How Does Biden's Foreign Policy Stack Up After His First 100 Days? | Opinion

President Joe Biden entered the White House on January 20, 2021, with the weight of the nation on his shoulders. More than 3,000 Americans were dying of the coronavirus every day. Biden made it abundantly clear that his top objective was to turn the page on the pandemic. With COVID-19 deaths now down by 76 percent, the American people have given a thumbs up on Biden's overall job performance during his first 100 days.

Being president of the United States, however, is not just about getting the nation out of domestic crises. It's also about defending U.S. national security interests overseas and knowing the limits of U.S. power. For scholars and analysts who have spent years pleading for more realism and humility in U.S. foreign policy, Biden's first 100 days can best be described as a jump-ball: promising in some areas of the world, but concerning in others.

Take the Middle East for example, a region that has bogged down three consecutive U.S. administrations at a cost of over $6.4 trillion with tens of thousands of casualties. Biden may not be a transformational president, but he is at least taking steps that (one hopes) will gradually deprioritize the Middle East in U.S. grand strategy.

Within weeks of his swearing in, Biden announced that the U.S. would no longer provide Saudi Arabia with offensive military support in the kingdom's war in Yemen. That conflict, seven years in the making, has killed thousands of civilians (a conservative estimate) and likely set back Yemen's development by at least a generation. Biden recognized early on that continuing to outfit Riyadh with the air-to-ground munitions, logistical support and diplomatic cover was a lose-lose proposition for the United States—totally contrary to U.S. values and a drag on U.S. interests. Biden's call for a recalibration in relations with Saudi Arabia, a monarchy too often given the benefit of the doubt, was a notable (and frankly overdue) change in direction.

Biden's most significant decision as far as foreign policy realists are concerned is the U.S. troop exit from Afghanistan. A broad coalition of U.S. foreign policy groups have long considered extricating U.S. forces from the 20-year war a top priority. Here was a conflict that went in circles, with Afghanistan resembling the hamster wheel and the U.S. taking the form of the tired but still determined hamster staring at the cheese in front of him. When the U.S. foreign policy establishment looked at the war in Afghanistan, they saw a conflict Washington couldn't afford to lose. Biden, however, looked at Afghanistan and saw a bleeding ulcer, rightly judging that the U.S. could protect itself from terrorism without sustaining a long-term ground presence in the middle of an unending civil war.

Even in the Middle East, the Biden administration's moves so far have been marginal. U.S. troops remain stuck in Syria and Iraq, presumably on an anti-ISIS mission but are in reality tasked with staying put near Syria's insignificant oil fields to prevent the Syrian government from accessing the reserves. In next door Iraq, the 2,500 U.S. forces spend much of their time ducking rocket fire from Shiite militias. ISIS' territorial caliphate is wiped out, yet the U.S. military is still deployed in both countries in a practical state of purgatory.

U.S. relations with Russia have gotten worse during Biden's first 100 days, with U.S. policy toward Moscow as disheveled as a teenager's bedroom. Biden has staked out a tough line with the Russians, imposing a series of economic sanctions for a variety of misdeeds by the Russian security services and engaging in name-calling with President Vladimir Putin. At the same time, Biden believes establishing a stable and predictable relationship between Washington and Moscow is urgent. U.S. and Russian officials are now working on a date for a summit sometime in June.

Biden
President Joe Biden departs after speaking about updated CDC mask guidance on the North Lawn of the White House on April 27, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

China is a different story. While Biden continues to stress interest in working with Beijing on areas of mutual interest, the president often seems more interested in treating China as the Soviet Union of the 21st century—a competitor to be tamed rather than managed. The White House staked out a hawkish China policy in its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance and is looking to pump an additional $27 billion into U.S. INDOPACOM, the military command responsible for Asia.

Realists and restrainers don't know what to make of Biden's foreign policy just yet. My friend and colleague Benjamin Friedman, the policy director at Defense Priorities (where I'm also a fellow) called Biden's foreign policy "a mixed bag" at the 100-day mark.

"The movement toward re-entering the Iran deal and completing the exit from Afghanistan is good but too slow," Friedman said over email. "The most problematic aspect of Biden's foreign policy so far may be China, where [the administration] seem overly wedded to the hawkish DC consensus idea that more US spending, forces in the area, and invocations of 'leadership' can stop China's rise."

Christopher Preble, the co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council, had a similar assessment.

"There have been pluses and minuses," Preble said. "The Afghanistan decision was the correct one, and I've been encouraged by his approach to the civil war in Yemen and his apparent willingness to hold Saudi Arabia at arm's length." Yet Preble also said that the Biden administration's dependency on economic sanctions doesn't square up with the president's proclamations of promoting a foreign policy for the middle class.

Stephen Wertheim, author of Tomorrow, the World and director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute, intimated that he is cautiously optimistic about the direction U.S. foreign policy is going under Biden. While giving the president credit for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Wertheim said that Biden "should now apply his reasoning to U.S. grand strategy as a whole—evaluate every deployment and commitment according to whether it is achievable, time limited, and demonstrably beneficial to the American people."

Granted, these assessments are only preliminary. As President Joe Biden prepares to wave goodbye to his first 100-day stretch, those in the realist and restraint community are at least breathing a sigh of relief—things could be better, but they could also be worse.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.