Biden’s unavoidable foreign policy crisis

President Biden, with an ambitious agenda of domestic initiatives, will be sidetracked at some stage this year by a foreign policy crisis. 

Although not my expertise, I write this with confidence: There almost always is.

It might be North Korea, China, Iran, Russia or someplace most have never heard of. It may be a provocation to test a new president, or it may be an unforeseeable incident or action unrelated to diplomatic politics. It could be ephemeral or enduring.

The most striking example is the terrorist attacks on 9/11 which transformed the George W. Bush presidency. So did the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba affect the Kennedy administration.

The last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, came to office with a laser focus on domestic priorities, but were affected by foreign policy incidents their first year.

For Clinton it was Black Hawk Down: 18 Americans killed in Mogadishu, one dead soldier dragged through the streets. It conveyed an image of a weak, feckless president, which took a while to counter.

Obama, who had run against Bush’s Iraq War, bowed to pressure from the generals and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and ramped up the American military presence in Afghanistan. Only now is Biden ending the U.S. involvement.

North Korea dictator Kim Jong-un, plagued with even more problems at home than usual, may do something provocative, flexing his nuclear muscles. But here Biden is well served by the Trump policy of a dialogue with Pyongyang.

North Korea is not going to dismantle its nuclear weapons. There are, however, constructive interim steps — allowing inspectors in, closing some facilities, ratifying a peace treaty to the long-ago Korean war in return for lifting some economic sanctions — to avoid confrontation. China has to be involved.

Nothing will be easy with the world’s other super power.

Xi Jinping’s brutal repression of the Uyghurs and the people of Hong Kong and elsewhere won’t change. Trade and financial-economic relations will remain strained.

The greatest danger is Taiwan.

Biden this month sent a politically connected trio — his close friend and former colleague, Chris Dodd, and two high ranking former foreign policy officials, a Republican and a Democrat — to reassure the Taiwanese. Xi’s not going to send an invading force across the South China Sea — but if tensions escalate, he could try to strangle Taiwan, seizing a few islands, interfering with sea and air traffic and waging cyberwar.

A tightrope diplomacy is to persuade both Beijing and Taipei to maintain that ambiguous policy of one country, two systems.

“We need to confront, compete and cooperate when you can with China,” veteran diplomat Frank Wisner told me. He knows that’s a delicate dance.

The Middle East always is a potential tinderbox. Biden is trying to mitigate one danger by returning to the Iranian nuclear deal. The negotiations are complicated by a massive mistrust on both sides. While pessimism usually reigns in the Mideast, there are small glimmerings of optimism. The two main Muslim protagonists, Iran and Saudi Arabia, are talking; Tehran badly wants to escape crippling sanctions.

If, as many expect, the hard liners win the Iranian elections in June and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu survives both his electoral and indictment challenges, that’s not a recipe for resolution. But Iran’s desire to have the sanctions lifted — and Netanyahu no longer being able to count on Trump’s knee-jerk support for anything he did — may change the dynamics.

It’s a unanimous view that that Vladimir Putin is a KGB thug and Russian interference in the American elections and cyberwar attacks will be countered. The Russian dictator pulled back from his recent threat to Ukraine, having delivered the message that he can be a menace in the region. No one wants the resumed cold war to get hot.

On balance, all these possible crises are more likely to be avoided; however, there’s always the danger of a miscalculation — or a Mogadishu.

Biden has spent more than four decades focusing on foreign policy; he’s knowledgeable and prepared. He has assembled a good team, most of whom have worked together. This is in contrast to the ad hoc, impulsive, and often ignorant days of Donald Trump.

That gives confidence that any crisis will be handled capably.

A caution: It was the best and brightest that got us into Vietnam.

Twenty years ago, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld supposedly were the wise men of Republican national security. They led us into Iraq and Afghanistan.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags Barack Obama Benjamin Netanyahu Biden foreign policy Bill Clinton China Chinese aggression Donald Trump Great power competition Hillary Clinton History of the Middle East International relations Iran Iran nuclear deal Joe Biden Kim Jong-un North Korea Russia Russian aggression Taiwan Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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