“While you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day,” Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders charged in the GOP rebuttal to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address Tuesday night. Obviously prewritten, it’s a line that might have worked had Biden’s speech not overwhelmingly focused on economic issues which directly affect that “hard reality.”
The major subject Biden actually neglected was, predictably, foreign policy. Though administration of U.S. foreign affairs is a central duty of the presidency, Biden devoted just a few moments of a 72-minute address to updating the American people on our diplomacy, alliances, and military interventions. But what little he said—and, equally, what he declined to mention at all—was revealing, sketching a foreign policy that’s reckless on some points, relatively restrained on others, and utterly uninterested in any real resolution to America’s lingering military entanglements in the Middle East.
Most of Biden’s short discussion on the war in Ukraine was an accounting of the lofty principles (freedom, sovereignty, democracy, and so on) he argued U.S. support for Kyiv has demonstrated and reinforced. There were no policy specifics, no arguments for the merits of what Washington has and hasn’t done for Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression.
But one line rightly drew attention: America is “going to stand with you as long as it takes,” Biden told the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, who was a guest in the audience.
As long as it takes. It’s been obvious for months that the U.S. is involved in Ukraine for the long haul, but the language here is more absolute than most administration pronouncements have been. And it raises as big a question as it answers: What exactly does this commitment mean?
After all the democracy talk, it sounded good. But are there no circumstances under which the U.S.-Ukraine relationship would change? What if U.S. and Ukrainian interests diverge? What if Washington negotiates a peace deal that Moscow accepts but Kyiv refuses? What keeps this from being another “forever war” of the kind Biden has decried? This, more than platitudes about Ukrainian courage, is the sort of “Information of the State of the Union” that a State of the Union speech ought to include.
Turning from Russia to China, Biden struck a note of comparative restraint. While the Republican Party’s foreign policy is in flux, antagonism toward China is one point on which the GOP seems able to agree. Biden’s “refusal to stand up to China, our most formidable adversary, is dangerous and unacceptable,” Sanders alleged in the single most in-depth sentence of her foreign policy remarks, which managed to outdo even Biden’s brevity in its lack of meaningful content.
But considered outside the Republican frame of unrelenting hostility toward Beijing, Biden’s China comments were the most reasonable part of his foreign policy section. Crucially, he rejected a turn toward pure antagonism: “I’ve made clear in my personal conversations, which have been many, with [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping], that we seek competition, not conflict,” Biden said. “I’m committed to work with China where we can advance American interests and benefit the world.”
That said, Biden paired the competition and cooperation stuff with talk of U.S. military buildup in the Indo-Pacific, and whether that’s deterrence or threat is to some degree in the eye of the beholder. Beijing, certainly, will see a threat in moves like the U.S. military’s return to the Philippines this month. As a BBC headline observed, this return gives our military a “complete arc around China”—and Beijing, of course, has no comparable ring of military bases around the United States.
The greater Middle East
It’s perhaps to be expected that Biden didn’t mention the U.S. war in Afghanistan, which his administration concluded at the 20-year mark in 2021 with a complete withdrawal of American forces from inside Afghan borders. But one brief allusion to an Iraq war veteran aside, he also failed to mention ongoing U.S. military involvement in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere in Africa and the greater Middle East.
None of these countries are hosting a large-scale U.S. combat operation at this point. Technically, the war in Iraq is over, and the roughly 2,500 American forces there are only doing advise-and-assist work. Technically, we’re not supporting offensive operations by the Saudi-led coalition intervening in Yemen’s civil war. Technically, we’re not at war in Syria, Somalia, and other African nations where U.S. troops numbering in the dozens to hundreds are conducting counterterror operations on the ground and from the skies.
But those involvements are still significant. They still put U.S. forces in harm’s way, harm local civilians, generate blowback, and expose us to needless risk of conflict—including with Russia and Iran, which are also intervening in Syria.
Biden described the United States as a “nation that embraces… stability over chaos,” and Sanders laughably asserted that before Biden took office, GOP leadership had delivered “a world that was stable and at peace.” Casting Washington as a force for stability is quite a claim given the last two decades of U.S. military meddling abroad and all the unintended consequences it’s produced. Maybe it’s a defensible claim. Maybe U.S. foreign policy is on basically the right track. But Biden sure didn’t make that case Tuesday night.