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The ‘Adults’ Are Not Back in Charge of U.S. Foreign Policy

From Eastern Europe to the Middle East, President Biden can’t kick his escalation addiction.

Credit: Mohammed al-wafi

The Biden administration’s proclamations that the “adults are back in charge” in Washington ring hollow as the United States perpetuates devastating conflicts abroad rather than resolving them. Not only does America’s diplomatic credibility suffer, but so do those caught in the midst of these seemingly never-ending wars. 

The latest example came just this month when President Biden unilaterally led the United States in conducting airstrikes on Yemen as Houthis attacked Red Sea ships in retaliation for the situation in Gaza. He justified these bombardments by stating the actions of the Houthis jeopardized trade and threatened freedom of navigation. 


Yet, airstrikes are only further destabilizing the region. Iran subsequently lashed out by firing ballistic missiles through its proxies at U.S. facilities in northern Iraq. Similarly, nuclear-armed Pakistan, a major recipient of U.S. military aid, launched airstrikes against alleged militant hideouts inside Iran, which in turn provoked a drone attack on an American base that killed three U.S. servicemembers. These developments prove that conflicts in the Middle East are expanding, not diminishing, in a cycle of retaliatory action in the region after U.S. intervention.

Washington defaults to a militaristic response when faced with a world conflict: send weapons, fire missiles, or make grave threats. These “solutions” often fail to resolve anything and always risk inflaming conflicts further. As such, the United States must course correct, tapping into its underutilized but robust diplomatic capital.

Americans aren’t blind to the fundamental problems with Washington’s status quo foreign policy. In polling over the last few years, Concerned Veterans for America and YouGov found that 42 percent of Americans would like to see less military involvement abroad, 52 percent would oppose the president sending more troops to the Middle East, and only 15 percent of the American public support sending more military and financial aid to Ukraine. 

Nevertheless, despite the inclinations of everyday Americans toward restraint, Washington continues to lead foreign policy efforts using the military.

In the case of the Middle East, such efforts are futile. As Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute points out, Washington will not be able to achieve its objective of re-opening the crucial Red Sea lanes for international shipping since escalating tensions with the Houthis has actually bolstered the militant group’s ability to disrupt international shipping. In spite of the Houthis stating that attacks on Red Sea ships will end when a ceasefire is agreed upon in Gaza, the United States upped the ante by contributing to violence in the region.


Rather than establishing deterrence by bombing Yemen, the U.S. ensured that the Houthis would enjoy a newfound status as champions of the Palestinian cause. This follows a trend as the Houthis were also emboldened after Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015 when the rebels seized the capital, San’a.

Washington should abandon such tactics and instead work diplomatically with Israel to forge terms for a long-term ceasefire in Gaza. Following the horrendous attack it suffered on October 7, 2023, Israel has the right to defend itself. Its target, however, is entrenched and difficult to defeat absolutely. Meanwhile, more than 25,000 Palestinians have been killed, more than 10,000 of them children and 1.9 million people have been displaced from their homes. The United States and Israel must accept that stabilization in the region will only come through diplomatic means.

Washington elites have only recently come to terms with the fact that only diplomacy will end the Russo–Ukrainian war. This is following the failure of Kiev’s summer counteroffensive, which produced few territorial gains and many Ukrainian casualties.

Unfortunately, diplomatic incentives for Moscow to come to a peace agreement have diminished following Ukraine’s failure to gain the upper hand, and now Moscow believes it has both the time and momentum to win. The prospects for peace were much better early in the war. Zelensky himself confirmed that Ukraine was prepared to agree to exchange a guarantee of “neutrality” for “security guarantees for Ukraine.” But rather than enabling Kiev to negotiate from a position of strength, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, including the United States, encouraged Ukraine to fight for “as long as it takes.”

Washington could actually help Ukraine by advising Kiev that prolonging the war won’t bode well for Ukraine's long-term prosperity. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov have expressed that they are open to peace talks on the condition that Ukraine becomes a neutral state with no aspirations of joining NATO. On the other hand, Ukraine is pushing for a 10-point peace place but insists it won’t discuss it with Russia. The United States, with its significant role in Ukraine’s defensive efforts, has the purchase and leverage to push Ukraine to compromise with Russia.

Following World War II, America’s most significant foreign policy successes were not wars waged, but diplomatic peace settlements skillfully brokered.

President Richard Nixon’s 1972 decision to end U.S. ostracism of China led to a fundamental breakthrough in U.S.-China relations. Nixon’s decision ended 25 years of China's isolation from the West and laid the framework for President Carter to normalize diplomatic relations with China in January 1979. Nixon’s leadership enabled the United States to normalize relations with China and fostered China’s alignment with the United States, thus applying the pressure necessary to end the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

A more recent example of successful American diplomacy is the Iran nuclear deal or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). After 20 months of negotiations, this landmark agreement resulted in Tehran agreeing to restrict its nuclear program and allowing for a regime of ongoing inspections. Following the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the agreement, however, the Iran nuclear crisis has worsened, with Iran now possessing enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. Now, potential conflict between the U.S. and  Iran is increasingly likely. 

President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have done little to exercise effective diplomacy. Biden’s instinct to end the war in Afghanistan has not translated into any new approach of restraint and diplomacy in conflicts abroad. In fact, Biden has done the opposite by encouraging Israel and Ukraine to chase maximalist objectives that have resulted in widespread death and suffering and put American interests in those regions at risk.

Blinken, who is supposed to be a seasoned diplomat with both Harvard and Columbia credentials, has fared no better. He mishandled critical 2021 talks with the Chinese in Anchorage, Alaska. Rather than quelling tensions between the two countries, the meeting fueled anti-American sentiments in China and put the two countries on a glide path for future bilateral tensions.

Additionally, Blinken’s failed approach to the situation in Gaza has left the conflict in a dire state with little to show for Washington’s enormous diplomatic leverage. 

As conflicts rage in the Middle East and Europe, the world looks to the U.S. for support and leadership. Unfortunately, because Washington has depended on American militarism as the primary avenue of engagement, it has only exacerbated tensions. Despite promises to the contrary, the Biden administration reminds us that diplomacy is a lost art in Washington. Right now, that’s a dangerous place to be.