Joe Biden’s approach to international issues increasingly resembles George W. Bush’s disastrous foreign policy. One key tendency in common is that both men view complex world affairs in dangerously simplistic terms as an existential struggle between good and evil. In Bush’s case, the bitter fruit of that perspective became apparent with the seemingly endless armed crusades to impose western values in such alien settings as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. In Biden’s case, that attitude was apparent with his administration’s ongoing attempt to portray the Russia-Ukraine war as a stark struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, between the rule of law and the law of the jungle. That approach should have lacked credibility from the outset, since Ukraine is a corrupt autocracy, not a democracy, but administration policymakers keep pushing the thesis.
The Biden administration and its propaganda conduits in the news media are using similar arguments in response to the new war between Hamas and Israel. Instead of acknowledging that Israel’s repressive treatment of Palestinians over the decades contributed to the latest upsurge of violence, the administration has placed all of the blame on Hamas, including simplistically branding the organization as a terrorist movement, not an insurgency.
Biden is now using another one of Bush’s destructive ploys: trying to portray disparate events and political movements in different parts of the world as part of an organized conspiracy on the part of evil regimes. That perspective and its accompanying propaganda is reminiscent of George W. Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” passages in his 2002 State of the Union Address that sought to link Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as manifestations of a unified global threat.
Biden was not subtle about his attempt to create similar linkage, nor did he wait long to go down that road. In the sixth paragraph of his October 19, 2023, address to the nation, he asserted bluntly that “the assault on Israel echoes nearly 20 months of war, tragedy and brutality inflicted on the people of Ukraine, people that were very badly hurt since Putin launched his all-out invasion.” He added: “Hamas and Putin represent different threats, but they share this in common. They both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy — completely annihilate it.”
He quickly brought Iran and even North Korea into the mix as well. “Iran is supporting Russia in Ukraine, and it’s supporting Hamas and other terrorist groups in the region.” In another portion of his address, Biden emphasized that “Putin has turned to Iran and North Korea to buy attack drones and ammunition to terrorize Ukrainian cities and people.” On a more practical level, the administration is working to combine military aid for Israel with the far less popular continuation of military aid to Ukraine, thereby enhancing prospects of continued funding for the latter.
The president’s underlying message with respect to both conflicts was not subtle. “American leadership is what holds the world together. American alliances are what keep us, America, safe. American values are what make us a partner that other nations want to work with. To put all that at risk if we walk away from Ukraine, if we turn our backs on Israel, it’s just not worth it.” Biden even expressed reverence for Madeleine Albright’s infamous expression of national narcissism. “We are, as my friend Madeleine Albright said, the indispensable nation.”
Those themes and the crude attempts to link markedly different issues in different regions, also were prominent in the “axis of evil” narrative during George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address. “North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens. Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom. Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade.” Bush stated unequivocally: “States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” As Biden would do two decades later, Bush stressed the alleged moral imperative of U.S. leadership. “History has called America and our allies to action, and it is both our responsibility and our privilege to fight freedom’s fight.”
The far-reaching negative effects that Bush’s rhetoric and policies set in motion are all too apparent. Most notably, they produced the massively disruptive wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, as well as prolonging the futile U.S. occupation of Afghanistan for nearly two decades. The cost in blood and treasure to the American people has been enormous. A September 2021 report from the Costs of War project at Brown University revealed that 20 years of post-9/11 wars had cost the United States an estimated $8 trillion. Worse, those conflicts had killed more than 7,000 U.S. military personnel, maimed tens of thousands of other soldiers, and claimed the lives of more 900,000 people in foreign countries. U.S.-initiated armed crusades also led to the displacement of millions of people and created a refugee crisis now plaguing Europe.
It is imperative for Americans to prevent a repetition of that tragedy. Biden is attempting to entice the American people to embrace a new amorphous, U.S.-led global crusade against evil. If he succeeds, the consequences are likely to be at least as bad as the wreckage that Bush’s policies have wrought.
Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute. He also held various senior policy posts during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute. Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).