There is always an element of chaos in U.S. foreign policy. For a country with as global a reach as ours, every day brings challenges: a coup here, an earthquake there, a terrorist attack, an alarming uptick in commodity prices or downtick in the value of the dollar. The litany of events that bedevil U.S. foreign policy makers is endless.
The United States has developed a huge diplomatic and security apparatus to deal with such challenges, and by and large we are successful. Sometimes, however, challenges are so severe that they become a crisis. Today is such a moment. The Biden administration is being tested — and tested cruelly — by conflicts in the Middle East and Europe. These twin challenges, moreover, occur against the backdrop of deeply troubled relations with China.
To date, neither conflict has involved the deployment of U.S. forces. The situation in the Middle East, however, risks direct U.S. involvement. Should the conflict between Israel and Hamas expand — particularly to include Iran — the United States might be dragged into hostilities. The war in Ukraine is less likely to involve the U.S. military. From the very beginning of the war in February 2022, the United States, under President Joe Biden, has made it clear that we have no intention of becoming directly involved in the Russia-Ukraine war.
So Many Questions
Both the Israel-Hamas and Russia-Ukraine wars have created acute problems for the Biden administration. Even when the fighting stops in Gaza, huge difficulties and many questions will remain.
- What are Israel’s ultimate goals?
- Who will administer the Gaza Strip?
- Will a chastened Hamas remain in charge?
- Will Israel reassume the formal control it surrendered in 2005?
- Will the Palestinian National Authority, based in the West Bank, displace Hamas in Gaza?
- Will there be a peacekeeping force?
- Which organizations and countries will contribute to it?
All these questions must be resolved before the last key element of the current crisis can be addressed: a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli impasse. But this will be no easy task. The Biden administration has reiterated its support for a two-state solution to end the dispute that has plagued Middle Eastern stability for decades. A two-state compromise is further away today than it was 30 years ago, when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands in the White House Rose Garden. Repeated U.S. efforts to broker a solution have ended in abject failure, and in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel and Israel’s bloody response, trust between the parties is at an all-time low. If hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu were removed from office, his successor would be very wary of cutting any deal with Palestinians that did not include ironclad security guarantees for Israel. It is far from clear that any Palestinian leadership could offer such guarantees.
Russia-Ukraine War Issues
Even as the Biden administration attempts this Sisyphean task of bringing peace between Israel and Palestinians, it must also face the prospect of a possible stalemate in the Russia-Ukraine war. With the approach of winter, it has become clear that Ukraine’s much-touted summer offensive has been a disappointment. U.S. popular support for providing aid to Ukraine is declining and a substantial minority of congressional Republicans are very skeptical of the administration’s pro-Ukraine policy. There are few signs that Ukrainian morale is eroding, but pressure on Kyiv for peace-talks with Moscow will no doubt grow. Biden is unlikely shift away from his staunchly pro-Ukrainian stance, but he may pay a political price if the war lingers on until election day in 2024.
Biden may also pay for his strong support of Israel. Israel’s invasion of Gaza has triggered a strong response among those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. This reaction is strongest among Arab-Americans and younger voters: Both groups have supported Democrats in recent elections. A faction of left-wing Democrats in the House of Representatives has been harshly critical of Biden’s approach and the president’s polling already suggests weakness going into next fall’s campaign. Any defections from traditional democratic constituencies could prove ruinous for Biden in a close election against former President Trump or another republican challenger.
There is some good news for the administration: President Biden’s meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Nov. 15 went well. However, while there were agreements to work together to reduce illicit Chinese exports of fentanyl precursor chemicals and to increase government-to-government communication, we are not about to see a golden age of Sino-U.S. cooperation. Economic and geopolitical differences between Beijing and Washington remain sharp, but the deterioration in Sino-US relations has, for now, been halted.
U.S. foreign policy is currently operating in crisis mode, with the conflicts in the Middle East and Europe and continuing difficulties in the U.S.-China relationship. Clear heads and careful judgment are needed to face these complex, dynamic challenges and to weather this perfect storm.
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