By Fiona Harrigan
President Joe Biden’s campaign success largely hinged on promises of change. He spoke of prioritizing alliances, promoting U.S. leadership abroad, and transmitting American values across the world. In the first weeks of his presidency, however, he fell into a concerningly familiar foreign policy rut. By the one-month mark, he had dropped bombs on a target in Syria, ignored the malignant conduct of a questionable ally, and disappointed many voters who sought a more peaceful and principled candidate.
Despite a suboptimal start, the Biden administration can still embrace and improve upon key campaign promises, leaving behind a better foreign policy than it inherited. First, Biden should encourage and adopt congressional efforts to amend the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, giving Congress its due role in conflict decisions; second, he should reduce the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East, reducing the risks of involvement abroad; and third, he should recalibrate the U.S. treatment of Iran and Saudi Arabia, promoting a balance of goodwill and skepticism toward both nations. With these priorities, Biden could accomplish what so many presidents before him have promised.
Adopt a New Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)
Though the Constitution grants Congress the sole power to declare war, the lines surrounding U.S. involvement in conflict have blurred over time. After September 11, Congress passed the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), allowing the president to use “necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons” involved in the attacks. It has done far more, becoming a carte blanche that three presidents have used in 41 operations in 19 countries. Unilateral “wartime” decision-making quickly replaced Congress’ role in the conflict process.
In recent years, bipartisan support has mounted for an amendment to the War Powers Resolution, which would effectively cap what the president can accomplish through an AUMF. Since 2018, Sen. Tim Kaine (D–Va.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D–N.Y.), and former Sen. Bob Corker (R–Tenn.) have drafted various reforms. Congress should have included safeguards in the original 2001 AUMF to prevent abuse, but moving forward, it can limit the executive’s powers by introducing a sunset provision.
The Biden administration should adopt such guidance with or without a congressional initiative. Democrats in Congress, including Rep. Barbara Lee (D–Calif.), have pushed Biden to work with Congress to refine allowances granted under the 2001 AUMF. Just days before the president’s inauguration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed that Biden “feels very strongly” about the need to revamp such mandates––a promising sign of momentum.
Reduce the U.S. Military Presence in the Middle East
On the campaign trail, Biden promised to “bring the vast majority of our troops home from Afghanistan.” With the war in Afghanistan nearing its two-decade mark, and with veterans sending their children to the very same conflict, it’s a necessary action––but Biden shouldn’t stop there. Military involvement in the Middle East has been a treacherous slippery slope, leading to objectively little success. Given that an average of 60,000 U.S. troops stationed there at any given time and civilian costs are forever rising, it’s time for Biden to change course.
After so many years of intense involvement, it will admittedly be impossible to entirely avoid creating a power vacuum in vacating American troops. Biden could begin conservatively by shifting U.S. efforts away from combat and toward intelligence or special forces. At the very least, the administration could examine whether the full presence of 60,000 is necessary across the region; some staffing may simply be misguided, as is likely the case in Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.
These measures could promote the safety of both American troops and foreign civilians. In recent years, U.S.-led bases have been targeted by hostile parties, with several recent attacks on American-led bases in Iraq; removing troops removes human risk. Appropriate reductions could also ease the overextension of U.S. troops, centralizing efforts where they may be more likely to help. And finally, removing troops (and de-escalating conflicts) will mitigate the human rights abuses and war crimes that have long accompanied the U.S. presence in the Middle East.
Reevaluate U.S. Relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia
In a clear departure from his predecessor, Biden has expressed––both on the campaign trail and in the Oval Office––his desire to improve diplomatic ties with Iran. Namely, he hopes to reenter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which the Obama-led U.S. entered in 2015. Biden also stood in contrast to Trump in his tentative approach to Saudi Arabia, decrying the kingdom’s role in the Yemeni Civil War and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.
The Biden administration thus far has had a mixed record on keeping these early promises, but it would do well to maintain a balance between its openness and skepticism toward both Iran and Saudi Arabia. U.S. relations with one nation have long come at the expense of allyship with the other, but such foreign policy is unsustainable. Biden also faces an opportunity to leverage tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia to his advantage in order to seek a better position in negotiating with either country.
Though he halted arms sales to Riyadh, Biden should reevaluate his commitment to helping Saudi Arabia “defend its sovereignty,” realizing that such support may be utilized for dubious goals. Many standard criticisms of Iran, such as support for extremist groups and general brutishness, apply equally to Saudi Arabia; recalibrating the U.S. approach to the region could reduce long-standing hypocrisy.
It’s time for the standoff between Tehran and Washington to end. Trump imposed sanctions and broke the terms of the JCPOA first, and Iran restarted uranium enrichment efforts second. Though the Trump White House imposed sanctions, the Biden administration should nevertheless take the initiative to repeal those sanctions and entice Iran back to the negotiating table.
While Biden the candidate made waves for his belief that “America must lead again,” Biden the president should build his strategic priorities on a foundation of humility. By now, it is clear that good intentions do not equal good results. The best the United States can do is disentangle itself from the world.
Amending preconditions for conflict, reducing the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, and rethinking how America approaches the Gulf would help the Biden administration build a kinder, gentler foreign policy. Over time, the executive’s ever-growing propensity for entanglement abroad has degraded our domestic character. Biden, so deeply committed to leading abroad by example, could fix that.