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Biden and Blinken must end diplomatic failures

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It is time to put an end to Diplomacy Amateur Hour at the White House and State Department. The stakes are simply too high.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, candidate Joe Biden emphasized a return to professional diplomacy as one of the central principles of his foreign policy. 

Now, following a string of diplomatic debacles in his first six months in office — Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s terrible performance with Chinese diplomats in Anchorage, President Biden’s weak, scripted meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Biden’s destruction of America’s energy independence while allowing Europe to be subjected to potential Russian energy blackmail, and, of course, the Afghanistan troop withdrawal mess, which left behind hundreds of American potential hostages — the Biden administration is in the political crosshairs to deliver a string of major diplomatic successes to keep America secure and the world from exploding.

That will require a clear and effective diplomatic strategy, backed up by appropriate and credible hints of economic and military force. In this game of three-dimensional chess, there are a set of urgent moves the administration should make quickly.

The first is to develop a clear understanding of Saudi intentions. The 9/11 attack was conducted largely by Sunni Saudi nationals, accompanied by many accusations that factions in the kingdom provided active financial support for the attack and for subsequent al Qaeda operations. Some suspect that radical factions in Saudi Arabia provide support for the Sunni ISIS, which the Saudis deny.  

Although former President Trump courted the Saudis as a counterbalance to Shiite Iran, the Saudis dealt a decisive blow against the U.S. oil and gas industry during the immediate onset of COVID-19. As the virus crippled the American economy, Saudi Arabia moved quickly to drive down the price of oil to a level that crushed nascent U.S. fracking and new production. Now, as the U.S. economy recovers, Americans face skyrocketing gas prices and dependence on foreign sources of energy. While Biden’s energy policies are partly to blame, the Saudi strategy is equally to blame. 

Now, as the Sunni Taliban, Sunni al Qaeda, and Sunni ISIS set up Afghanistan as a huge base for terrorist training and operations, Biden’s diplomats need to determine whether Saudi Arabia intends to provide covert support for these groups, or whether it can become a reliable partner for the U.S. in fighting Sunni terrorism. Unfortunately, Biden’s early moves to destroy U.S. energy independence, combined with his precipitous freezing of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which were negotiated to support the new Arab-Israeli peace agreements, does not suggest that Biden and Blinken grasp the complex forces that diplomacy must harness to maintain peace in the Middle East and confront new threats of terrorism coming out of Afghanistan. While Blinken sets up Qatar as a base for negotiating with the Taliban on Afghan refugees and American hostages, a greater focus must be put on the role of the Saudis.

Two other key countries that require laser focus are Japan and India. 

Japan remains our strongest ally in east Asia, and Trump used Japan effectively for leverage in the China trade deal, in restraining North Korea, and as a reliable military and political partner in addressing the more aggressive and provocative Chinese behavior in the South China Sea and Straits of Taiwan. Japan is in the middle of a leadership change and a top priority of Blinken’s must be to create a close working relationship with the new leadership. 

Similarly, Trump saw India as a counterbalance to Chinese, Russian and Iranian ambitions in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, as well as a potential source of intelligence and strategic support in Afghanistan and Baluchistan (especially if Russia succeeds in getting its long-sought warm-water naval base there). Another top priority, post-Afghanistan, for Blinken must be to tighten a closer strategic alliance and relationship with India. 

Finally, Biden must establish much stronger, personal relationships with Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Both Trump and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had regular communications with all three, which created a basis for mutual respect and a platform to negotiate tough agreements. Trump restrained North Korea from conducting nuclear or ballistic missile tests, negotiated a trade deal with China that was favorable to America and established clear “red lines” regarding the South China Sea and Taiwan, and restrained Russian territorial expansion and energy blackmail of Western Europe. 

Neither Biden nor Blinken has established these important relationships or understandings. If anything, Biden’s first six months have demolished those critical strategic understandings. For example, John Kerry’s feckless climate change discussions with China (summary: Biden makes specific commitments that damage the U.S. economy and forfeit our political leverage, while China makes no serious commitments nor weakens its economy or leverage) provide yet another clear signal to the world that Biden diplomatic initiatives will be predictably unserious and ineffective. 

At this time in history, America faces shrewd and aggressive adversaries who act quickly and ruthlessly when opportunities arise. Unintentionally, perhaps, but clearly, Biden and Blinken are signaling green lights for aggression in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, South Asia, the Korean Peninsula, the Indian Ocean, and the Middle East. 

That is what Biden’s first six months, climaxing with the Afghanistan debacle, have achieved so far in geopolitics. Now is the time for an urgent reset. 

Grady Means is a writer ( and former corporate strategy consultant. He served in the White House as a policy assistant to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Follow him on Twitter @gradymeans1.

Tags Afghanistan Al Qaeda Antony Blinken Biden foreign policy Donald Trump Joe Biden John Kerry Kim Jong Un Mike Pompeo Saudi Arabia Sunnis Taliban Vladimir Putin

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