One year to the Biden Administration – Mixed balance between the domestic and international arenas
By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi | February, 2022
|Photo: The White House|
The power transition in the United States one year ago naturally caused a multitude of changes in the administration's domestic and foreign policies, as well as in the new government's conduct. A year later, President Biden seems to have presented a mixed balance sheet of achievements and failures in the internal arena, alongside damage to the international U.S. image of power and deterrence, against the backdrop of the probable option that majority be lost in the midterm elections in Congress.
The domestic arena – Division, inflation and Covid
Despite the Biden Administration's desire to bridge gaps, the U.S. political arena remains polarized between its supporters, who fear that American democracy is under attack, and President Trump's followers, who continue to fortify his Republican party leadership. Biden is also running into difficulties vis-à-vis the progressives who are getting stronger in the Democratic Party, and the senators who refuse to accept his leadership. Thus, despite the Democrats' control over congress, to date, Biden has not been able to promote legislation pertaining to his Build Back Better banner, which entails huge investments in the public.
President Biden's most impressive achievements have been approving the 1.9 trillion USD Covid relief package, and 1+ trillion USD infrastructure bill, alongside unprecedented growth (5.7 in 2021, the highest since 1984), as well as the broad vaccine plan he had adopted upon entering office. Nevertheless, the high rate of morbidity due to Delta and Omicron, as well as the high rate of inflation (7 percent in the last 12 months, the highest in four decades), his failure to promote the BBB plan, and perceived inability to control the radicals in his party, all cast a shadow on his accomplishments. President Biden is also forced to cope with the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court is comprised of a predominantly conservative majority, making it difficult for him to promote resolutions and legislations to which the Republicans object (such as voting rights and mandatory mask-wearing).
All of the above, alongside Biden's image as an experienced but non-charismatic politician who is past his prime, and finds it hard to close his ranks or display leadership, are leaving the public dissatisfied with his conduct. Thus, support for Biden is just over 40%, the lowest rate enjoyed by U.S. presidents at the end of their first year in the Oval Office (with the exception of President Trump) since World War II. These results, alongside other polls, reflect a considerable and consistent drop in the president's public support, and, above all, a harsh blow to the public's trust in their elected president's ability to lead the country. Moreover, the midterm elections due in November 2022 will largely determine the rest of his term in office, and ability to establish his legacy. Current surveys indicate high chances of the Democratic Party losing its fragile majority, at least in one of the two houses, in such a way as to project on Biden's ability to promote various processes internally and internationally.
The international arena – The image of power and deterrence is being gnawed
Upon entering office, President Biden had embraced a completely different policy and conduct in the international arena than his predecessor, and the same could also be said of his decision-making process when managing crises. Whereas the former president did not even hesitate to confront U.S. allies, Biden has adopted a different approach based on tightening collaborations with traditional partners, attributing importance to diplomacy and the international institutions, and prioritizing the effort to counter climate damage and human rights violation. The Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow, the culmination of virtual democracy, was a practical demonstration of these views.
Much like his predecessors, President Biden has also identified China as the key reference threat with which the United States must grapple in the international arena. Biden did not hesitate to criticize China harshly for its ongoing violation of human rights, threats made against Taiwan, and attempts to deepen its clout through the use of economic levers. Biden's collaboration-sanctifying outlook is also manifest in the way his administration addresses the Chinese challenge, namely by forging strategic alliances (one with Australia and the UK, and another with Australia, Japan, and India).
In addition to the Chinese challenge, Biden was also forced to grapple with a series of challenges over the past 12 months that has undermined U.S. status and cast shadows on the security world order it had shaped in recent decades. Among these challenges are, first and foremost, the Russian threat to invade the Ukraine; growing provocations from China; the implications of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, followed by the pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, and the latter's actions against U.S. interests in the Middle East (with the help of the Houthis, whom the Biden Administration itself has removed from the list of foreign terrorist organizations in its early days in office).
The withdrawal from Afghanistan, which should have been the jewel of the crown, a delivery on one of Biden's most important foreign policy-related election promises, turned out to be one of the lowest points of his term in office. The images from Kabul depicting the American forces' urgent withdrawal and escape, alongside other foreigners (bringing back memories from dark times in American history – the evacuation from Saigon), and the Taliban taking over the country while viciously oppressing the local population, have set a narrative whereby Biden has failed as a leader, and is deterred by powerful steps, effectively dragging the U.S. President's image through the mud.
The pressure exerted by some of his fellow Democrats, coupled with Biden's different world view, are also reflected in the U.S. administration's attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In general, this issue has been placed on the back burner by the U.S. government, which focuses primarily on avoiding deterioration and escalation. Thus, although President Biden is clearly careful not to paint Prime Minister Bennett into a corner (for instance, on the subject of opening the consulate), he does not hesitate to demand that Israel avoid steps that could incite the region, and drag the United States into greater involvement than it desires, as manifest in its conduct during Operation Guardian of the Walls, as well as the American government's approach to building in the settlements.
Israel is required to strengthen collaboration, avoid public friction, and tighten alliances
The damage to the United States' image of deterrence, which encourages its adversaries, including Iran, to challenge it and appear much bolder in its interactions with it, as well as the U.S. administration's low attention span for the Middle East in general, and at present in particular, could also project on Israel's status in the region, to a large extent because of the common belief that Biden would prefer to reach bad understandings through diplomatic efforts than good accomplishments through use of military force. All the more so in view of the possibility of a deal between Iran and the great powers, as well as Washington's discontent with the overall Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
The Biden Administration is likely to be less tolerant of Israeli activity that could force it to become overly involved in the Middle East.
Under these circumstances, Israel should formulate a diversified policy on several simultaneous axes that would attempt to exhaust the advantages of having the United States as its strategic source of support, display sensitivity toward the Biden Administration's outlook and constraints, and avoid high profile confrontations with it that could compromise the depth of the partnership.
From the bilateral perspective – deepening the strategic dialogue on regional issues and security collaboration, while ensuring that advanced weapon systems be provided to it to maintain the IDF's qualitative military edge (QME) and operative freedom of action in the region. At the same time, Israel should try to influence the makeup of the nuclear deal while avoiding direct criticism of the U.S. administration or a public confrontation.
Israel should demonstrate its valuableness to the United States by implementing the multi-system "integrated deterrence" perception the U.S. administration is promoting, inter alia by strengthening regional alliances with the two countries' partners and allies in the Middle East (especially the Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan) in order to help advance the systemic response to Iran, and further deepen the security collaboration between the two.
Israel should also enhance bipartisan support to ensure that the Republicans and Democrats would not be divided over its conduct in the Middle East, particularly as the midterm elections approach. Israel is therefore advised, in this context, to promote dialogue with the liberals in the Democratic Party in order to minimize their objection to its policy, particularly on the issue of the Palestinians.
Vis-à-vis the Palestinians – Israel should avoid destabilizing steps, while displaying great sensitivity to issues associated with human rights and the settlements, alongside an effort to present the promise of a peace process as it manages the conflict.
Authored by Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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