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Sunday, 23 June 2024
The Biden Doctrine
James Denseiow

There can be few decisions that weigh as heavily on the individual as that of the US President’s decision to use lethal force. Biden may be familiar with the workings of the White House but the decision he made in February to authorise an airstrike against Iran-backed militias in Syria would not have come likely. Monitoring groups suggest some twenty-two people were killed in a strike that sparked debate as to the legal basis of the strikes, what its geopolitical objectives were and perhaps most fundamentally of all what did it tell us about Biden’s approach to foreign affairs.

It should perhaps not surprise observers that unlike the young and inexperienced Barack Obama, President Biden, the oldest President in US history, knows exactly what he wants from the American foreign policy machine. If all new Presidents are juxtaposed to their predecessors that has come in President Biden’s instant restoration of priorities around strengthening America’s presence on the world stage through alliances and multilateral institutions.

In one of his first set piece speeches on foreign affairs Biden explained that “I’m sending a clear message to the world: America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back.” One obvious plank of Biden’s return to more conventional foreign policy was the prediction that he would look to rekindle the Iran Nuclear Deal which the Trump Administration had tried hard to exit.

Opening channels and diplomacy with Iran would seem at odds with the airstrike that Biden authorised against Tehran’s allies in Syria but that says a lot about how the new President will balance carrot and stick. Interestingly the strike was in Syria, which despite various deconfliction methods has become a chessboard from a vast array of armed actors, not Iraq where Biden’s respect for the Government in Baghdad is perhaps of a different tone to that of Trump’s.

Critics of Obama’s Iran policy argue that he was too forgiving of Iran’s ability to undermine US interests in the region in order to get the nuclear deal over the line. Biden appears to be course correcting from that policy showing Iran right from the off that he’s willing to deploy force if Tehran crosses a new set of lines. “You can't act with impunity,” Biden told reporters in Houston, when asked what message he was trying to send Tehran by ordering the airstrike, “Be careful,” he added. The Pentagon said in a statement that "the operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel."

If Obama’s foreign policy mantra was surmised by his quip that you should avoid “doing stupid sh**”, Biden is apparently willing to be more activist. However, he is surely sensitive to scrutiny from his own side around such steps. Indeed, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine responded to events by claiming that; "last week’s airstrikes in Syria show that the Executive Branch, regardless of party, will continue to stretch its war powers. Congress has a responsibility to not only vote to authorize new military action, but to repeal old authorizations that are no longer necessary."

Time will tell if Congress is able to clip the White House’s wings, but another interesting facet of events was reported by the Wall Street Journal. They claimed that the strike was originally broader in nature but was changed by the President at the last minute in order to avoid killing civilians who were present in the strike area. It is hard to imagine Trump pulling his punches in the same way yet the actual strike comprised seven 500lbs bombs which wasn’t by any means rapier like in its subtlety despite the Pentagon arguing that it was 'the more restrained option.'

Biden has come into the White House in an era where activity below the level of war has become the norm. From cyber warfare to drone warfare, we are far from the notion of set piece wars between opposing militaries. Putting pressure on Iran’s non-state proxies is a far less overt and provocative mode of communicating with violence than the killing of General Qasem Soleimani.

Obama’s ‘red lines’ over the conflict in Syria will be one of the most terrible legacies of his administration’s foreign policy. In essence he set out limits that his policies couldn’t match. Biden is being quick to set out and enforce his own lines, which are less assertive than Obama’s but are designed to perhaps give him a pragmatic mandate that show he is no hawk, no dove but rather a predictable straight shooter who will respond if America’s enemies are not more careful.

BY: James Denselow