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Biden’s Words Speak Louder Than His Actions
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Biden’s Words Speak Louder Than His Actions

The president’s risk-averse foreign policy only invites more conflict.

President Joe Biden on November 6, 2023 in Bear, Delaware. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Following the United States’ precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, a series of foreign policy crises have unfolded around the world. In each instance, the White House has insisted it will fully support the defending nation, whether Ukraine in Russia’s war of aggression or Israel’s quest to eliminate Hamas after the October 7 massacre, and U.S. officials have issued ominous veiled threats against the aggressors. 

But three years into his term, the very uncomfortable reality is that despite the tough talk, President Joe Biden has been far too reserved, timid, and risk-averse. This more restrained foreign policy has not resulted in less violence or more conciliatory adversaries willing to compromise, but quite the opposite. And barring some major shift in approach from the United States, things are likely to get worse.

While Israel conducts its operation to dismantle the Hamas terror machine in Gaza, Biden administration officials routinely affirm solidarity with our Middle Eastern ally. “We stand with Israel. And we will make sure Israel has what it needs to take care of its citizens, defend itself, and respond to this attack,” the president said in his first public address following the October 7 massacre. He has echoed this sentiment since, but with each commitment, key administration officials declare that Israel should hold back until more aid can reach Gaza, and that Israel should be sure to follow the laws of armed conflict. (It is.) Responding to an agitator at a press conference last week, Biden erupted, “I think we need a pause.” Then later added: “A pause means give time to get the prisoners out.” At the time, it was unclear what the president meant. But in a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, Biden urged the prime minister to take a three-day fighting pause. 

The disconnect between the White House’s words and actions has been similarly stark with respect to Iran. Since the October 7 attack on the Jewish people, the source of Hamas support—the Iranian regime—has been backing proxy attacks against U.S. forces throughout Iraq and Syria. As of this week, there have been 40  separate missile attacks against U.S. forces in those countries, injuring at least 45 service members. The Biden team’s message to Iran? “Don’t.” Or what? Because at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in March, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin conceded to Sen. Tom Cotton that the United States had launched just four “major responses” to the then-83 total attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria by Iranian proxies since Biden took office. In one of those responses, U.S. forces destroyed a warehouse while trying to avoid hitting Iranian-backed groups. And since Iran’s escalation following October 7, the U.S. has retaliated against Tehran’s proxies just twice–carrying out an attack against two empty facilities in Syria on October 26 and another on Wednesday.

As Foundation for Defense of Democracies Senior Fellow Aaron MacLean articulated on X: “Historically speaking appeasement has taken many forms, but ‘letting the other guy bomb you repeatedly without response’ is really exploring its outer (and very dangerous) limits.”

Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s timidity is not confined to the Middle East. Biden has consistently pledged the United States will help Ukraine “for as long as it takes” to reclaim territory seized by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But time and time again, his administration has placed too many restrictions on Ukraine’s ability to wage the war and opposed sending the very weapons Ukraine insists it needs to hit Russian forces—long-range missile systems such as HIMARs and ATACMs, F-16s, Abrams tanks, DPICM cluster munitions, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, advanced drones like the MQ-9 Reaper. Only once Biden officials assess that the weapons will not upset the Russians “too much” and are unlikely to precipitate a Russian escalatory response does the administration eventually relent. But this slow-drip approach to arming Kyiv inhibits Ukrainians on the battlefield. When every weapon system comes four or six months too late, the Russians are given time to reposition or bolster defenses, and the effectiveness of such weapons diminishes. This strategy, if one could call it a strategy, is intended not to enable Ukraine to win, but to merely not lose. 

As if Biden’s tepid approach to defending U.S. allies and interests in Europe and the Middle East weren’t alarming enough, let alone a mismatch to his rhetoric, let’s not forget the biggest, most capable threat to the United States and the U.S.-led order. Over the last two years, the People’s Republic of China has increased the tempo of its highly dangerous maneuvers against ships and aircraft of the U.S. and its allies. China has shot water cannons at Filipino fishermen and rammed a boat into a peaceful and lawfully operating Filipino’ fishing vessel. It is regularly launching military drills that encircle Taiwan and is showing more signs of its preparation to make a military move against the island. Just last week, China sent 43 warplanes and seven ships near Taiwan in Beijing’s latest intimidation campaign. On four separate occasions as president, Biden has said publicly that the United States would come to Taiwan’s aid. On four separate occasions, his staff has walked back his statements. American presidents since Jimmy Carter have maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity vis-á-vis Taiwan, and while the president’s defenders may claim he is playing three-dimensional chess with his public commitments and the subsequent walk-backs or that his public utterances do not make U.S. policy given his frequent gaffes, four assurances should be enough to signal that Biden has moved toward strategic clarity.  

But if the president’s verbal commitment is true, why isn’t he directing a swift deployment of long-range strike systems to the first and second island chains? Why isn’t he urgently moving to address the bureaucratic hurdles slowing the delivery of already approved and purchased weapons to Taiwan? Yes, he has taken steps in the right direction after pressure primarily from Republicans in the Congress, but why hasn’t he led? 

The president thinks he is Franklin Roosevelt when it comes to domestic policy. It appears he sees FDR in the mirror on foreign policy, too. “You know, just as in World War II, today patriotic American workers are building the arsenal of democracy and serving the cause of freedom,” he said in a speech just after the October 7 massacre in Israel. Arsenal of democracy? After four decades of letting the arsenal of democracy atrophy, those words should be reassuring and highly inspiring … if they were true. But here too, the president’s words do not reflect reality. Since the Cold War the United States, just like all other Western powers, has failed to maintain its ability to manufacture the necessary weapons at the scale required during this perilous era. For instance, repeated iterations of a Center for Strategic and International Studies war game show the U.S. would expend more than 5,000 long-range missiles in three weeks of conflict if China were to move on Taiwan. Though production lines for HIMARS, GMLRS, Stingers, the Javelin, and more are hotter than before the U.S. began to arm Ukraine, they are nowhere near the levels needed for a potential conflict with China. 

A silver lining in the otherwise tragic U.S. failure to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine has been that the war forced the White House to work with Congress to reform the production and delivery of weapons to U.S. forces and our allies. But the United States is nowhere close to rebuilding the arsenal of democracy that FDR called for—and the American people fulfilled—during World War II.

For that, we would need a national effort, across government and the private sector, to accomplish myriad tasks. We’d have to bolster supply chains; issue permits to access this country’s and our allies’ rare-earth minerals for key components to weapons; significantly increase rather than decrease the country’s military spending; build at least two more shipyards and conduct a national recruitment effort for workers and construction efforts for housing if we are to double the size of the Navy in short order; produce long- and medium-range missiles that can be launched from air, sea, and land; build a fully modernized nuclear deterrent force; and speed up the tempo of testing major weapons systems from missile defense to cutting edge hypersonic weapons.

While Putin and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei support one another in their missions to create havoc, Xi Jinping may be contemplating a move against Taiwan.

When he meets with him in the next two weeks, Biden is expected to ask Xi for help in restraining Iran and Russia. This is, of course, as futile as it is absurd. Xi has sought to brand China as the superpower willing and able to calm the global tensions the U.S. is incapable of calming. But any deal brokered by China in a conflict area will be designed to serve China’s interests at the expense of the U.S. and our allies. Xi has been deepening ties with both Russia and Iran, and China benefits from the success of Moscow and Tehran as they fuel violence and chaos aimed at fracturing U.S. alliances, and undermining U.S. credibility, influence, and security.

What Biden should do, instead, is rapidly initiate a strategy to rush strike systems into the region, probably a combination of ground-launch systems, and air and sea delivery platforms to show the United States has the ability—with U.S. allies—to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan. Then the president should say to Xi what he has said four times before U.S. officials undermined him and walked back his statements: that the United States will defend Taiwan and Xi should not seize on this moment of global turmoil to make a move. 

Then, we should hope that—in spite of Biden’s record—Xi sufficiently believes him.

Rebeccah Heinrichs's Headshot

Rebeccah Heinrichs

Rebeccah Heinrichs is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.