crisis, rejoining the Paris accord, naming former secretary of state John F. Kerry as his envoy for climate change and making climate topics central to his first meeting of allies.

But old establishment views maintain their grip on Biden’s foreign policy. The president says that “the simple truth is, America cannot afford to be absent any longer on the world stage.” Biden comes to office with the United States engaging in military action in several countries, confronting Russia on its borders and China in the South China Sea, and maintaining an estimated 800 bases across the world, the largest collection for a country in world history. It will take a wrenching change of priorities and commitments, a fundamental rethinking of national security, to extricate the United States from the inertial force of this institutionalized engagement on the world stage. And the early indications are that the Biden foreign policy team isn’t exactly looking for the exits.

The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for 20 years at a cost of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. As presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump promised to end the war, but the war goes on. Finally, last year Trump cut a deal with the Taliban to remove all U.S. forces by May 1, 2021. Now, the new administration is giving every indication that Biden will keep the troops in Afghanistan beyond that deadline. The Biden team has put its hopes in a “moon shot” effort to forge a negotiated settlement that will lead to an interim government, a new constitution that guarantees freedom of speech and women’s rights, and new elections. Before delaying the withdrawal, Biden would be well advised to read The Post’s Afghanistan Papers series, which details how the United States again and again put its hopes in false lights at end of the tunnel. After two decades, he shouldn’t fall for yet another promise of a magic settlement. It is way past time to cut our losses and get out.

Elsewhere, Biden’s campaign pledge to revive the Iran nuclear deal has wavered thanks to a dispute about which country will take the first step. He promised to revive Congress’s role in war-making, but then ordered — in what several Democratic senators and representatives condemned as a violation of the War Powers Resolution — a strike on Iranian proxy facilities in Syria. Biden has shown no rush to withdraw the 900 U.S. troops in Syria, a sovereign country that we invaded without permission. The review of our drone assassination program will tighten its targeting but not end it.

And while Biden has repeatedly promised that the United States would not engage in regime change, he has sustained debilitating sanctions against Venezuela that are clearly designed to overthrow the government. A United Nations report last month detailed the horrible human costs, and called on the United States and its allies to allow Venezuela to purchase medicine, vaccines and food. The rapporteur concluded that the campaign to overthrow the Venezuelan government “violates the principle of sovereign equality of states.”

At the same time, Biden is ratcheting up the dangerous faceoff with Russia and China. In the next few weeks, the administration reportedly plans to retaliate for last year’s SolarWinds hack of U.S. cyber infrastructure — for which Russia was allegedly responsible — with more sanctions on Russia and clandestine cyber actions against Russian state institutions. As Anatol Lieven writes, this will probably foster escalating cyberattacks by both sides. Meanwhile, Blinken has called relations with China “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century,” with the administration gearing up not simply to confront the Chinese economically and ideologically, but also militarily, in the South China Sea.

How can the United States focus on new threats — the climate crisis, global pandemics, staggering inequality — while sustaining endless wars, interventionist stances and obsolete Cold War postures? Biden has barely been in office for 50 days, and his foreign policy staffers are still settling into their offices. But Americans are ready for change. The inertial weight of the old foreign policy priorities is already apparent. It remains to be seen whether the Biden people have the desire or the will to extricate us from the mire.

Read more:

Antony J. Blinken and Lloyd J. Austin III: America’s partnerships are ‘force multipliers’ in the world

John R. Bolton: What’s at stake in the first big meeting of top Biden administration and Chinese officials

Jennifer Rubin: Biden’s Middle East policy is one-and-a-half steps forward, but not enough

David Ignatius: Afghanistan is Biden’s first big foreign policy headache

Josh Rogin: Meet Biden’s new foreign policy team — same as Obama’s old foreign policy team