Ambassador Friedman: After One Year of Biden, U.S. Foreign Policy Is Adrift

Friedman close (Lior Mizrahi / Getty)
Lior Mizrahi / Getty

I had fully anticipated substantial disagreement with President Joe Biden’s foreign policy team once it took office. After all, we had such profound differences on the Iran nuclear deal, the risks presented by the Chinese Communist Party, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Russian threat and other important issues.

Now, a year later, I find that there are few coherent policies which merit a serious response. Far worse than advancing bad policies, the Biden administration is acting with breathtaking incompetence in a manner that has infected the entirety of United States diplomacy.

After 20 years in Afghanistan, this past summer President Biden caused the U.S. to surrender to terrorists — betraying our allies, our partners and even our own citizens. That alone was perhaps enough to disqualify us from any credibility on the world stage. Indeed, the picture of desperate Afghans clinging to the wheel wells of departing American military aircraft has been burned into the psyches of billions of people, most wondering if the U.S. can ever again be trusted.

But things got even worse. Predictably, under the leadership of envoys best known for their past appeasement of Iran, we approached that regime, hat in hand, and begged them to return to the nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). They asked for sanctions relief; we said, “Sure.” We asked Iran to stop enriching uranium; they said, “No way.” Even as nations are convening in Vienna to negotiate, Iranian leadership vowed revenge upon America and Israel for eliminating arch-terrorist Qasem Soleimani, and the Iranian-backed Houthis have attacked the United Arab Emirates. America did not challenge Iran in response to either provocation. 

Everyone wants a deal whereby Iran will verifiably end its nuclear program, along with its development of ballistic missiles and its support of terrorist organizations. Based upon its performance to date, the Biden administration has no chance of getting there. If it makes a “deal,” it is likely to be even worse than the disastrous JCPOA. And for those who think that Iran is not a threat to America, Iran is busy arming Venezuela with attack drones that could easily reach our shoreline.

Russia’s dictator, Vladimir Putin, loves what he’s seeing – a weak America, at home and abroad. He sees a country deeply divided, plagued by runaway inflation and a runaway virus, and a president whom most Americans believe lacks sufficient cognitive power to address the complex issues at hand. Putin has amassed over 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, and very much appreciates America’s commitment not to engage or assist militarily against his new adventure. Nothing good will happen there.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party continues to steal Western technology, hold a million Muslim Uyghurs in concentration camps, invest in strategic infrastructure throughout the world, and develop hypersonic missiles that appear to significantly challenge our defense systems. At least here the Biden administration has offered a clear and unequivocal response: our diplomats (but not our athletes) will not attend the Beijing Winter Olympics next month. As if anyone cared.

In Israel and its surrounding region, Biden has done nothing to scale the golden opportunity presented by the Abraham Accords. I don’t recall him ever mentioning these historic agreements. Instead, the Biden administration has restored massive funding to the corrupt Palestinian Authority and the antisemitic United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) under the guise of becoming more “even-handed” in the conflict. But no demand was made of the Palestinian leadership to stop paying terrorists.  Given the fungibility of money, this means that the United States has returned to compensating Palestinian terrorists and their survivors. History confirms that this is a tragic step backwards on the path to peace.

Why is the Biden administration getting things so spectacularly wrong (as predicted by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates)? My sense is that a major reason is its fixation on the past and its need to undo everything Trump. Instead of a forward-looking, coherent approach to the world’s problems, Biden views the world’s challenges solely as a means to criticize the Republican Party and its leadership. But problems are never solved by blaming someone else.

When we were in office, we disagreed with our predecessors in the Obama administration. But our foreign policy goal was to make the future better, not to make the past look worse.

How do we solve a problem? What can we offer? What do our counterparts need? How can we deploy our strength to advance our values? These were the questions we asked. Never, “How can we discredit Obama?”    

Neither the Democratic Congress nor the mainstream media dwell much on Biden’s foreign policy failures. They are betting that no one cares right now about foreign policy given our daunting challenges at home. That’s a risky bet: no one cares about foreign policy until they have to; but when they have to, they care a lot.

And when that time comes, God forbid, there will be a host of questions to which President Biden will have no answers.  

David M. Friedman was the United States Ambassador to Israel from 2017 to 2021. He presided over the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Sledgehammer: How Breaking with the Past Brought Peace to the Middle East.



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