The Blob is Back

So far, Joe Biden's foreign policy is carrying water for the DC foreign policy establishment, not the middle class.

Hey everybody, Derek here. I’m thrilled today to publish Kate Kizer’s first piece as a Foreign Exchanges contributor! Here Kate assesses the Biden administration’s foreign policy performance thus far and finds it wanting even by Biden’s own standard. If you missed Kate’s intro earlier this month you can check that out here.

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“A foreign policy for the Middle Class” has been the Biden administration’s tagline for its vision of reforming US foreign policy. It has issued Interim Strategic Guidance that highlights progressive analysis about the connections between domestic and foreign policy and that elevates the greatest existential threat the world faces—the climate crisis. It appears to be seriously engaging in diplomacy to mitigate further violence and suffering in Yemen and reducing Trump's unnecessary build up of troops in the region. And it’s true that having an administration making foreign policy decisions based on reality is a welcome breath of fresh air after four years of a near descent into fascism.

Yet, though he has a chance to enact one of the most progressive domestic agendas in history, Biden’s approach to foreign policy thus far tells a different story. In that area, at least, Biden has not capitalized on this moment of state and societal failure to make a clean break with the past. Instead, it appears his team has decided to prioritize the views of the foreign policy establishment (the “Blob”) over the needs of working people. It has adopted the tactic of antagonistic diplomacy, in the hopes of appearing tough for hawks in Washington, while largely doing the bare minimum to meet campaign promises.

Joe Biden (left), Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Vice President Kamala Harris delivering remarks at the State Department in February (State Department photo via Flickr)

If President Biden continues to fear the foreign policy establishment and continues pursuing the policies of the failed bipartisan status quo, he will be giving up progress in order to achieve a semblance of consensus. This is not what voters were after when they sent their unmistakable demand for meaningful change last November.

Biden’s early actions on Burma (Myanmar) and Yemen gave cause for hope that his administration might be more progressive than expected on foreign policy. The early February announcement of an end to US offensive support for the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition in Yemen, in particular, was especially exciting to see, given it was the result of years of grassroots and congressional coalition building not just in the United States, but also in capitals around the world. The fact that the administration took these actions on its own, so early, appeared to signal that the campaign and presidential transition’s rhetoric on foreign policy might translate into meaningful progress toward centering the needs of everyday people in its foreign policy decisions.

That hope has been dashed, however, by the ambiguity of the administration’s policy announcements and what’s become a clear aversion to accountability in its policymaking at home and abroad. On Yemen, the announcement was vague and remains undefined, revealing splits within the administration on how far to go in terms of resetting US policy. On Burma, the administration has quietly taken targeted actions, including important sanctions measures, but has not been publicly engaged in creating a unified agenda globally, such as aligning the international community around meaningful accountability for the 2017 genocide of the Rohingya, the current extrajudicial killings of unarmed anti-coup protestors, and a multilateral arms embargo against the junta.

Moreover, the administration appears to have bought into the hawkish and anti-diplomacy bipartisan narrative about the importance of “leverage” over showing good will and rebuilding trust in its re-entry into diplomatic engagement following the last four years of brinkmanship, chaos, and egomaniacal strong arming. He’s also brought some of those same hawkish forces back into the executive branch in commanding roles overseeing regional policy portfolios. The influence of these personnel decisions is clear in Biden’s decision not to sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) over the Jamal Khashoggi murder, his decision to launch retaliatory airstrikes in Syria, and his decision to prioritize North Korean denuclearization in lieu of a peace-first approach that could build trust and meaningful change for people across the Korean peninsula.

Perhaps most egregious—and puzzling—has been Team Biden’s approach to Iran. The president has staffed or sought to staff his administration with the very same people involved in negotiating the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, colloquially known as the JCPOA or the Iran nuclear deal. Many of these folks, as well as unconfirmed nominees, helped champion the cause of diplomacy and pushed back against Trump’s march to war since quitting the deal in 2018. Biden himself unabashedly criticized Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy during the campaign and firmly committed to returning to the deal.

Instead of a swift return to the deal on the basis of compliance for compliance, however, the administration has spent its first two months playing the blame game and shifting responsibility for making the first move onto Iran. The president bombed armed groups in Syria to reportedly send a message to Iran. It myopically suggested that the upcoming Iranian presidential election is somehow irrelevant to the diplomatic process, displaying a worrisome disregard for the Iranian government’s interests and motives. It is positive and important to capitalize on what may be an emerging diplomatic breakthrough with Tehran, but in wasting two months—either for political reasons or due to its own internal indecision—the Biden administration created this crisis, coming perilously close to allowing the window for diplomacy to close. Myopia rarely makes for good foreign policymaking, but it is one of the Blob’s hallmarks.

All the situations outlined above are a direct result of US decisions made under Trump, but also under Biden. Biden’s Syria strikes, for example, were not necessarily responding to an unexpected instance of violence where the US was in a purely defensive position. Instead, the original Feb. 16 attacks by the Iraqi militias Biden targeted should be seen as a continued knock-on effect from the US assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in 2020 and the US refusal to remove its troops from Iraq despite the Iraqi parliament having voted for their removal over a year ago. It’s also a result of the Biden administration’s decision to maintain Team Trump’s failed “maximum pressure” sanctions on Iran—a policy that has served to literally starve, impoverish, and prevent everyday people in Iran from receiving life-saving medical treatment in the midst of COVID-19. Rather than taking a fundamentally new approach, much of Biden’s operational foreign policy decisions appear to be continuing Trump’s policies in everything but name.

Across all of these decisions, the common thread is the unmistakable hubris of American exceptionalism. Despite everything that went on the last four years (and really the last twenty), the people in charge of the executive branch right now have so far failed to show that they truly understand the reasons why we got Trump in the first place. As I have mused previously, the lack of accountability in Washington—particularly in 'security' spaces, where the 'serious' people pontificate about what's in some made-up perception of US national interests rather than what will make actual human beings safe—is a core aspect of why Trump was able to leverage preexisting systemic and structural racism and xenophobia, not just in his ascent to office, but also in his domestic and foreign policy. Trump merely built on what was already there. Moreover, the fear of accountability in Washington has led to a toxic environment in which veteran members of the Blob (mostly cisgender, older white men) are able to continually rehabilitate themselves and their failed ideas despite disastrous policy outcomes and vehement public opposition to such decisions.

Biden’s early foreign policy decisions suggest his administration is not interested in real accountability. Instead, it is clear that despite a rhetorical and, at times, even meaningful commitment to diplomacy, the Biden administration will continue the Blob’s short-sighted and often destructive pursuit of military dominance and unilateralism. The decision not to sanction MBS for his role in the Khashoggi killing—let alone for his role as chief architect of the coalition’s war crime-ridden campaign in Yemen—is a case in point. Biden decided to prioritize an outdated understanding of the utility perceived security “interests” over protecting the needs of everyday people in Saudi Arabia, many of whom languish in jails or are targeted for their religious beliefs and human rights activism.

What might be most frustrating about the administration’s decision to adopt a “hawkish-lite” version of US foreign policy is that it relies on the idea that the US somehow has the upper hand internationally. Trump, very effectively, spent the last four years tearing down US created and supported international norms, agreements, and relationships, while exacerbating violent conflicts around the world. It appears that the Biden team has not realized that re-establishing US credibility—whether to its domestic constituents, foreign governments, or international institutions and civil society—is not as simple as saying “America is back!” Renewed human rights rhetoric won’t be enough for our foreign counterparts to believe that the new administration actually wants to take a different approach toward international engagement.

For the people who have lived under the surveillance of US drones and the threat of US bombs for the last twenty years, Biden’s first two months in office only indicate more of the same. What we have seen thus far does not portend a US foreign policy that focuses on addressing the needs of working people around the globe, who are often most vulnerable to the transnational threats of this century. Instead, it must seem like deja vu to hear Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Biden talk about centering human rights in their foreign policy, while preserving historically high Pentagon budgets and continuing to bomb multiple countries.

If the Biden administration actually wants to create a foreign policy for the middle class, it could start by listening to growing calls to significantly cut the Pentagon’s budget, which has enabled the Blob’s unilateral and military-first approach, wasting trillions of dollars on unwinnable wars and unstrategic militarism since the end of World War II. Unfortunately, the president’s first budget request is likely to further reinforce the notion that this administration is not yet truly creating a new foreign policy for the middle class. Instead, his team is continuing to make bad political bets, trading progressive domestic policies for the kind of hawkish foreign policies and excessive military spending that are key drivers of instability and insecurity not just overseas, but also here at home.

If the administration doesn’t change course soon, its approach to foreign policy will continue upholding the interests of corporate elite and the influence industry in Washington, rather than those it was elected to represent—ultimately limiting the president’s ability to enact the structural change he’s promising domestically. Moreover, continuing down this path will do nothing to anchor Biden’s foreign policy decisions in the realities of today and the political lessons of the last four years and beyond. Without a bold move toward a foreign policy that centers the shared security of working people around the world, the promise of reforming US foreign policy in the next four years will be lost.