Mid-term elections rarely deal with foreign policy, and this year’s mid-terms were no exception. However, the elections will have consequences for U.S. foreign policy, and the Biden administration could exploit various openings if it acted “outside the box.” There is room for President Joe Biden to take new initiatives in the field of national security, even as Republicans are poised to take over the House of Representatives. Biden’s domestic and legislative agendas are essentially dead on arrival with Rep. Kevin McCarthy or any of his troglodyte colleagues as Speaker of the House. Biden knows, moreover, that forward movement on foreign policy is less difficult than advancing a liberal domestic agenda.
First of all, the mid-terms will affect Biden’s agenda for Ukraine, particularly the ability to continue the current pace of military assistance to President Volodymyr Zelensky. Since the war began nearly nine months ago, the Biden administration has authorized and the Congress has approved more than $60 billion in aid to Ukraine. McCarthy has already stated that a Republican-led House would be unwilling to approve “blank check” assistance to Ukraine. Three of the leading Republican supporters of military assistance to Ukraine—Rob Portman (OH), Richard Burr (NC), and Ben Sasse (NE)—are leaving the Senate, and the Republican leadership in 2023 will be far more concerned with beating up the Biden administration over the withdrawal from Afghanistan than with challenging the Russian occupation of Ukraine.
The mainstream media as well as the British Economist believe that Russia needs to suffer a decisive defeat in Ukraine so that Vladimir Putin’s failure is unambiguous, but it is already obvious—even to some Russian politicians and oligarchs—that Moscow has failed miserably. Continuing the war could lead to an expanded conflict that involves the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), particularly the United States, and could lead to the use of tactical nuclear weapons. If Ukraine suffers greater economic losses, then there is great risk to the kind of democracy that Zelensky and his colleagues say they want to create. Greater conflict will also test the patience of West and East European states that will have to get through the winter with limited access to Russian oil and natural gas.
It is time to talk. Ironically, it is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, who has been the most outspoken about getting to the negotiating table. It is wrong for the military adviser to the president to go public with policy advocacy, but in this case his ideas deserve a sounding within the National Security Council.
It is also time for Joe Biden and Xi Jinping to initiate a substantive dialogue. Their rare face-to-face meeting in Indonesia this week afforded an excellent opportunity to slow down a bitter rivalry that has become increasingly senseless. Biden must abandon the policy of containment of China, which is not attainable on any level. And Xi Jinping will have to tone down the ultra-nationalism of his pronouncements and the “wolf-warrior” diplomats of his Foreign Ministry, which gives U.S. hardliners the justification for demanding more defense spending and a greater military presence in the Indo-Pacific. Both steps are unnecessary.
Both Biden and Xi Jinping have the political leeway to pursue a dialogue, and the fields of arms control and disarmament as well as space cooperation provide ample opportunity for institutionalized negotiations involving diplomats and generals. Arms control and disarmament talks led to stable U.S.-Soviet relations in the 1970s and 1980s; China will be a more difficult negotiating partner, but it is long past time to test the waters in order to reduce the risk of miscalculation.
The Biden administration also must reassess the twin pillars of U.S. policy in the Middle East since the 1940s: Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel is about to install the most right-wing government in its history, with Benjamin Netanyahu relying on racists and extremists who were once believed to be far too radical for any Israeli government. Itamar Ben-Gvir’s ultra-nationalist Jewish Power party has gone from merely 19,000 votes in the 2019 elections to becoming the third largest political party in 2022 and central to the Netanyahu coalition government. As Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times last week, “the Israel we knew is gone.”
Ben-Gvir’s racism symbolizes the loss of justice and morality in Israeli politics, and it is time for the United States, particularly the Jewish diaspora in the United States and Europe to press the Israelis for a more humane policy toward its Palestinian community as well as centrist participation in Netanyahu’s coalition government. As long as Palestinians face a military court on the West Bank while Israelis face a civilian court, the Israelis cannot deny the label of “apartheid” to describe their binational politics. At the current rate of Israel’s drift to the right, it is increasingly likely that a third Intifada will begin.
President Biden erred when he traveled hat-in-hand to Saudi Arabia in July to generate greater Saudi oil production. Mohammed bin Salman’s response on the eve of the mid-term elections was to reduce OPEC production by 2 million barrels a day in an effort to embarrass the U.S. president and to complicate Democrat efforts to hold on to its narrow majorities in the House and Senate. We need to remind the Saudis of their dependence on the United States by sending a signal to Iran regarding the renewal of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the nuclear deal. It will be difficult to send such a signal during the brutal Iranian campaign against the current protest movement, but the Saudis should know that the Biden administration is considering such a step when opportunity permits. Reducing the sale of sophisticated military weaponry is another option.
There are various national security issues such as immigration; climate change; and the pandemic that must be addressed, but they are subject to the Republicans’ politicization of every national security issue. Even the confirmation of U.S. ambassadors in the Senate, which should be a quick and easy affair, is subject to Republican road blocks. Currently, the Biden administration is waiting for Senate confirmation of more than three dozen ambassadorial nominees, including such important postings as Brazil, where there is a new more friendly government; India, where there is an increasingly difficult international partner; Nigeria, where there is increasing domestic violence; Russia; Saudi Arabia; and the United Arab Emirates.
The reassessment of U.S. foreign policy may have to take a back seat to the immediate priority of protecting our presidential elections and our democratic institutions. However, without the reform of our national security, we will remain hostages to the authoritarian actions of a future president. Two decades of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan should have led to a period of soul-searching; instead we are dealing with the madness of the dual containment of Russia and China. The philosopher John Locke warned that “wherever law ends, tyranny begins.”