Joe Biden’s foreign policy record as president in his first six months has been as bad as his non-interventionist and antiwar critics feared it would be. Biden has made one significant and correct decision that he appears to be following through on, and that is the withdrawal of the last remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but even here there is reason to worry that US forces may be relocated to other nearby countries and the war against the Taliban will continue from afar. On almost every other front, Biden has not only failed to undo some of his predecessor’s worst and most destructive policies, but in many cases he has entrenched and reinforced them.
If Trump imposed "maximum pressure" sanctions on another country, Biden has kept all those sanctions in place. Even on those few issues where Biden seemed willing to make meaningful changes to Trump’s policies for the better, such as ending US support for the war on Yemen, Biden has offered either lip service or he has moved so slowly that it is difficult to see any change at all. No one expected Biden to oversee a radical overhaul of the foreign policy status quo that he has defended for decades, but even on his own terms he has failed to deliver.
Biden claimed that he would treat Saudi Arabia as a "pariah," but he has done nothing of the sort. While it was never likely that the US would shun the Saudis entirely, Biden had given his supporters reason to expect that there would be significant changes to the relationship. The recent visit of the crown prince’s brother and Saudi deputy defense minister Khalid bin Salman to Washington, where he met with almost every top official in the administration, confirmed that this was a vain hope. The US continues to support the Saudi coalition war on Yemen, and the administration has not been forthcoming at all about what military assistance the US has stopped providing to the Saudis and their allies. Trump-era weapons sales to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been greenlit after briefly being put on hold. Biden’s Department of Justice risibly claims that the UAE’s history of using U.S.-made weapons to commit war crimes and its pattern of handing off some of these weapons to their proxies have no bearing on what they will do with such weapons in the future.
The president was happy to get credit for declaring an end to US support for "offensive operations" in Yemen, but the most significant offensive operation that the coalition has been carrying out for the last six years, the killing blockade imposed on the country, continues with at least tacit US backing. Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and US clients continue to starve the people of Yemen. Biden has done almost nothing to rein in those clients. As long as the US continues to arm and assist these governments, we remain complicit in their crimes.
The economic wars that the US has been waging against Venezuela, Iran, Syria, and North Korea have not ended, and neither have their deleterious effects on tens of millions of people. Whether it is because of electoral considerations or some other goal, Biden remains committed to Trump’s policy of regime change in Venezuela, and administration officials like to tell the press that he is in "no rush" to lift the devastating sanctions that have contributed to the humanitarian catastrophe there. Likewise, Biden’s response to protests in Cuba has been to keep all Trump-era restrictions in place, including harmful limits on remittances, and to add on additional pointless sanctions on top officials. Inflicting collective economic punishment on entire countries remains one of the cornerstones of the current bipartisan foreign policy consensus.
Biden moved too slowly to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran, and more than halfway through 2021 the US is still not a party to the agreement that Trump reneged on. Reversing Trump’s Iran policy was one of the more high-profile and significant commitments that Biden made as a candidate, but to date he has continued that policy in practice. It remains to be seen if the negotiations will collapse, but Biden’s unwillingness to offer any sanctions relief up front may very well have doomed the effort from the beginning. Biden and his officials took a relatively straightforward proposition of reentry into a successful nonproliferation agreement and unnecessarily complicated it by refusing to take the first steps to rejoin and resume compliance. Salvaging one of the chief legacies of the Obama administration was supposed to be one of the easier foreign policy tasks that Biden had in his first year in office, but there is a real danger that Biden has squandered his chance to keep the agreement alive. Letting the nuclear deal collapse would be a serious blow to the cause of nonproliferation, and it would also encourage hard-liners in the US to push for even more aggressive action against Iran.
In another continuation of Trump’s policies, Biden has ordered unauthorized tit-for-tat reprisals on Iraqi militias in Iraq and Syria, and this has only led to more attacks on US forces in those countries. Instead of getting all US troops out of Iraq, Biden is choosing simply to re-label them as advisers so that he and the Iraqi prime minister can take credit for ending the presence of "combat forces" in the country. Most of the US military presence will remain for some unspecified amount of time. While they remain there, those troops will still be at risk of attack from the militias that our government keeps bombing in the name of "self-defense." The potential for escalation and possible conflict with Iran will remain along with them.
Biden’s record over the last six months has included several other serious errors, including enabling and rewarding Israel’s indiscriminate attacks in Gaza, continuing military assistance to Azerbaijan despite its many war crimes in Karabakh, and the decision to leave Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. These are all cases of catering to US, so it is not surprising that Biden did these things, but they still deserve to be condemned. For all of the Biden administration’s talk of putting human rights at the center of their foreign policy, their actions tell a very different, familiar story of supporting abusive clients no matter what they do.
Biden’s foreign policy so far is largely made up of failures to achieve his stated goals and failures to overturn the worst policies that he inherited from Trump. In some cases, Biden has not even made the effort to overturn them. The Biden administration likes to use the phrase "America is back" as its foreign policy motto. Judging from Biden’s first six months this just means that America is back to more of the same destructive and inhumane policies that we have had for decades.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.