As Israel conducts the largest offensive operation in Gaza since at least 2014, the words of Donald Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton creep into mind like an uncomfortable oracle: “It’s clear that Biden’s focus – and I don’t disagree with it politically – is domestic ... [but] that will change. Because it always does.”
After speaking to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Joe Biden expressed his “expectation and hope that this will be closing down sooner than later”. The lack of American activity in this comment reflects his administration’s eagerness to fight the propulsive draw of crises in the Middle East. Instead, he is trying to maintain a level of stability in the region that will not distract him from his other priorities both at home and in the Indo-Pacific.
Unlike past administrations, Biden’s foreign policy team is weighted towards the Indo-Pacific. His National Security Council is now filled with considerably more experts on this region than on the Middle East. And Australian foreign policy watchers have been reassured by Biden’s emphasis on the Indo-Pacific, given an increasingly assertive China.
But the escalation of conflict overnight between Israel and Palestine reflects just how difficult it will be for Biden to treat the Middle East like any other region outside of Asia: that is, to not to prioritise it. Biden is not the first President to come to the White House with plans to do less overseas. In 1992, Bill Clinton said, “foreign policy is not what I came here to do” until his presidency was earmarked by an unfulfilled peace agreement at Camp David and humiliation in Somalia.
In 2000, George W. Bush triumphantly declared that the US foreign policy agenda was freed and “no longer fighting a great enemy” until the September 11 attacks the next year, which would eventually result in the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
In 2008, Barack Obama campaigned on a platform that was critical of US foreign policy overreach and pledged to return US troops home, until he came to the Oval Office and increased the total number of US troops in the region.
In 2016, Trump declared that US interventions meant “the legacy of the Obama-Clinton interventions will be weakness, confusion and disarray, a mess”, yet as president he never fully withdrew US forces from Afghanistan.
Biden has spent the first 100 days of his presidency carefully trying to enact a “foreign policy for the middle class”, one that determines foreign policies from the interests of the average American. For Biden, this includes ending “the forever wars” and peeling back from the Middle East. No single foreign policy accomplishment of the administration’s first 100 days makes this clearer than the announcement on April 14 that the US would withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021.
Now, the escalation in conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians presents an all too familiar knee-jerk test. Will Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class” resist the reflex kick of unilateral overreach as the hammer hits his knee?
Since the Cold War, successive presidents’ foreign policies have focused on securing US primacy by fighting threats to national security and promoting democracy overseas. Such endeavours led to costly interventions that sent US troops and treasure beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, and into Libya, Syria, and Somalia too. These expensive efforts, and especially their failure to recognisably benefit Americans back home, have festered into a popular disfavour for US foreign engagement and a growing belief that the US over-exerts itself overseas at the cost of its own citizens.
Biden is not unique in seeing these trends in US popular opinion. But he may very well be unique in his unwavering conviction to respond to them.
Stocked with seasoned diplomats and foreign policy professionals, Biden’s team may well look like the perfect candidates to pick up where Obama left off - hellbent on scrubbing away at “America First” as if it were graffitied onto Obama’s diplomatic trophy cabinet by an estranged vandal. Yet the sentiments of “America First” – that is, thinking about Americans first – are foundational to a “foreign policy for the middle class”.
It is for this reason that the Biden administration, unlike other administrations, did not name an envoy to the Middle East upon taking office, but only after fighting escalated in recent days. And it is for this reason that Biden’s initial comments on the latest violence seem vague and broad.
Biden is trying his best to learn from the perceived mistakes of prior administrations and is determined to not let the Middle East fog up his middle-class monocle with a misty dream of being the president to “solve” the Middle East, guided by an overpowering moral mandate. But the Biden administration may end up sharing the defining frustration of the American middle class: that their aspirations are too frequently beset by crisis.