Joe Biden has begun his presidency with great success. He has moved to address the central issue facing the country — the pandemic — and proposed big, bold policies to help the country recover. He seems to have learned a key lesson from the Obama years: that Democrats do well when they act with imagination and courage, rather than waiting around and watering down proposals in the vain hope of Republican support. But while the Biden administration has adopted a confident, assertive stance on domestic policy, on foreign policy it has taken a strikingly different approach — hesitant, diffident and fixated on preemptively mollifying its Republican critics.

Ever since then-President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran deal, Biden and his top advisers have made clear that the withdrawal was a serious mistake, one that dramatically undermined the United States’ credibility with the world and created a more dangerous Middle East. The deal had placed Iran in a box, imposing strict limits on its nuclear program. Without them, Tehran was moving ever closer to nuclear weapons.

You would assume that, once in office, the Biden administration would be searching for a quick way to return to the deal. No, it turns out. Both the secretary of state and the director of national intelligence say that rejoining the deal is “a long ways” away. They insist that Iran first come back into compliance, but that’s largely a tactic to avoid confronting the issue. Diplomats could find a method for the two countries to rejoin simultaneously. Many of Biden’s officials helped negotiate the Iran accord and argued strenuously that it was the best deal that the United States could get. Have they changed their minds?

On China, the administration has been falling over itself to prove how tough it is. The American readouts from both Biden’s call with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s call with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, sound less like diplomatic documents than pieces of performance art designed for a domestic audience. The readouts are studded with words like “coercive” and “unfair,” and include stern vows to hold Beijing “accountable for its efforts to threaten stability.”

The Biden campaign described Trump’s trade war with China as “an unmitigated disaster” that cost Americans money and jobs. When Biden was asked in an August interview whether he would keep Trump’s tariffs, he answered “no” and offered a wholesale critique of Trump’s China policies. But none of that is being reversed. It’s all “under review.”

On Cuba, during the campaign Biden attacked Trump’s policies and pledged a return to the Obama-era effort to relax the embargo and engage with Cuba, arguing that these policies would be more effective in changing the island nation than a decades-long policy of isolation and sanctions. Nothing has been reversed. Again, it’s all under “review.” One would have thought Biden and his advisers had already spent the past four years carefully reviewing Trump’s policies, since they publicly declared them to be disastrous.

I suspect Biden’s foreign policy team is trying to play domestic politics, hoping to deflect Republican criticism of being soft on U.S. foes. It won’t work. Already, Republicans have sensed weakness and are pursuing a campaign to keep the Iran deal from ever being resurrected, which would be touted as a great victory for Republicans. On China, Cliff Sims, a former top Trump official, responded to that tough readout of the Biden-Xi call by suggesting that it was a lie and that the real story was “the Bidens’ selling out the country with Chinese Communist Party business deals.” Meanwhile, the same day, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo accused Democrats of trying to funnel taxpayer dollars to the Chinese Communist Party and questioned their patriotism. Let me confidently predict that no matter how aggressive Biden’s policies, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Pompeo will accuse him of appeasement.

Democrats should keep in mind that when they run scared on foreign policy, they never win. Lyndon Johnson sent half a million troops into Vietnam for fear that Republicans would say he was soft on communism. After 9/11, Democrats eagerly voted for the Patriot Act and the Iraq War. Then-Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) was a war hero with three purple hearts and (like Biden) voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq. In return, Republicans smeared him as a coward who had lied about his war record.

President Barack Obama achieved his foreign policy successes — the Paris climate accords, the bin Laden raid, the Iran nuclear deal, the opening to Cuba, the Trans-Pacific Partnership — because he was an unusual figure willing to question bipartisan groupthink, take risks and, above all, stop conducting foreign policy on Republican terms. Biden’s officials are highly intelligent and capable. Many of them helped craft these policies. Do they not believe in their own accomplishments?

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