President Biden’s national security team has reached the halfway mark in his administration with few successes and numerous disappointments. The brutal and savage Russian use of force against Ukraine has allowed the Biden administration to claim success in rallying the Western world against the Russian invasion and reviving a European alliance that four years of Donald Trump had shattered.
Conversely, the preoccupation with Ukraine has kept the Biden team from pursuing alternatives to the feckless dual containment policy against Russia and China; the maximalist (and similarly feckless) denuclearization policies against Iran and North Korea; the emphasis on increased military spending; and the unwillingness to pursue arms control and disarmament measures. A dialogue is needed with North Korea, and Biden should have returned to the Iran nuclear accord. But the Biden team doesn’t even include a disarmament specialist!
Although Biden can claim credit for ending the “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, the record spending on defense, which includes an $80 billion increase over last year’s spending as well as the emphasis on costly weapons systems points to business as usual. The increase in spending alone is far more than Russia spending on its entire defense budget. In fact, with the exception of China, this year’s increase is greater than every defense budget in the global community. The mainstream media approved the unrestrained defense spending, and merely highlighted the fact that the defense bill rescinded the Pentagon mandate regarding the coronavirus vaccine.
Meanwhile, the Senate passed the defense bill with a huge bipartisan vote of 83-11. (For the record, my basic training in the U.S. Army included inoculations against a dozen different illnesses, so the congressional politicization of the covid vaccine remains a mystery.) The congress studiously avoids addressing the huge cost overruns by weapons contractors.
China is the justification for the current round of bloated defense spending, and as a result of the anti-China message from the White House and the media, the overwhelming majority of Americans now view China as an enemy. This ignores the fact that the United States spends three times the Chinese expenditure on defense, and has additional support from the defense budgets of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. In sounding the alarm about China, the White House and the Pentagon highlight the necessity of “keeping pace with China.” The exaggerated China threat ignores the fact that China has one operational military facility outside China’s sphere of influence—Djibouti on the Horn of Africa—while the United States has hundreds of bases and facilities all over the world, including access to facilities throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
U.S. defense spending includes the F-35 fighter aircraft—the most expensive weapons system in history—which the Project on Government Oversight has determined will never be fully ready for combat. There will be additional spending on obsolescent aircraft carriers, which will be vulnerable to improved Chinese missile systems as well as for the modernization of ICBMs, which have no utility whatsoever other than in the context of suicidal warfare. A former colleague, William Hartung, has noted that the United States would be safer without them.
Biden has surrounded himself with national security traditionalists, including Jake Sullivan at the National Security Council, Antony Blinken at the Department of State, and Avril Haines as the intelligence tsar, whose warnings about a threat from China amount to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sullivan has advanced no new thinking on our central foreign policy challenges (Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran); Blinken has been largely absent from the key foreign policy engagements and mishandled his first foreign assignment with China in the first months of the Biden administration; and Haines will be remembered best for defending the appointment of Gina Haspel as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and redacting key aspects of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture and abuse. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin remains somewhat of a mystery at the Pentagon, but at least Biden didn’t appoint the favorite of the foreign policy establishment, Michele Flournoy, the leading contender from the defense establishment.
An example of the backward thinking of the Biden team is its opposition to a Senate resolution that would end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which has been the major contributor to the humanitarian crisis that exists there. Over the years, Saudi bombing raids have been primarily responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Yemeni civilians as well as the closing of Yemeni ports, which has caused one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Just as Donald Trump vetoed similar resolutions against support for the Saudis in 2018 and 2019, Biden has walked away from his campaign pledge to make Saudi Arabia the “pariah that they are.” Biden fist bumped Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman in July, and MbS “returned the favor” several months later by cutting oil production, which was clearly a shot at Biden’s political prospects only weeks before the congressional elections in October. The Biden administration even granted immunity to MbS regarding his role in the brutal killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which has been documented by the intelligence community and the U.S. Senate.
Finally, Biden—like his immediate predecessors in the White House—has relied on a series of economic sanctions against U.S. adversaries and problematic regimes. Cuba could well be the poster child for the failure of six decades of sanctions to effect change in Cuban policy. Similar efforts against Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela have produced no favorable results. The past two decades of sanctions against North Korea have done nothing to encourage Pyongyang to enter negotiations or slow down its testing of strategic weaponry. Sanctions have had no impact on the advance of Iran’s nuclear program, and now Iran is building sophisticated drones for Russia’s use against Ukraine. Trump’s efforts to use sanctions to effect regime change in Venezuela also failed, and the Biden administration has been forced to ease up on sanctions in its desperate search to gain access to Venezuela’s oil production.
Economic sanctions, in fact, could be seen as a form of economic terrorism. Such sanctions do great harm to ordinary citizens and not the leaders we claim to be targeting. The hope is that an angry civilian population will then pressure their governments to accommodate U.S. interests. An excellent example would be the sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, which cut off the flow of food and medical supplies causing malnutrition, soaring infant deaths, and the reintroduction of malaria and typhoid.
Rarely have the American people elected a president with the depth of experience in national security policy that Biden has accumulated. But until this experience is translated into new policy initiatives, the United States will count on bloated defense spending and economic sanctions to achieve its objectives.