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Biden Will Never Placate the Hawks
There is no way to avoid attacks from these critics, so it makes no sense to worry about what they will say.
Kori Schake faults Biden for not being belligerent and militaristic enough:
The administration appears to lack an effective strategy for the dangers posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea beyond the empty statements that we will not allow North Korea to have nuclear weapons, though experts believe the leadership in Pyongyang may have dozens of them. Or look to Iran, where the administration pursued a strategy known as “more for more” — more sanctions relief for more constraints on the Iranian nuclear program — and yet it cannot even get a return to the 2015 terms from Iran. Moreover, war with Iran is surely a non-starter for a president who abandoned Afghanistan, and is effectively indifferent to the fate of Iraq and Syria.
Some of Schake’s criticisms are fair enough, but most of the column is just a litany of problems, some of them intractable, that aren’t going to be solved by throwing more money at the Pentagon. She complains that “[w]e have let Russian threats determine our actions,” as if it were a bad thing that Biden has tried to limit the risk of direct conflict with a nuclear-armed state. The president’s stated desire to avoid WWIII is presented as a weakness rather than evidence of minimal sanity.
I agree that Biden lacks an effective strategy for North Korea, but the same could be said for every one of his predecessors going back at least to Bush. Schake does not say what she thinks Biden should do to manage the threat from North Korea, so we are left to guess what she thinks an “effective strategy” would look like. My view is that “maximum pressure” has obviously failed and the U.S. has to revise its goals downward to more achievable ends of arms control rather than disarmament, but presumably hawks would not find that solution appealing.
It is also true that there is a gap between Biden’s Taiwan rhetoric and U.S. capabilities, but the right way to close that gap is to scale back the rhetoric. It is a mistake to try to back up unwise statements with even more military spending. It is much easier and smarter to amend the president’s statements than it is to spend a fortune to prepare for wars that the U.S. shouldn’t be fighting. Instead of inventing a new security commitment that the U.S. doesn’t need, the U.S. should stop chipping away at the old status quo.
Biden’s handling of the return to the nuclear deal has been poor for reasons I have laid out many times before, but one of the main reasons why the U.S. struggles to get Iran to agree to reviving it is the virtual certainty that a future Republican administration would renege on it again. It has been extremely difficult to restore an agreement with Iran because Schake’s hawkish Republican allies have stated openly that they intend to destroy it. The Iranian government is understandably wary of making significant concessions in exchange for two or two and a half years of grudging sanctions relief. Another reason why the negotiations with Iran have gone so poorly is that Biden has been going out of his way to avoid making any concessions that hawks could use against him. This has had the effect of making the U.S. negotiating position as inflexible and unreasonable as it was under Trump with predictably bad results.
As for war with Iran, I would like to believe that it is a “non-starter” for Biden, but I don’t know that it is. Biden’s own words suggest otherwise, and I don’t know why we would take his words seriously on Taiwan but then dismiss them when they are about Iran. War with Iran ought to be a non-starter for any president, but unfortunately we know it is a real possibility. Attacking Iran would be a massive crime with serious regional and global consequences, and it would likely push Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Schake finds fault with Biden because she thinks he wouldn’t order an illegal attack on Iran, and that tells us all we need to know about the wisdom of the strategy that she supports.
Biden has frequently tried to placate hawkish critics at home over the last year and a half, but always to no avail. No matter how many sanctions he has kept in place, hawks accuse him of lax enforcement or pretend that he has been lifting them when he hasn’t. No matter how confrontational his policies toward Iran, China, and Russia have been in practice, hawks charge him with “appeasement” and “weakness.” The president should realize that his hawkish detractors won’t be satisfied by anything he does because he is never going to be the aggressive Republican president that they want. There is no way to avoid attacks from these critics, so it makes no sense to worry about what they will say.
The U.S. is overstretched and overcommitted, and it got that way in part because one president after another was too worried about hawkish backlash to reduce and end unnecessary commitments. If the U.S. never liquidates any of its old commitments and keeps acquiring new ones, it is inevitable that it won’t be able to make good on all of them. Biden proved that he was capable of ignoring hawkish critics when he withdrew U.S. forces from Afghanistan, but on most other issues he has been unwilling to do that. If he wants to have a more successful foreign policy than he has had for the last year and a half, he would do well to tune out the perpetually dissatisfied hawkish critics and implement the foreign policy agenda that he ran on.