Biden’s ‘America Is Back’ Speech Misunderstands How Overstretched America Is Abroad
February 16, 2021 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Skeptics Tags: Joe BidenInterventionismRealismRestraintOverstretch

Biden’s ‘America Is Back’ Speech Misunderstands How Overstretched America Is Abroad

Diplomacy is good, but America cannot do everything at once and is still stuck in multiple wars.

President Joe Biden recently delivered a speech at the State Department, laying out the major foreign policy goals of his new administration. The speech centered on the theme that “America is back.”

Biden’s speech included his plans to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal and renew U.S. membership in the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization. In Europe, Biden implied he would return to the pre-Trump status quo on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), promising to rebuild “the muscle of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect and, I would argue, abuse.” On a related note, Biden promised to stop “any planned troop withdrawals from Germany.”

On great power competition, Biden called China “our most serious competitor.” But he spent much of the speech on Russia, implying the United States would get tougher on the Kremlin and stop “rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions.”

Don’t reverse everything Trump did

Biden’s speech promised that the United States would end its support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. With over a quarter million dead, America’s involvement is a moral stain. Presidents Obama and Trump were wrong to support the war, and Biden will be doing the right thing if he ends U.S. support.

Biden is also right to seek détente with Iran, which is not a threat to the United States and only threatens U.S. troops because Washington has them adjacent to Iran’s east and west, in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iran nuclear deal was highly flawed, but America should not be involving itself in the 1,400-year-old civil war between Islam’s Shias led by Iran, and the Sunnis led by Saudi Arabia. This involvement is unnecessary because of U.S. energy independence.

But Biden’s line on “neglect and… abuse” toward NATO allies is hogwash. NATO’s treaty requires its members to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense, and to also spend a certain amount of the overall defense budget on heavy equipment and technology. Europe has been woefully negligent in keeping this core requirement, to the point that parts of Germany’s military is nearly non-functioning. It’s a mistake for Biden not to resume Trump’s policy of pressuring Europe to keep its NATO commitments. In a related matter, it’s also a mistake for the United States to subsidize Germany’s defense. Meanwhile, Germany is making energy deals with Russia, the supposed threat Germany faces.

On Russia, Biden’s rhetoric is silly. The Trump administration was hardly “rolling over” to Russia and was certainly much more abrasive toward Russia than the Obama administration. If the Biden administration really did up the ante against Russia, that would be bad. Fortunately, the Biden administration, in actuality, just agreed to renew the New START Treaty with Russia on nuclear stability—something the Trump administration was slow-walking.

Too much continuity

Yet in many ways Biden’s foreign policy will double down on the failures of the last two decades. It was notable that Biden didn’t mention Afghanistan, where the United States has had troops for almost twenty years and where the situation on the ground hasn’t changed in ten years. Neither did Biden mention Iraq, Syria, or the dozens of African countries where the United States has an ongoing military presence and combat operations. 

The Biden administration clearly plans to keep troops in these arenas and may even expand the U.S. footprint abroad. For all the talk about ending Yemen’s war, Biden will still give the Saudis some assistance. Biden’s administration will also probably keep U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, a bad move made by the Trump administration.

Biden’s “America is back” misses the point

Biden completely misses that America is overstretched. It goes unsaid but a big reason we keep U.S. troops in Germany is to allow continued operations in the Middle East. But American troops shouldn’t be picking winners and losers in the Middle East’s regional competitions. In Syria, Washington covertly tried to topple Shia-aligned dictator Bashar al-Assad, which opened the door for more Sunni extremism of the likes of ISIS and al-Qaeda. Iraq’s people are desperate for American forces to leave, but Washington has those troops stay in order to keep Shia Iran’s influence over the majority Shia Iraqi population at bay—a concern only because Washington toppled the Sunni Iraqi dictator and made Iraq a democracy.

Not only is Washington improperly involving itself in regional struggles, stemming from Islam’s 1,400-year-old Shia-Sunni split, those policymakers are attempting to use dysfunction and chaos to form functioning states in America’s own image. We’ve known the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable for years. Yet just like Vietnam, U.S. policymakers would rather sacrifice more soldiers than concede defeat.

A foreign policy that puts the American people first won’t be back until Washington is more restrained. Policymakers must stop the endless occupation of the Middle East and prioritize America’s own interests rather than a global force posture acting as an enforcer of liberal hegemony. President Biden should start by withdrawing from Afghanistan, pushing for diplomacy with Russia, and asking Europe to pay its fair share on defense. Biden might get a few things right, but if he doesn’t address these larger problems, U.S. foreign policy will continue on the same course that has brought failure after failure.

Willis L Krumholz is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He holds a JD and MBA degree from the University of St. Thomas, and works in the financial services industry.

Image: Reuters.