U.S. leaders rarely have been noted for being able to gauge changing sentiment in the international arena and adjusting their foreign policy accordingly. The Biden administration, however, may be setting new records for the tone-deaf quality of its policies. Three incidents in the past few weeks illustrate the problem.
There has been obvious movement in recent months on the part of leading Arab powers to temper their feud with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Only a few years ago, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries were in a partnership with Turkey and the United States to unseat Assad – largely because of his close alliance with Iran. Now, those same powers have changed course dramatically, seeking a rapprochement with both Damascus and Tehran. Important signals of the new political environment were Saudi Arabia’s restoration of diplomatic relations with Iran and Syria’s re-entry to the Arab League.
Instead of going along with the new diplomatic and geopolitical realities in the region, the Biden administration chose this moment to escalate its increasingly futile attempts to isolate Assad. On May 30, Washington imposed new economic sanctions on Syria. As Dave DeCamp noted, the businesses were targeted using the Caesar Act, a law the US has used to impose sanctions on Syria that are specifically designed to prevent the country’s reconstruction." One could scarcely imagine a more ill-timed move, given the powerful, contrary diplomatic trends in the region.
The administration’s clumsy policy regarding Syria is not an aberration. Washington’s attempt to oust Venezuela’s Marxist regime headed by Nicolas Maduro shows unmistakable signs of unraveling. On May 29, Maduro visited Brazil for a very cordial summit meeting with President Lula da Silva. A Bloomberg account of the meeting accurately assessed its importance. Maduro’s visit "is the latest evidence of an ongoing thaw toward the Venezuelan government after leftists won elections in Brazil and Colombia last year."
Eunomia’s Daniel Larison predicts: "There will be a temptation in Washington to criticize the Brazilian government for repairing its relations with Venezuela, but this should be resisted. Regional governments know better than anyone what the consequences of economic warfare are for Venezuela and for neighboring countries, and they reject the policy of isolation that produced them." As in the case of policy toward Syria, though, there is no indication of a needed awakening on the part of Biden administration officials.
The worst case of a tone-deaf policy is the administration’s petulant response to countries that decline to go along with Washington’s efforts to isolate Russia. In the past few weeks, US policymakers even have hinted about imposing economic penalties on South Africa for continuing to trade with Moscow. In mid-May, the US ambassador to South Africa specifically accused that country of covertly providing arms to Russia. His accusation drew an immediate, angry rebuke from Pretoria.
Such behavior reflects Washington’s broader frustration with the faltering of its anti-Russia campaign. Early on, Biden and his aides fostered the myth that the world was united in its desire to punish Russia for the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine. Officials continue to grasp at straws, especially the two toothless, symbolic votes in the UN General Assembly condemning Russia’s invasion, as evidence of such supposed unity. The reality is that the vast majority of countries, including such major players as China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, have refused to impose sanctions on Russia, much less support NATO’s policy of providing military aid to Kyiv.
As the South Africa incident suggests, the Biden administration is not reacting graciously to such dissent. In October 2022, Biden personally threatened Saudi Arabia with "consequences" because Riyadh made a cut in oil production, thereby keeping global prices high and indirectly aiding Russia. In February 2023, Secretary of State Tony Blinken threatened China with negative consequences (implying serious sanctions) if it sold any weapons to Russia. Earlier, Washington had made it clear to India that the country was running severe risks if it continued its close security ties to Russia while the war in Ukraine raged.
The Biden administration’s practice of parochial foreign policy narcissism is increasingly out-of-touch with regional and global realities. By defying the wishes of important powers in a particular region, such measures have little hope of achieving their stated objectives. Worse, Washington’s boorish behavior is alienating countries whose support the United States may want or need with respect to other issues. The recent episodes provide further evidence of the administration’s intellectual bankruptcy regarding foreign affairs.
Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute. He also served in various policy positions 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).