President Biden has done a good job getting domestic and international economic legislation through Congress, but he has proved far less successful in what was supposed to be his forte: foreign policy. With wars raging in Ukraine and Gaza, and the threat of a regional conflict in the Middle East dramatized by the drone strike on American troops in Jordan, Biden could leave the United States and the world in worse shape than they were when he assumed office. It isn’t entirely his fault—but he is at least partly to blame.

The argument to follow shouldn’t be taken to suggest that either America or the world would be better off with Biden’s likely rival next November, former President Donald Trump. Biden’s blunders in the Middle East and elsewhere have frequently been the result of his continuing the policies of his predecessor. And, of course, there are multiple other considerations that would determine a voter’s preference for president, including the candidate’s respect for America’s democratic institutions. Still, his supporters at the very least must ask whether the Biden administration has seriously blundered in its relations with Iran, Ukraine and Russia, Israel, and Afghanistan. I believe he has and would urge a change in direction.


Start with Iran. American relations with the Islamic Republic have remained contentious since the hostage crisis of 1979. But Iran has not remained unremittingly hostile toward the “Great Satan.” There were two periods when change seemed possible. In these cases, factions within Iran’s leadership that favored a thaw appeared to gain ascendancy and to win the support of both Iran’s supreme leader and the Iranian public.

In 2003, Javad Zarif, then Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations under the reform-minded President Muhammad Khatami, proposed talks on the nuclear dossier and on Iranian-Israeli relations. Iran’s overture might have been driven by fear that as a member of what George W. Bush had denounced as an “Axis of Evil,” it would suffer Iraq’s fate. But Bush rejected Iran’s overture. In 2005, Khatami was swept out of office by hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, dashing any hopes for a nuclear deal or for a broader rapprochement.

Then, in the 2013 elections, another moderate, Hassan Rouhani, was elected president and appointed Zarif as his foreign minister. This time, the United States under Barack Obama took notice and sent envoys. In 2015, the Rouhani administration negotiated a nuclear-arms agreement with the United States, the European Union, Russia, and China in exchange for sanctions relief. Zarif indicated that the nuclear deal could lead to further agreements between Tehran and Washington. But in 2018, Trump, eager to undo what his predecessor had accomplished, and responsive to urgings from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pulled out of the nuclear agreement and slapped harsh sanctions on Iran. In response, the Tehran regime, which had previously abided by the agreement, announced it would no longer adhere to limits on producing and stockpiling plutonium or highly enriched uranium.

Biden campaigned for president in 2020 on a promise to rejoin the nuclear pact. He described Trump’s Iran strategy as a “self-inflicted disaster.” After Biden was elected in November, Zarif said that if Washington rejoined the pact, Iran would return to compliance with it. The next month, Rouhani repeated the promise. But it became clear during Biden’s first month in office that he was not ready to rejoin the deal. In his confirmation hearings on Jan. 19, Biden’s nominee as secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said that the United States was a “long way” from reviving the pact and would have to see first what Iran would agree to do in exchange. On Day One, Biden rejoined the Paris climate accord but refrained from rejoining the nuclear deal. He also retained Trump’s sanctions against Iran. There followed months of inconclusive demands, claims, and counterclaims. Echoing what had happened two decades before, Rouhani was replaced by a hard-liner, Ebrahim Raisi, in Iran’s 2021 presidential election. Raisi promptly appointed a foe of the nuclear pact as his chief negotiator, a move that considerably reduced the chances of any negotiated deal.

There were two factors that contributed to Biden’s failure to press ahead with new negotiations. The first was the opposition of Republicans. Their ranks were swelled by Democrats, led by Robert Menendez, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Majority leader Chuck Schumer, both of whom had opposed the 2015 agreement. When the Biden administration attempted to renew talks on the pact in 2022, a supermajority of 62 senators, including 16 Democrats, approved setting conditions on the talks that the Iranians were certain to reject.

Second, Washington came under strong pressure from Jerusalem to reject rejoining the pact. A week after Biden’s election, Israel’s ambassador to the United States warned against rejoining the pact. Five days after Biden’s inauguration, Israel’s top general declared that “a return to the 2015 nuclear agreement, or even if it is a similar accord with several improvements, is bad and wrong from an operational and strategic point of view.” He also warned that the Jewish state was reassessing its military options. A week later, Netanyahu warned, “There must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement.” Naftali Bennett, who briefly replaced Netanyahu as premier before Bibi returned to office, visited the Oval Office in August 2021 and lobbied Biden against the pact. His warnings were echoed by pro-Israel groups in Washington—and by the Gulf states.

At a Nov. 4, 2022, midterm election rally, Biden pronounced the nuclear deal “dead.” In February 2023, Thomas Nides, then the US envoy to Israel, went further, declaring, “Israel can and should do whatever they need to deal with [Iran], and we’ve got their back.”

If the aim of American policy is to prevent the outbreak of a ruinous war in the Middle East, Biden’s failure to renew the nuclear pact and his mistaken assumption that American and Israeli security interests in Iran are identical could have the opposite effect. As a result of the administration’s failure to renew the pact, Iran remains closer than ever to developing a nuclear weapon—and given Israel’s threats, to a potential war with the Jewish state. More immediately, Washington has little leverage over the Iran-led “Axis of Resistance”—composed of the Houthis, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Syrian and Iraqi governments, and Hamas, among others—with which American forces are clashing across the region.

“Iran and its axis are increasingly tied to Beijing and Moscow.”

If the aim of American policy is to counter China’s global ambitions, its Iran policy has had the opposite effect. Iran and its axis are increasingly tied to Beijing and Moscow in an informal anti-American bloc. (Tehran has emerged, astonishingly, as an arms supplier to the Kremlin, and China buys more of Iranian oil than any other country does.) And if America’s aim is to encourage a domestic turn toward reform in Iran, that, too, has been lost. Rouhani’s promise of reform, like Khatami’s, rested on American cooperation and on trade with the West. Iran’s government and its ruling clergy have now abandoned any hint of reform.

Iran took a hard-line turn and accelerated its nuclear program in reaction to Trump’s abandonment of the nuclear pact and his imposition of new sanctions. Biden came into office with a promise to reverse these trends. Given the doubts about American steadfastness sown in Iran by Trump’s policies and given the opposition to the Iran nuclear pact among Republicans, Biden probably had only a narrow opening during the early months of his tenure to rejoin the pact, but he failed to take advantage of the opportunity.


Then there is Afghanistan. Trump had agreed in February 2020 to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan by May 2021. Trump’s agreement was flawed: The Afghan government was kept out of negotiations, and the Trump administration failed to enforce the few conditions it set on withdrawal. But Biden, who was committed to leaving, chose to follow through on Trump’s pledge. That was the right thing to do. After initially removing the Taliban soon after 9/11, America had waged an utterly fruitless 20-year campaign against the group. It was time to depart. But the administration handled the withdrawal and its aftermath extremely poorly.

In May 2021, Biden extended the promise of withdrawal to Sept. 11, and then pulled it forward to Aug. 31. At the time, most American intelligence agencies predicted that, at worst, the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul would remain in power through the year, and the Biden administration, in its public statements, hinted that it could survive and even endure. In a House hearing that month, Zalmay Khalilzad, the administration’s chief negotiator, said of the Taliban, “If they pursue, in my judgment, a military victory, it will result in a long war, because Afghan security forces will fight, other Afghans will fight, neighbors will come to support different forces.” As late as July, Biden was saying that a Taliban takeover was not “inevitable.” But the Taliban entered Kabul and Ghani fled on Aug. 15. That set off two chaotic weeks of American withdrawal.

America had abandoned the Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan’s largest, in July. That August, many thousands of Afghans tried to board planes at Kabul’s lone airfield, even hanging onto landing gear as the planes took off. On Aug. 26, a suicide bomber killed 183 people, including 13 American service members, at the gate to the airport. Hundreds of Americans and thousands of Afghans who wanted to leave were left behind, including interpreters and intelligence sources and their families. All in all, the scene recalled America’s disastrous departure from Saigon in 1975. Biden’s popularity, measured in public approval of his presidency, fell—and has never recovered.

The administration closed the US Embassy and froze $7 billion in Afghan assets in American banks. It never restored diplomatic relations. It is unclear what the administration hoped to accomplish by breaking relations with the new government and clapping sanctions on it. Did it hope the Taliban government would fall or alter its views on women’s inequality? It certainly hasn’t.

By cutting any ties with Kabul, the United States has strengthened its rivals and foes.

Maintaining diplomatic ties with a country isn’t tantamount to approving its government. The United States, after all, maintains diplomatic ties to Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China and to the misogynistic, autocratic Islamic states on the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia. Douglas London, a former CIA official, and Javid Ahmad, a former Afghan ambassador in the Ghani government, wrote, “Washington has only two viable choices: overthrow the Taliban, which didn’t end well the first time, or work with it. Unfortunately, accepting the status quo of nonrecognition leaves Washington largely blind to developments and powerless to influence change.”

Just as the Biden administration’s failure to rejoin the Iran nuclear pact pushed Iran closer to Russia and China, Team Biden’s failure to recognize the new government in Kabul provided an opening to Beijing. This year, China sent an ambassador to Kabul, and the Taliban attended China’s Belt and Road Forum, urging the People’s Republic to invest in Afghanistan’s mineral wealth. Russia has also begun to renew ties with Afghanistan. By cutting any ties with Kabul, the United States has strengthened its rivals and foes.


The roots of the war between Ukraine and Russia go back at least three decades, if not several centuries. When the Soviet Union agreed to German unification after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, American officials assured leaders in Moscow that the United States would not support the expansion of NATO eastward. By 1994, under then-President Bill Clinton, it had broken that promise. Russian President Boris Yeltsin described the decision to expand NATO as “nothing but humiliation” and as an attempt to “split” Europe again. Noted American scholars and diplomats, led by George Kennan, warned that the decision would needlessly revive the Cold War. But ignoring Russia’s complaints and the counsel of its own experts, Washington pressed ahead over the next decade.

Yeltsin’s successor, Putin, issued a warning at the 2007 Munich Security Conference that NATO expansion was a “provocation.” Yet George W. Bush won support at a 2008 NATO conference in Bucharest, over France and Germany’s opposition, for putting Ukraine and Georgia on a track to membership in the Western Alliance. William J. Burns, America’s ambassador to Russia at the time and now the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, warned Washington that “Russia would view further eastward expansion as a potential military threat.” Citing the opinions of Russian officials, Burns added,

NATO enlargement, particularly to Ukraine, remains ‘an emotional and neuralgic’ issue for Russia, but strategic policy considerations also underlie strong opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. In [reference to] Ukraine, these fears include fears that the issue could potentially split the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene.

Burns’s cable now has the ring of prophecy. In 2008, Russia fought a brief war with Georgia over a breakaway province. In 2014, after an alliance of liberal reformers and ultra-nationalists, cheered on by Obama officials, forced Ukraine’s elected pro-Russian president out of office, Putin annexed Crimea and backed separatists in the eastern Donbass region in a civil war with Kiev. During the Trump years, Washington helped arm the Ukrainians, but didn’t revive the question of Ukraine joining NATO. If anything, Trump appeared hostile to the existence of NATO, at least rhetorically. But in 2021, the Biden administration upped arms delivery and military training, while reviving the question of Ukraine’s NATO membership.

“The United States … took steps that may have contributed to the Russians’ decision to invade.”

The full history—of what the United States and NATO, and particularly Britain, did in 2021, and how the Russians reacted—won’t be known for decades. But there is enough in the public record to suggest that, given the warnings the Kremlin had repeatedly issued over Ukraine’s membership in NATO, the United States and its NATO allies took steps that may have contributed to the Russians’ decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022. During that year, Washington and its NATO allies engaged in three joint military exercises with Ukraine’s armed forces: Rapid Trident, Sea Breeze, and Cossack Mace. These, according to a US Army spokesman, were intended to build “partnerships and interoperability” between NATO and Ukrainian forces.

At a June NATO meeting in Brussels, NATO reaffirmed its commitment to Ukraine’s membership. In August, the Biden administration signed a “US-Ukraine Strategic Defense Framework” that endorsed the Brussels communiqué on NATO and pledged to structure Ukraine’s defense around “NATO principles and standards.” In November, the administration signed a “US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership” that once again affirmed the Bucharest and Brussels statements on Ukraine’s NATO membership. According to the charter, “the United States supports Ukraine’s efforts to maximize its status as a NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner to promote interoperability.”

In short, during 2021, the Biden administration and its allies went out of their way to welcome Ukraine as a future member of NATO. Of course, even if they hadn’t, Putin might still have decided in February 2022 to invade Ukraine. His actions, like those of most world leaders, probably stemmed from multiple motives—for instance, imperial nostalgia over the Soviet Union and, perhaps, a desire to enhance his popularity through a quick victory over Kiev. And once Putin did invade, the Biden administration, the United Kingdom, and the European Union countries had no choice but do everything they could to help Ukraine repel the invaders.

It is worth considering, however, whether the Biden administration’s actions the previous year contributed to Putin’s decision to invade, and whether, if the Biden administration had pursued a different course of action, the invasion might never have occurred, and that the United States, Europe and, above all, Ukraine might have been spared a disastrous war. My view, based on the existing evidence, is that the Biden administration might have prevented this war from occurring. And once the war started, the administration made further mistakes.


American intelligence foresaw Russia’s invasion but seems to have been uncertain about what form it would take. In a January new conference, Biden held out the possibility that it would be a “minor incursion.” When the invasion took place and Russian forces, aiming to decapitate the government, headed toward Kiev, intelligence officials seemed to foresee a quick Russian victory. When the Ukrainians beat back the Russians, pessimism gave way to a buoyant optimism, underlain by indignation over Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and its brutal conduct of the war. This sentiment was reflected in Biden administration statements about the war. It seems to have led to serious misjudgment over the year that followed.

In the wake of its failure to take Kiev, the Russians regrouped in the east and tried to negotiate an agreement with the Ukrainians. In talks held in March and April under Belarusian and Turkish auspices, the Russians agreed to return to prewar positions in Crimea and the east, and Ukraine agreed to abandon its quest for NATO membership. But the administration of President Volodymyr Zelensky pulled out of the negotiations. Some later reports suggested that Zelensky did so in response to the discovery of atrocities that Russia had committed at Bucha. But in a televised interview after the discovery became public, Zelensky said Ukraine had “no other choice than to continue the negotiations.” In an interview this November, Ukraine’s chief negotiator claimed that his team finally pulled out because it didn’t trust the Russians to keep their word. But he acknowledged that on the eve of Zelensky’s decision to reject the agreement, then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had visited Kiev and urged Zelensky not to sign “anything at all with them. Let’s just fight.” Johnson has denied these claims.

Johnson was presumably speaking not just for himself, but for the United States and NATO. Bennett, the then-Israeli premier who tried to broker a peace deal between Ukraine and Russia, laid the blame at the feet of Washington and the West. “Basically, yes. They blocked it, and I thought they were wrong,” he said on his YouTube channel. Bennett later walked back his comments, but his initial version of what happened is in line with what Ukrainian sources reported. In an April appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Blinken asserted that “there is no sign to date that President Putin is serious about meaningful negotiations.” In view of what is now known about the negotiations, Blinken’s statement may have been an attempt to cover up his administration’s role in scotching the talks. Blinken also asserted that Russia’s invasion was “never about Ukraine being potentially part of NATO,” an assertion belied by what is known about Russia's demands in the negotiations with Ukraine.

At the time, the Biden and Johnson governments apparently assumed that Ukraine could defeat Russia. In April 2022, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said at a meeting of defense ministers, “Ukraine clearly believes it can win, and so does everyone here.” In Kiev that month, Austin unwisely and candidly acknowledged that a goal of the war was “the weakening of Russia.” Three months later, Biden administration officials, speaking on background to The New York Times, reaffirmed that weakening Russia was indeed America’s strategy. That is an objective that was inconsistent with supporting an agreement in the spring between Ukraine and Russia. Even if you believe that the Biden administration didn’t pressure Ukraine to break off negotiations, what seems certain is that Washington didn’t encourage Kiev to make a deal with the Russians. That, as events would show, was a serious mistake.

Having been repelled from Kiev, Russian forces concentrated their attack in the east and the south, and won victories over the summer, occupying almost a quarter of Ukraine’s territory. But by the fall of 2022 Ukraine forced the Russians out of Kharkiv in the northeast and Kherson in the south. Putin sent out feelers for a ceasefire in place and negotiations. Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged that Ukraine and its allies “seize the moment” diplomatically. Milley was skeptical that Ukraine could defeat Russia. But Zelensky and the Ukrainians, backed by the White House, rejected the Russian offer. American officials held out for the possibility that a Ukrainian counteroffensive in 2023 could either achieve victory, or at the least put Kiev in a commanding position in negotiations. Their hawkish views were seconded by a host of retired military officials and Beltway think-tankers.

Putin responded by mobilizing 300,000 Russian troops, formally annexing four provinces in the east, and establishing fortifications in the south and east against the vaunted Ukrainian counteroffensive. By this Fall, it was clear that the counteroffensive had fizzled. The few small Ukrainian gains in the south had been matched by Russian gains in the east. Most important, the Ukrainians had failed to drive a wedge between Russian forces in the south and to imperil the Russian land bridge to Crimea.

Ukraine has been devastated by the war. According to the latest estimates, some 70,000 Ukrainians have been killed in combat, and another 110,000 wounded. About 6 million of a pre-invasion population of about 41 million Ukrainians have fled to the West. Ukraine’s economy shed 35 percent of its GDP in the first year of the war. And many of its cities have suffered significant damage from Russian air strikes.

“The prospects for anything resembling a Ukrainian ‘victory’ have vanished.”

The prospects for anything resembling a Ukrainian “victory” have vanished. Russia enjoys a huge advantage in population and consequently in the raw number of troops. Ukraine, even with help from the West, suffers from a disadvantage in artillery, which has become the staple of the war. It also doesn’t have an air force that can protect advancing soldiers. And growing numbers of Americans, and particularly Republicans, have begun to balk at replenishing Ukraine’s military and bailing out its economy. In backing Ukraine, the European Union has not only had to contend with Hungary’s Viktor Orban, but with populist discontent in Germany and the Netherlands. Ukraine’s future looks bleak. America must continue to support Ukraine, but it must also try to discover a way out of the conflict through negotiations.


Which brings us to Israel and the war against Hamas. Ever since the founding of the Jewish state, American governments had tried, without success, to resolve through negotiations the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinian Arabs. Since Bill Clinton’s presidency, negotiating a two-state solution was seen as important for preserving stability and order in an economically vital and politically volatile region. That effort ended with the Trump administration. Trump sided with Netanyahu, who rejected negotiating with the Palestinians for a two-state solution and whose party favored annexation of the West Bank.

Trump moved the American Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, and recognized Israel’s control over a city the international community views as divided, and whose eastern sector Palestinians have long viewed as the capital of their future state. Trump’s State Department likewise in effect rejected the notion that Israel’s West Bank settlements are illegal, bucking almost unanimous international opinion. Trump stopped American funds that had gone to the Palestinian Authority and Gaza and to the UN refugee settlements. He shuttered the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington, and the American consulate in East Jerusalem that had overseen contacts with the Palestinians was merged into the new, Jerusalem-based US Embassy.

Trump also secured the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations among Israel, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates. The accords undercut the commitment of Arab League signatories of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, who had pledged not to recognize Israel until the Jewish state had agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian state. As revised in 2007, that agreement sought Israel’s approval by playing down the “right to return” of Palestinian descendants of those displaced by the 1948 war. But a succession of Israeli governments had refused to enter negotiations based upon it. Trump’s Abraham Accords undercut the Arab initiative, but with Saudis ostensibly committed to it, it still remained a potential source of leverage in securing an Israeli-Palestinian accord.

Trump, like Netanyahu, assumed that the Palestinians could be effectively policed and eventually bought off with economic aid. But violent protests broke out in 2017 over Trump’s relocation of the embassy. From February 2018 through December 2019, Gazans rallied along the border to protest the Israeli blockade of their enclave. Much of the protest was nonviolent, but some protesters threw rocks and hurled Molotov cocktails. One Israeli soldier was killed by sniper fire, and three were injured by a grenade. The Israelis responded with force, injuring some 28,000 Palestinians and killing around 190, a substantial proportion of whom were militants.

Then, in Biden’s first year in office, major riots broke out over the eviction of Palestinians from East Jerusalem and over Israeli police storming the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza, and Israel responded with airstrikes that destroyed 94 buildings and killed 256 Gazans, including militants. The protests that year, culminating in the riots in East Jerusalem and the air war with Hamas, were clear signs that Trump’s and Netanyahu’s abandonment of any effort at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be met with resistance and turmoil. The question was whether the new Biden administration would change course. It didn’t.

Candidate Joe Biden rarely mentioned Israel and the Palestinians. In a fundraising pitch to pro-Israel donors in May 2020, Biden condemned the nonviolent Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement against the occupation, but he also promised to restore funding to and recognition of the Palestinian Authority. In office, Biden did restore funding, but he kept putting off the re-establishment of the consulate in East Jerusalem that had been America’s principal link to the Palestinian Authority. He voiced support for a two-state solution but did nothing to revive negotiations between the Israeli government and the authority. Biden asserted in July 2022 that “the ground is not ripe” for negotiations. He also kept the US Embassy in Jerusalem and attempted to build upon Trump’s Abraham Accords. Overall, his approach reaffirmed that of the prior administration.

This state of affairs was shaken by Israel’s elections in November 2022. In June 2021, Netanyahu had yielded power to a right-center coalition of Bennett and former television anchor Yair Lapid. After the November elections, Bibi cobbled together a new majority by bringing in fanatic religious parties that favored the annexation of the West Bank and the expulsion of its Palestinian residents. The new government quickly initiated a fresh wave of settlement-building in the West Bank. Ultra-rightist Bezalel Smotrich, whom Netanyahu put in charge of the West Bank, announced plans for 500,000 new settlers, doubling the population. Settler violence against Palestinians had already been rising from 2021. In June 2023, The New York Times reported “a sharp escalation of violence in the region in recent days involving Palestinian militants, Israeli security forces, and extremist Jewish settlers.” In addition, religious Zionists began to defy the status quo, under which Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount is forbidden. When Palestinians barricaded themselves in the mosque to prevent a rumored provocation, the Israeli police raided the mosque, arresting 400 and injuring more than 50.

“Biden replaced Trump’s hostility to Palestinian self-determination with indifference.”

Biden voiced disapproval of the Israeli government’s expansion of settlements, but he didn’t threaten, as the George H.W. Bush administration had done, to withhold or reduce America’s copious aid package if Israel did not freeze settlement expansion. His complaints were easily ignorable. Blinken pressed ahead with negotiating the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Previously, the Saudis had refused to recognize the Jewish state until Israel heeded the Arab Peace Initiative, but Blinken and his Saudi counterparts remained vague on this issue. It was widely assumed that a two-state solution was no longer a requirement. Team Biden replaced Trump’s hostility to Palestinian self-determination with indifference.

Even a casual observer might have worried that the establishment of an ultra right-wing government in Israel, the outbreak of West Bank violence, the confrontations at the Al Aqsa Mosque, and the Biden administration’s embrace of a Saudi-Israeli deal cutting out the Palestinians would lead to an explosion of rage in the West Bank and Gaza. But Biden officials displayed remarkable complacency. “The Middle East is quieter today than it has been in decades,” Jake Sullivan, the national-security adviser, declared in an interview on Sept. 30, seven days before Hamas’s attack.

Then came the Oct. 7 massacre. Hamas terrorists, like the Russian fighters at Bucha, committed untold atrocities and took about 240 hostages back to Gaza. In the wake of Hamas’s terror assault, Biden backed Israel’s declared aims of eliminating Hamas as the ruling party in Gaza. That was entirely justifiable. But Biden surely didn’t mean to endorse an Israel invasion of Gaza that to date has resulted in the death of more than 25,000 civilians, the majority of whom are women and children.

As in the past, Hamas’s strategy appears to have been to provoke an Israeli overreaction at the expense of the people they claim to champion. And this time, Israel, prodded by its new administration, and by the sheer horror and extent of Hamas’s attacks, which evoke dire memories of the Holocaust, went well beyond its usual reaction to Hamas’s provocations. After a week of Israeli air attacks, and the denial of food, water, fuel, and electricity to Gazan civilians, it became abundantly clear that whatever Israel said it was doing, it was acting not merely to eliminate Hamas, but to punish its citizenry, destroy much of Gaza and perhaps in the process scare away a large proportion of its citizens. Israel’s invasion of Gaza brought forth Arab memories of the Nakba.

In December, Biden, after reportedly voicing objections privately to Netanyahu, publicly condemned Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing” of civilians, but the American government continued to send arms to boost Israel’s assault against Gaza. Two months into Israel’s war in Gaza, Blinken sent two major weapons shipments to Israel, bypassing congressional authorization. Biden’s unwillingness to set any conditions on American military aid identified the United States with a brutal war on an Arab and Muslim population. So, too, will its endorsement of Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza. Whether the war and America’s outsized role in it will also lead to a larger, long-lasting regional conflict remains to be seen, but America’s identification with Israel’s no-holds-barred offensive will inflict long-term damage to America’s reputation and influence in the region.


Success in foreign policy can be gauged by whether an administration can see beyond immediate events and anticipate and head off trouble before it arises. By that measure, the Biden administration has been an abysmal failure. By passing up an initial chance to re-enter the Iran nuclear pact, it lost any chance to do so. It now faces the possibility of a nuclear Iran allied with Russia and China against the United States, as well a formidable Iranian-led Axis of Resistance that can wreak havoc in the Middle East. In Afghanistan, it failed to anticipate that the government would collapse, and the Taliban would take over the country before the United States had withdrawn.

With Ukraine and Russia, it didn’t foresee that its efforts to integrate Ukraine into NATO might provoke a full-scale war. After Ukraine had beaten back the initial Russian move against Kiev, Team Biden didn’t anticipate that the war would end in a stalemate, with the long-term advantage redounding to Russia. In Israel, it didn’t distance the United States from the fanaticism of the new ultra-right government. And Team Biden also failed to anticipate an Israel assault on Gaza that would “make the rubble bounce” and that could risk involving America in a perilous regional conflagration.

One can blame these misjudgments on Biden and his foreign policy-makers. Biden didn’t distinguish himself as a member and later chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was, among other things, a foe of pressuring Israel to halt settlements, a champion of NATO expansion, and a supporter of the invasion of Iraq. Blinken and Sullivan were both Biden associates who lacked the stature and experience of past high officials. But the wider ecosystem of elite university scholars, think-tankers, and opinion leaders is also to blame, for bolstering what turned out to be the administration’s false assumptions. Time and again, the likes of Francis Fukuyama, Max Boot, Edward Lucas, Wesley Clarke, and vaunted experts from the Atlantic Council, Rand, and the Center for New American Security told the administration that a total victory over Russia in Ukraine was both achievable and desirable.

This kind of blindness has affected American politicians and policy-makers at certain key moments. It has usually been driven by strong sentiment. In the McCarthyite era of the late 1940s and early ’50s, and in the post-9/11 War on Terror, America’s misjudgments were driven by fear. In the case of the war in Ukraine, policymakers were, of course, highly concerned that Russian control of Ukraine could affect the balance of power in Europe and globally. But they also permitted anger and indignation to get the better of cool judgment. Likewise in Israel, policymakers abandoned sobriety in the face of Hamas’s hideous crimes. These reactions were natural and justifiable, but they contributed to a focus on immediate wrongs and to a refusal to recognize the history that might have led to the crisis point.

“Those who dissented from the prevailing sentiments were treated as heretics.”

Finally, those who dissented from the prevailing sentiments were treated as heretics. Political scientists, politicians, and think-tankers who rejected the prevailing view that Ukraine could defeat Russia were denounced as Putin apologists. University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer was described as one of “Putin’s useful idiots.” The analysts at the Quincy Institute were called “appeasers” or “shills for Putin.” When 30 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus sent a letter to Biden in October 2022 urging him to pursue negotiations between Ukraine and Russia (while continuing to fund Ukraine’s war effort), they were roundly denounced even by members of their own party. Massachusetts Rep. Jake Auchincloss condemned the letter as “an olive branch to a war criminal who’s losing his war.”

The misjudgments of the Biden administration and the wider establishment may have also stemmed from adherence to a foreign-policy idealism, mixed with tough-guy hawkishness that has gotten the United States in trouble before. The administration has portrayed itself as the defender of democracy against autocracy and of “a rules-based order [against] one governed by brute force,” but the conflicts of nations continue to defy these antinomies. In Ukraine, its attempt to defend a fragile democracy against an overweening autocracy may severely damage that country. In the war in Gaza, the United States finds itself cast as the supporter of brute force. Just as Americans and many of the world’s people had to pay a high price for George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda,” we and they may have to pay a price for the Biden administration’s missteps in the Middle East, South Asia, and Ukraine.

John B. Judis is editor-at-large of Talking Points Memo. His latest book, co-authored with Ruy Teixeira, is Where Have All the Democrats Gone?

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