Appeasement doesn’t work as American foreign policy

AP/Vahid Salemi

Let’s not confuse diplomacy and appeasement. Diplomacy is always the preferred choice, and the military option is the last. Diplomacy is most effective when backed by non-lethal actions, primarily sanctions. But diplomacy turns into appeasement and undermines U.S. security interests when our adversaries perceive that we are unwilling to use force, even when all other options are exhausted. This is the definition of giving up leverage.

This month, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels attacked the United Arab Emirates, an American ally in the Persian Gulf where U.S. forces are stationed. One year ago, almost immediately after President Biden took office, the State Department said it would “revoke the Foreign Terrorist Organization and Specially Designated Global Terrorist designations of Ansarallah (Houthis).” Now, Biden reportedly is considering “restoring the terror listing of Yemen’s Houthis.” 

Whether the revocation was the first of several ingratiating gestures to try to coax Iran into rejoining the nuclear deal negotiated under President Obama — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — or was a sincere attempt to provide humanitarian aid to the beleaguered Yemini people, the result was a diplomatic disaster that Iran viewed as U.S. weakness.

Just a day after Biden withdrew the terrorist designation on Houthis in 2021, he “announced an end to American support for Saudi-led offensive operations against the Houthis in Yemen, including a freeze on arms sales to the kingdom.” This was a self-inflicted loss of leverage, just as the administration was planning to re-engage with Iran on a host of issues, most prominently the hoped-for “longer and stronger” nuclear agreement.

After the hard-line approach of President Trump, this gesture to Iran did not result in any of the hoped-for reciprocity. However, it did grant Iran and its Houthi allies a respite from international sanctions. It acquiesced in Iran’s growing sphere of influence in the Middle East, extending from Iraq to Lebanon to Syria and Yemen, surrounding and intimidating American allies in the Gulf and Israel. For good measure, according to Yemen’s Al-Masdar media outlet, in November 2021 the Iranian-backed Houthis attacked the U.S. embassy in the Yemeni capital and kidnapped Yemenis working with the U.S. embassy.  

The Biden foreign policy team still blames Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal as the cause of Iran’s nefarious behavior — whether in nuclear enrichment, terrorism, missile development or regional expansionism.

However, as Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and professor Matthew Kroenig at Georgetown University wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “While Tehran took preliminary steps to expand its nuclear program in May 2019, the most significant steps took place after the U.S. presidential election  in November 2020. These include enriching uranium first to 20 percent purity and then to 60 percent (a stone’s throw from weapons-grade), the production of uranium metal for nuclear warheads, the operation of more advanced centrifuges, and massively increasing stockpiles of enriched uranium. These nuclear moves took place after it was clear to Iran that the U.S. was abandoning its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign by easing sanctions enforcement and leaving military options off the table, thereby strengthening Iran’s economy and negotiating position.”  

Iran’s test of American resolve was best demonstrated in October 2021, when Hezbollah and Iranian-controlled militias attacked U.S. troops in Syria at the al Tanf base on the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi border. The pro-Hezbollah outlet Al-Akhbar claimed Hezbollah responsibility, and the Pentagon said it was a “deliberate and coordinated attack.” Hezbollah does not act independently; it follows the orders of Iran’s Supreme Leader and Revolutionary Guards.   

The expected American response never came. The Biden administration didn’t want to upset the Iranians during the Vienna nuclear negotiations. Iran correctly read this as appeasement and has continued its hardline approach. This was not an isolated incident by the Biden administration. It has not enforced sanctions on Iran that could have increased America’s leverage in Vienna; it has allowed Iran to sell hundreds of millions of dollars of oil to China, another unreciprocated gesture of appeasement.  

Appeasement raises its head as a policy tool elsewhere in the Levant. How has offering an olive branch worked for the Biden administration with the Palestinian Authority? The Trump administration ended American funding to the Palestinians under the bipartisan Taylor Force legislation, named for a U.S. soldier killed by Palestinian terrorists in Israel. When it was revealed that the Palestinian Authority was transferring hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to the families of terrorists, Congress enacted a law demanding an end to the practice.

Biden has ignored the Taylor Force Law and has restored the funding. Yet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said, “We will not deduct or suspend the allowances. Even if we are left with one penny, we will spend it on the families of the prisoners and martyrs. We consider the martyrs and prisoners as our stars.”

Other administrations, Republican and Democratic, have begun with an appeasement-first approach. For example, Trump appeased Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s wishes to move into western Syria, essentially abandoning America’s Kurdish allies there. It was a stain on America that caused some allies worldwide to question our commitments.

The point is, when appeasement is U.S. foreign policy, in the guise of a diplomacy-first approach, adversaries read this as an invitation to escalate their demands and become more aggressive.

Diplomacy that is not backed by a willingness to use force — under the right circumstances — leads to more violence. This undermines our security interests. U.S. disengagement from the world may please some critics of extending aid, but the small amount we spend on foreign assistance gives America disproportionate diplomatic influence around the world. It is one of the most effective ways to advance our national and economic security interests and avoid military engagements. 

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is director of the Middle East Political Information Network (MEPIN). He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides, and is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report/Jerusalem Post.

Tags Appeasement Barack Obama Diplomacy Donald Trump Iran Joe Biden Middle East US foreign policy

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