US President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night was quite upbeat. It was long on domestic affairs and short on foreign policy. He flew over the challenges posed by Russia and China and completely skipped over the rest of the world.
This is the first time for a US president to reduce the global role of the United States to an afterthought, no less for a president who sees himself as an authority on foreign policy, or for a commander in chief who has spent so much time, effort and political capital facing Russia in Ukraine and restraining China in Asia. This, then, begs the question: Why has Biden chosen to ignore entire continents and countless hot spots in which America is directly involved?
According to one theory, Americans are not very interested in the rest of the world, and foreign policy is an unacceptable luxury at a time of economic hardship and culture wars. Even elites with larger overseas interests realize that a costly investment in foreign policy becomes a difficult sell to the public in the absence of direct threats to national security.
Biden understands this, which is why when he first took office he pledged to end “perpetual wars” and promised a “middle-class foreign policy” — one that serves Americans as a whole.
But that has proven easier said than done, as Washington has funneled billions of dollars into Ukraine to wage a war that could last for years amid populist Republicans’ warnings of high inflation, a high cost of living and a high national debt.
So the president, who appears eager for a second term, toned down the expensive global bravado in his speech and instead focused on “made in America” growth and prosperity. His call for Congress to tax billionaires and big corporations and cut drug costs — aligning him with the “progressive left” led by Sen. Bernie Sanders — could prove more popular among working and middle-class families than, say, restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
However, according to another theory, there is not much to celebrate in American foreign policy, so the president decided to skip the topic. The two theories are not mutually exclusive.
Biden may have accepted Senator Sanders’ prescriptions on economic issues, but don’t expect him to take his approach to foreign policy, not least in the Middle East, where the US has failed miserably. And shameful.
The president rejects Sanders’ position on the Israeli occupation and the racism of its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Worse, he embraces a populist right-wing prime minister as his best friend and continues to support his government of fascists and bigots.
But Israel is only one of several failures.
Nowhere in the wider Middle East has a single foreign policy success been achieved, unless one counts as a success the humiliating and disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan in favor of the Taliban, after 20 years of horrific war.
Truth be told, the Biden administration has helped achieve ceasefires or maintain stalemates and the status quo from Sudan to Syria, through Iraq, Libya, Palestine and Yemen. But that’s hardly a good thing; in fact, it is a terrible normalization of a terrible situation.
Biden, who has pledged to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy, has ignored human rights abuses by American clients and backed strongmen who rule with an iron fist as the region lurches under violent sectarian and authoritarian regimes.
Washington cannot in good conscience claim that it is confronting Russia and China in the name of democracy, human rights and the preservation of sovereignty, while appeasing colonialism and dictatorship in the Middle East or elsewhere.
It is hypocritical and counterproductive.
Half a century after a young Senator Biden first visited the Middle East in 1973, the elderly President Biden appears to view the region through the same prisms as he did then: Israel, oil and the Cold War with Moscow. But as an exhausted saying from the 19th century says: history repeats itself, the first time as a tragedy, the second time as a farce.
It is truly ridiculous that despite 50 years of costly strategic, diplomatic and military interventions, the US is back to square one, pandering to the misbehaviors of regional clients in the name of a global democratic drive and being rejected and humiliated in the process.
Biden began and ended his State of the Union address with the lofty idea that America is the land of opportunity. It’s a beautiful and catchy slogan, one that allowed the country to dream big and literally reach the moon.
America is indeed a powerful nation, but it is not omnipotent. He must stop his evangelical approach to world affairs as if he were destined to shape, supervise and guide it. It’s not.