It is Not Just Ukraine and Gaza: Joe Biden’s Wars are Just Beginning

It is Not Just Ukraine and Gaza: Joe Biden’s Wars are Just Beginning

Uncertainty about American leadership has encouraged dictators to believe war works.

 

It is a truism across administrations: Unexpected crises define foreign policy legacy. For Jimmy Carter, it was Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan faced the Marine Barracks bombing in Lebanon, followed two years later by a humiliating withdrawal. For George H.W. Bush, it was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Bill Clinton faced the “Black Hawk Down” crisis in Somalia, followed by wars in the Balkans. The September 11, 2001 terror attacks catapulted George W. Bush into wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Barack Obama promised to end “dumb wars,” but not only did he return troops to Iraq and remain in Afghanistan, but he also joined fights in both Libya and Syria. Donald Trump was the first president since Carter not to engage troops in a new conflict, but COVID—and the Chinese Communist Party—transformed his presidency.

Joe Biden ran on his foreign policy credentials. He proclaimed, “diplomacy is back,” while surrogates declared, “the adults are back in charge.” As Biden’s term winds down, wars, not peace, will define his presidency. Spin aside, the Afghanistan withdrawal confirmed defeat. And, while Biden is not to blame for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambition, the humiliation and abandonment of allies Biden was willing to accept in Afghanistan colored Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.

 

His legacy in the Middle East will be poor. Just days before Hamas set the region aflame, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan credited Biden diplomacy for making “The Middle East region … quieter today than it has been in two decades.” However the war ends, its reverberations will ripple through the region for years. These wars may just be beginning. With the Islamic Republic of Iran even threatening Antarctica, the liberal order is under assault on every continent.

Consider the following conflicts that could become hot at any moment:

Venezuela vs. Guyana

Over four decades have passed since a transnational war erupted in South America. In 1982, Argentine dictator General Leopoldo Galtieri took a page from failing dictators worldwide: instigate a conflict to distract the public with jingoism. With the economy in shambles, he reignited dormant claims to the Falkland Islands, ruled by the British for almost 150 years. Galtieri calculated that the United Kingdom, riven with domestic discord, no longer had the will to defend a few thousand sheep farmers in the far reaches of its empire. He was wrong. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rallied and roundly defeated Argentina.

Today, the pattern repeats; it is only the fortitude of the White House, not 10 Downing Street, under challenge. Socialism has transformed Venezuela, once South America’s richest country, into one of its poorest. As President Nicolás Maduro has little charisma and few friends, he takes a page from Galtieri, reviving a territorial dispute that Venezuela settled more than a century ago and then reaffirmed a half-century ago. Maduro’s claims to Guyana’s Essequibo region are groundless. It was Dutch territory that the Netherlands ceded to Great Britain during the 1815 Congress of Vienna to form British Guyana, and it never belonged to Venezuela.

In 2009, as vice president, Maduro briefly resurrected the claim. At the time, it was an empty threat; today, it may not be. The situation in Venezuela is exponentially worse. On December 3, 2023, Maduro sponsored a referendum to demonstrate popular support for using the Venezuelan military to seize oil-rich Essequibo. While Biden’s team condemned the move and rushed some troops to Guyana to participate in joint exercises, White House attention was scattered. Over the last month, the White House has sent Jon Finer, Sullivan’s deputy and chief messenger, to pledge support for Guyana. Still, just a week later, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby downplayed Venezuelan troop movements as being “of a small nature and size and scale and scope.”

Kirby reflects the White House’s wishful thinking. Satellite imagery shows significant Venezuelan military preparations. During a meeting with visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on February 20, 2024, Maduro signaled his desire to meet with Putin after the Russian elections in March; Maduro likely seeks a green light.

If Maduro orders troops into Guyana, there may not be much Guyana can do. Its military numbers only 3,400 men, roughly the size of Washington, DC’s police force. Unlike Ukraine, it is unclear whether Guyana can fight or, Finer’s assurances notwithstanding, the United States will engage militarily. While defending Guyana’s offshore oil infrastructure is easier, Maduro may calculate he can either compel Exxon-Mobil to suspend operations or lead the White House to bend to pressure. That is, after all, what both Special Envoy Amos Hochstein did with Lebanon’s expansive maritime claims and what Secretary of State Antony Blinken has done by promising arms to Turkey even as it doubles down on its illicit claims to Cypriot waters.

Azerbaijan vs. Armenia

Guyana is not the only small state under threat. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may not be Europe’s last war on Biden’s watch. Biden entered office promising to recognize the Armenian genocide. He, unlike his predecessors, followed through and deserves credit. There is no doubt that more than one million Armenians died during and immediately after World War I. Nor, despite what the Bernard Lewis School of Turkish Studies teaches in the United States, were their deaths the result of the fog of war. The Young Turks planned and then executed genocide. For all President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bluster, Turkey (Türkiye) is a paper tiger. When successive countries recognized the genocide, Turkey did nothing.

Unfortunately, Biden’s team believed it could play both sides. Just two days after Biden recognized the Armenian genocide, Blinken waived sanctions on Azerbaijan despite its attack months before on millennia-old Armenian communities in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s claim that Nagorno-Karabakh belonged to it did not justify its military action. Nor, for that matter, was Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh as cut-and-dry as its supporters claim.

Both before the September 2023 seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh and after, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev signaled his goal both to eradicate Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and to conquer Armenia proper under the notion that present-day Armenia is Western Azerbaijan. “Present-day Armenia is our land,” he declared on December 24, 2022. Aliyev may believe he can get away with murder because of the emptiness of the State Department’s red lines. Four days before Aliyev ordered his forces to complete Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic cleansing, for example, Acting Assistant Secretary Yuri Kim declared, “We will not tolerate any attack on the people of Nagorno-Karabakh” only then to do just that.

Aliyev’s belligerence is proportional to his belief he can act without consequence. Blinken and Sullivan compound the problem with a rush to peace. Forcing concessions from democratic Armenia and allowing Aliyev to avoid demarcating the Azerbaijan-Armenia border while he undertakes a multibillion-dollar military build-up guarantees renewed conflict and may lead Aliyev to believe he can overrun Armenia.

Congo vs. Rwanda and Ethiopia vs. Somalia

Ossified State Department policy has pushed the Horn of Africa and Africa’s Great Lakes region to the brink of war. It need not have been like this. Somaliland and Rwanda are African miracles. Both Somaliland’s Isaaqs and Rwanda’s Tutsis survived the genocide. Both emerged stronger and became regional oases. Somaliland even became the first country in the world to secure voter registration with biometric iris scans.

In a region where insecurity is permissive, Somaliland and Rwanda are exceptions. Both states deny space to terrorists, weapons smugglers, militant groups, and foreign militaries. Both host multi-billion dollar companies and investments. Somaliland’s Berbera port can compete with Djibouti and Dubai’s Jebel Ali. Rwanda, meanwhile, has become Africa’s Silicon Valley. Both are among the world’s greatest success stories in the war against corruption. Today, Rwanda ranks alongside Slovakia, Poland, and Greece in terms of levels of corruption, while its neighbors Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo are among the world’s most corrupt states. Somaliland’s e-economy enables transparency.

Neighbors, however, now threaten both countries. Somaliland became independent in 1960 and, after a failed merger with Somalia, re-declared independence in 1991. While “Blackhawk Down” seared Somalia’s failure and anarchy into the American mind, Somaliland remained at peace. Democracy and government capacity matter. When drought hit the Horn of Africa in 2006, 2011, and 2017, Somalis suffered, but Ethiopia and Somalilanders rallied, transporting food where the population needed it most and saving their citizens’ lives. Much of the population of Somaliland escaped starvation as, local government officials explained to me, they were able to transport food across the country without fear of looting.

Somalia’s warlords, however, are not far away. Using billions of dollars in aid, Mogadishu purchased Chinese weaponry and Turkish drones. In December 2022, China sponsored a localized insurgency in the Somaliland Sool district to punish Somaliland for choosing Taiwan over China.

The threats Rwanda today faces are likewise rooted in 20th-century genocide. What many Americans know about Rwanda’s anti-Tutsi genocide is from the Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda. Few know the aftermath. When the Rwandan Patriotic Front took Kigali and drove the French-backed Hutu génocidaires across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo, conflict continued.