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Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy Gave Us Donald Trump

He acts as though all we need to do is return to the pre-Trump status quo. It's not so simple.

Credit: Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock

My progressive friends are uniformly unenthusiastic about Joe Biden having won the contest to become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. Their lack of enthusiasm, which more often than not borders on outright dismay, is understandable and appropriate.

For anyone who wants nothing more than to return this country to the status quo ante Trump, Biden might make for an acceptable candidate. He is, after all, a consummate political insider. He knows his lines and he recites them (or reads them off a teleprompter) with apparent conviction. Unlike Trump, he at least sounds presidential. Yet Biden is also a card-carrying member of the political establishment whose myriad failures vaulted Trump into the White House in the first place.

If elected, Biden can be counted on to take the country back to where it was before Trump showed up to spoil the party. My progressive friends are unhappy with that prospect. So should conservatives be as well. 

To appreciate what this is likely to mean, consider the essay that the former vice president published in Foreign Affairs just as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to bite. Bearing the predictable title “Why America Must Lead Again,” the essay, meant to convey Biden’s foreign policy vision, appeared at the tail end of a two-decade period during which American leadership had produced less than reassuring results. 

Yet Biden is not one not to tarry over mistakes. So his essay, for example, makes absolutely no mention of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he ardently supported—the equivalent of Hubert Humphrey running to succeed Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and pretending the Vietnam War never happened.

While skipping right past Iraq, the would-be commander-in-chief offers a something-for-everyone potpourri of promises, touching on everything from trade and climate change to fighting corruption abroad and “lifting up women and girls around the world.” Prominently featured in this smorgasbord are assurances of his willingness to use force and a vow that when he occupies the Oval Office the United States will continue to possess “the strongest military in the world.” It’s as if a reluctance to employ violence or a shortfall in available striking power has somehow hampered recent U.S. policy. 

Yet fully unpacking Biden’s foreign policy vision requires giving due attention to the clichés that he trots out to clinch his argument. History itself, he insists, validates that vision. “This is not a moment for fear,” Biden assures his readers, giving his best imitation of FDR. “This is the time to tap the strength and audacity that took us to victory in two world wars and brought down the Iron Curtain. The triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy created the free world. But this contest does not just define our past. It will define our future, as well.”

Here, in a nutshell, is the narrative that presidents and wannabe presidents routinely employ to divert attention from the complexities and ambiguities of America’s actual role in the world. Define the past as a succession of victories, engineered by the United States and leading to the creation of a “free world”—past, present, and future woven together into a seamless garment. Pretty soon you’ll be pressing for regime change in Venezuela or demanding that the ayatollahs knuckle under to Mike Pompeo’s latest demands.

Biden’s framing of history conveniently excludes all that happened before 1914 or after 1989, while airbrushing more than a little of what happened in between. Does the outcome of World War I qualify as a victory or did it merely set the stage for a) the devastating Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1919 and b) another war with Germany that turned out to be even worse than the first one? As for defeating fascism, didn’t Josef Stalin, neither democratic nor liberal, lend a hand?

Yet by depicting history as a story of America rising up in glory to thwart distant threats, Biden captures the essence of the past to which establishment politicians, i.e., just about everyone except Donald Trump, instinctively revert in stump speeches or on patriotic occasions. 

That Trump himself is manifestly dishonest is no doubt the case. Yet I submit that the dishonesty of Joe Biden and others of his ilk in sanitizing American history poses its own danger. As far as foreign policy is concerned, a Biden presidency is likely to compound the follies that gave us Trump in the first place. For my money, status quo ante Trump is not a good place to be. 

Democrats, you owe it to your country to do better than this. 

Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, is TAC’s writer-at-large. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

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