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Saturday, March 2, 2024
March 2, 2024

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Leubsdorf: Tricky politics behind Biden’s foreign policy challenges


President Joe Biden’s decision to launch a limited but dayslong air attack on Iranian terrorist enclaves throughout the Middle East reflects just one of the array of complex decisions facing him in that always-volatile region.

Their timing and extent will test the kind of diplomatic expertise that Biden’s supporters tout as one of his most significant presidential attributes and perhaps bolster the lagging public approval of his foreign policy actions.

The raids also come at a time when the fallout from continued fighting and civilian casualties from Israel’s retaliatory invasion of Gaza poses a significant threat to Biden’s hold on normally pro-Democratic younger voters, as well as Muslim Americans.

It shows how hard it will be to guide American power through the Middle East’s cross currents in a way that furthers U.S. overseas objectives, prevents localized skirmishes from blowing up into full-scale regional war and maintains domestic political support.

In 2021, Biden’s administration got off to a bad foreign policy start by mishandling the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. While there were valid arguments on both sides of the policy issue, there was no justification for its inept implementation. He has done much better since then, anticipating and then acting when Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought to destroy an independent Ukraine.

Biden correctly saw the Russia-Ukraine war as a proxy for the global battle between the forces of autocracy and democracy and mobilized allied support for Ukraine. Unlike Donald Trump, he made clear that the United States stands for democracy.

The decision to help Ukraine, though resisted by Republicans in what some critics call the GOP’s Putin wing, was a relatively easy one, compared with what has transpired in the Middle East since the horrific Hamas attack on the people of neighboring Israel.

Biden’s initial decision was straight-forward; he and most Americans stood by Israel, its longtime democratic ally, and its retaliatory assault on the terrorists who murdered, raped and kidnapped hundreds of Israelis.

But the scope and brutality of Israel’s ensuing campaign in Gaza has sapped that support. For some weeks, it’s been apparent the Israeli intention to “destroy” Hamas is not feasible without more deaths and carnage than is acceptable to the outside world.

Under pressure at home and abroad, Biden has gradually segued from all-out support for Israel to a flexible approach, simultaneously backing it militarily while pressuring it to end the fighting and enable the political and physical rebuilding of Gaza to begin.

Unsurprisingly, Iran and its other Middle East clients — like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen — have taken advantage of the situation to stir trouble throughout the region.

Despite the immediate demands, Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken still hope to achieve something broader. They are working with Saudi Arabia and other “friendly” Arab countries to forge a comprehensive Middle East settlement that both protects Israel and resists Iran.

Ironically it was Trump’s administration that laid the basis by negotiating the Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and the UAE, Sudan, Morocco and Bahrain.

But a full regional rapprochement won’t be possible without a cessation of the hostilities in Gaza and Israel’s recommitment to a two-state solution that includes an independent Palestinian state.

The sophisticated U.S. diplomacy that will be needed to further these goals will likely take longer than the remaining 11 months of Biden’s presidency. His administration’s ability to pursue it is yet another argument in favor of Biden’s reelection, though it is unlikely to play a major role in the outcome — assuming the Gaza war subsides.