All of Joe Biden’s Men

All of Joe Biden’s Men

After nearly four years in office, how does the Biden administration’s foreign policy measure up? A new book seeks to answer that question. 

 

Alexander Ward. The Internationalists: The Fight to Restore American Foreign Policy after Trump (New York, Portfolio/Penguin). 368 pp., $32.00.

As Americans contemplate prolonging the Biden presidency, now is a good time to scrutinize its foreign policy record. Politico reporter Alexander Ward’s new book has made their job easier. The Internationalists, an account of the Biden administration’s first two years, takes us behind the scenes of national security decisionmaking. The story does not reveal much to admire.

 

The internationalists in question are the people you’d expect: National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. They and their subordinates form the self-styled “A-Team,” the group of aides tasked with righting the ship after Trump supposedly drove it off course. They’re self-assured and credentialed, a new iteration of “the best and the brightest” lauded by the Democratic elite.

Missing from their ranks is their boss. In contrast to the robust foreign policy involvement of past presidents, Biden plays a minor role. The forty-sixth president depicted in this book can be most charitably likened to an affable elder statesman detached from the decisionmaking process around him. Ward includes plenty of vignettes from Biden’s pre-2021 life but relatively few from his time as commander-in-chief. We get a good idea of what Biden’s top officials were thinking during various crises but a poor idea of the president’s thoughts. Ward’s book substantiates what many Americans already know: the octogenarian Biden is not calling the shots. Like Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris is on the sidelines—the book has almost nothing to say about her.

As any good reporter should, Ward keeps his audience rapt. His prose lacks fluff and reads well. Another giveaway that a journalist wrote this book is the musings of anonymous administration officials sprinkled throughout the text. Although it would be nice to know these people’s identities, it’s better to have their off-the-record comments than none at all. The engaging style of The Internationalists is all to the good.

The book takes a decent enough stab at impartiality. A former Vox reporter, Ward doesn’t parrot the Biden administration’s line like others in the left-leaning press. He’s critical when he thinks it erred. Though certainly no conservative, Ward isn’t wholly unfair to Republicans. For instance, he recognizes that Senator Ted Cruz, who assailed the Biden administration’s decision to waive sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline in an effort to placate Germany, had opposed the pipeline during Trump’s presidency.

Ward, nonetheless, can’t check all his views at the door. A comical example comes in his portrayal of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley. Milley was “controversial,” Ward submits because he walked with Trump during the Lafayette Square photo-op in 2020. “He cared deeply about keeping the military away from politics but often failed to do that,” Ward elaborates while mentioning Milley’s uniformed appearances in the streets during the riots that year. An unwitting reader might think that Milley was some right-wing hack. Far from it: Milley gushed about the Pentagon’s DEI programming and reportedly undermined civilian control of the military by going around Trump’s back to tell his Chinese counterpart there would be no American nuclear strike.

Ward’s blinders are also hard at work in the book’s first chapter, which covers the lead-up to Biden’s presidency. In it, he deploys all the explanations for Trump’s 2016 victory that have become articles of faith on the Left. Yet Ward can’t make them without undermining them. “Factory workers, mainly in white-majority counties, feared that foreigners were taking their hard-earned jobs,” writes Ward. But in the very next sentence, he notes that America had lost almost five million manufacturing jobs since 1997. Were these prejudiced fears harbored by Trump supporters or rather fact-based observations?

Ward is more even-handed in subsequent chapters. Russia, Ukraine, Israel, and, of course, Afghanistan figure prominently. What ties them together is the Biden administration’s efforts to work with allies and partners in defense of the liberal democratic order. Ward persuasively shows that these efforts were well-intentioned. As for whether they were successful, he leaves that determination to readers. The results, not least the abominable Afghanistan withdrawal and the outbreak of war in Europe, speak for themselves.

Of Team Biden’s many mandarins, John Kerry comes across as the most insufferable. Tapped as the president’s special climate envoy, Kerry set about trying to conclude a deal with China to curb carbon emissions despite the skepticism of every other official in touch with reality. Only he and his prodigious talents could get the job done, the failed 2004 presidential candidate told himself. “[I]f anyone believed he could pull off the difficult balancing act, it was John Kerry,” Ward notes in what very well may be a mocking tone. To the surprise of no one, Kerry’s talks with Beijing have led nowhere.

Rivaling Kerry in the naïveté department is Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Blinken has long been soft on America’s enemies. While a Harvard undergraduate, Ward informs us, Blinken wrote in the Crimson that instead of toppling the left-wing Sandinistas of Nicaragua, Washington should give them aid on the condition that the Marxist revolutionaries “liberalize their rule and schedule elections for the near future.” Let the record show that the viciously anti-American President Daniel Ortega, whose Sandinistas Blinken advocated supporting, has presided over Nicaragua’s decline and slide toward authoritarianism over the past seventeen years.

If only his Crimson article were just a youthful indiscretion. Blinken shed none of his poor judgment during his government service. As soon as he became secretary of state, he eagerly pushed to have the U.S.-Russia New START arms control treaty extended. This was pursued despite receiving no concessions from Moscow for doing so. Blinken would rather have a bad deal than no deal.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan is the primus inter pares of this story. A foreign policy wunderkind in Democratic circles, Sullivan was tasked with “reimagining national security” under Biden. The 2016 election shook Sullivan to his core, and he concluded that Washington insiders had lost touch with the rest of the country. As national security adviser, he made a concerted attempt to implement foreign policy for the sake of ordinary Americans. Sullivan deserves some credit here—other officials often seem ignorant of the people they serve.

There’s a reason why the book’s opening and closing anecdotes are about Sullivan. He drives much of the action. He favored a hawkish stance toward China and Russia and closer ties with American allies. We get the sense that he made many of the decisions for which the Biden administration has come to be known. If Ward’s book were adapted into a screenplay, Sullivan would be the lead role.

Sullivan and his peers were at their worst during the Afghanistan withdrawal. Ward’s portrait of them is damning. While the White House and the Department of State readied for a September 11, 2021, withdrawal date, Pentagon officials who rightly predicted that the country would soon fall to the Taliban were ignored. “We at the State Department have a much higher risk tolerance than you guys,” Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Brian McKeon told Milley and Austin.

Although the decision to leave Afghanistan was a defensible position, the administration’s execution of the withdrawal remains indefensible. Sullivan, Blinken, and the rest did not do nearly enough to prepare for a safe, orderly evacuation. Their incompetence led to the fiasco that unfolded at Hamid Karzai International Airport—now burned into our collective memory. General Frank McKenzie, commander of United States Central Command, had to beg the Taliban not to enter Kabul while Americans were leaving. “If you don’t interfere with the evacuation, we won’t strike,” McKenzie told the Taliban’s co-founder. The most powerful country the world has ever seen was reduced to pleading at the feet of terrorist savages.

The killing of thirteen American servicemembers in a suicide bombing was the lowest point, a searing indictment of the whole withdrawal. What was supposed to be a triumphant homecoming ended in calamity. One expects accountability for those who fail so spectacularly. Not so in the Biden administration. Sullivan and Blinken inexplicably kept their jobs to keep up their failures.

The two of them moved from denouement in Afghanistan to the war in Ukraine, the subject of the last third of the book. They fared little better. After the bungled withdrawal, the administration was in no position to convince Vladimir Putin not to invade Ukraine. Their threats of hell to pay fell on deaf ears in Moscow. The United States then threw its support behind the Ukrainians following Putin’s invasion. Two years on, it’s too soon to tell how the war will end. Although the Biden administration has helped prevent Ukraine from being swallowed whole by Moscow, the conflict is locked in a costly stalemate.

Ward acknowledges he could have expounded more on other issues. Those interested in China, North Korea, cyber warfare, the southern border, and even climate change will encounter little about those topics. But there’s much worth reading about critical moments of the last few years. However, voters inclined to give the internationalists another four years may think twice after reading Ward’s book.