In an administration seemingly bankrupt of diplomacy or imagination, U.S. President Joe Biden and his team, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, have responded to the most hair trigger situations across the map in just the past few days with nothing but increased violence.
As the risk of widening war in the Middle East crested and then seemed, hopefully, to tentatively recede, the United States has responded by agitating the waters.
As the U.S. retaliated to the killing of three U.S. servicemembers in a drone strike by “Iran-backed” Shiite resistance groups by striking more than 80 targets in Syria and Iraq, both the U.S. and Iran seemed to cautiously calmed the waves. Assessing that “Tehran does not have full control over its proxy groups” nor that they are “commanding” or “directing” the attacks, the Biden administration seems to have made the decision not to strike Iran’s Revolutionary Guard or strike inside Iran, potentially limiting the response and deescalating the situation.
Iran, for its part, condemned the strikes but did not threaten retaliation. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, said the strikes “continued [the] wrong and failed approach to resolving issues by resorting to force and militarism.” A foreign ministry spokesperson called them an “adventurous action” and a “strategic mistake” and said they violated international law. Iran told Kataib Hezbollah, the group the U.S. has accused of responsability, to suspend military operations and said that they are “not looking for war.” In considering how Iran would respond to U.S. retaliation, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave the order that direct war with the U.S. was to be avoided and that Iran should distance itself from the groups who killed the U.S. troops.
But then, on February 7, a U.S. drone blew up a car in Baghdad, killing three people including two commanders of Kataib Hezbollah. One of them, Abu Baqir Al-Saadi, was the commander in charge of Kataib Hezbollah’s operations in Syria. U.S Central Command said the strike was “in response to the attacks on U.S. service members.”
After a brief and small hope that the escalation was receding, the tide is, once again, cresting.
The same is true in Ukraine and Russia. After two recent Ukrainian strikes, there is little that can trigger the situation more than Western supplied long-range missiles.
Tension was high after a Russian plane carrying sixty-five Ukrainian prisoners was shot down by a U.S. supplied Patriot surface-to-air missile, killing all the prisoners and Russians onboard the plane.
U.S. supplied missiles were also behind a second inflammatory incident. On February 3, a Ukrainian missile strike on a bakery in the Luhansk region of the Donbas killed 28 civilians and buried many more beneath the rubble. The Russian foreign ministry accused Ukraine of terrorism, since they were “well aware that on Saturdays local residents traditionally come there for pastry and groceries, including elderly people and families with children.”
Russian investigators have said that the missile strike was “likely carried out with the use of a US-made HIMARS multiple rocket launch system, supplied to Kiev by the West.” Russia also reminded an emergency session of the Security Council that Ukraine has said in the past that clearance of targets for HIMARS missiles must be obtained from the U.S.
But just days earlier, Politico reported that “Ukraine will receive its first batch of Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bombs, a brand new long-range weapon… that even the U.S. doesn’t have in its inventory.” The new long-range bombs have a range of about 90 miles, giving Ukraine “a deeper strike capability they haven’t had.”
As the war goes increasingly badly for Ukraine, with deaths at an all time high, their lines collapsing, Russia advancing across the front, and the city of Avdiivka reportedly about to fall – a fall that could allow Russia to solidify its hold on the Donbas – Washington’s response is not to save Ukraine and push for a diplomatic settlement, but to send more of the very weapons that risk escalation of the war.
Though it is the Middle East and Ukraine that dominate the news, they are not the only regions with which the Biden administration is responding with the increased threat of violence.
Closer to home, in its own “backyard,” tension between Venezuela and Guyana was cresting because of a dispute over competing territorial claims on the region of Essequibo, an oil rich region of Guyana that Venezuela has long claimed was stolen from it.
But local intervention by regional organizations and by Brazil calmed the storm by pressuring the leaders of the two nations to meet for talks. The talks resulted in an agreement to resolve the dispute diplomatically and in the “Joint Declaration…for Dialogue and Peace between Guyana and Venezuela.” A second round of talks has laid the ground for a summit between Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Guyanese President Irfaan Ali.
But, instead of nursing the diplomatic progress, after the U.S. and Venezuela had agreed on some small and temporary respite from sanctions, the U.S. increased the pressure on Venezuela on January 30 by revoking the sanction relief on gold mining and by promising to revoke the sanction relief on Venezuela’s oil and gas sector at the first opportunity.
Simultaneously with weakening Venezuela, on February 5, the Biden administration announced that it is expanding its military assistance to Guyana by helping them purchase new aircraft, helicopters, drones and radar technology.
The U.S. is also increasing tension militarily in Taiwan. At their December meeting in San Francisco, where U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping tried to deescalate the rising tension between the two countries, Chinese officials asked Biden to make a clear, public statement that the U.S. does not support Taiwanese independence and does support China’s goal of a peaceful unification with Taiwan. Biden couldn’t bring himself to do it despite that being official U.S. policy. “The White House,” NBC reported, “rejected the Chinese request.”
Then on January 23, following the elections in Taiwan, a U.S. congressional delegation, led by the co-chairs of the U.S. Congressional Taiwan Caucus, traveled to Taiwan to “engage with senior officials” and to “reaffirm U.S. support for Taiwan.”
But the pressure is not just political. It is military. On February 5, the Taiwanese media reported that “U.S. military advisors…have begun long-term stations in Kinmen and Penghu of Taiwan’s army amphibious camps, carrying out periodic training in the island’s special warfare camps.” Just 6.2 miles off the coast of China, the Kinmen islands are Taiwan’s closest outpost to China. “Long-term,” is reported to mean “permanent,” not “rotational.” The move is provocative because of its permanence and its proximity to China.
Lacking the diplomatic or security imagination to initiate or nurture negotiations, in just the past few days the Biden administration has continued to respond to every hair trigger situation from its backyard to the Middle East to the Far East with military solutions that increase the violence.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.