It is ironic that my first article about Joe Biden defends him in our conservative publication, but I call things like I see them, and President Biden has been taking a lot of undeserved criticism for his recent Syria strike. For context, President Biden, in response to an Iranian attack on US troops stationed in Iraq, launched an airstrike on an Iranian-backed militia in Syria that had seized control of a border crossing between Syria and Iraq. A second strike was planned but later called off due to a potential for civilian casualties.
From a strategy perspective, this was likely the right move. On the one hand, we cannot allow Iran to attack our troops with impunity. If Biden did nothing, then he would likely have emboldened our enemies further, thus necessitating a more forceful response sometime in the future. On the other hand, an attack on Iranian troops directly would have likely forced Iran to escalate; whereas, an attack on Iranian proxies in Iraq would have put our political allies in the Iraqi government in a difficult position. Yet, Biden has been slammed by both his own party and the media, not necessarily, or primarily, because they disagreed with his strategic thinking, but because he was seen as breaking his promises. As one of Biden’s erstwhile supporters said, “So when they said $2k checks immediately, what they actually meant was $1400 checks, whenever we get to it, after bombing Syria and abandoning the minimum wage hike. Good luck in the midterms!”
But Biden is not alone in being criticized for not practicing what he preached on foreign policy. Bill Clinton vowed to reduce American commitments abroad, and then he proceeded to expand those commitments in response to various threats. George Bush criticized Bill Clinton for nation-building, but then he flipped his entire foreign policy orientation in response to 9/11. Obama, who criticized the Iraq war before it was cool, withdrew American troops from Iraq… and then promptly returned them after the withdrawal created a vacuum that spawned ISIS. Trump spoke out against American intervention in Syria, and then promptly intervened in Syria. Now, it is Biden’s turn. He criticized Trump for launching his Syria strikes without congressional approval, only to do the exact same thing as it became necessary to protect American interests.
So, why then do America’s leaders provide us with such a different foreign policy than the one they promise? Some might accuse our politicians of outright lying, promising one foreign policy while secretly intending to pursue another, but I find a different explanation more likely. Every politician who breaks their foreign policy promises does so after some sort of crisis — the bigger the crisis, the bigger the policy reversal. For instance, Clinton only expanded American presence in Eastern Europe in response to the humanitarian and geopolitical disasters caused by the Yugoslav Wars. Bush, meanwhile, reversed himself only in response to the horror of 9/11, while Obama went back on his promises largely in response to the increasing threat of the Islamic State. President Trump stayed the truest to his promises of foreign policy isolationism by withdrawing troops from Afghanistan against the advice of his military advisors, but this may have more to do with him not facing any major foreign crisis during his tenure along with his willingness to ignore advisors in general than anything else. Even so, he did reverse himself on Syria after it was confirmed that Assad had used chemical weapons against children (of which there was ample documentation before then, but this time apparently the president saw graphic images of their aftermath.) The situation faced by President Biden was relatively minor, and so was his deviation from his promises, but the comparison holds nevertheless.
So why can’t we Americans get the foreign policy that we want? There are many theories, the largest, perhaps, is that we continue to fight these foreign wars at the behest of the military-industrial complex, big oil, or some other nebulous force. The problem with this theory is that it would be much cheaper, and much better for PR, for big oil and the military-industrial complex to simply receive massive subsidies, on the order of a hundred billion or so, from the government. This would put more money in their pockets than increased spending due to wars ever could, and would be cheaper for the federal government. They could, in short, become like big sugar or a large public sector union — an industry that does little real work but is sustained by government largesse. Meanwhile, the real cause of our endless wars must be sought elsewhere.
It is informative that, as mentioned before, all of our leaders who have changed their foreign policy have been forced to do so after a crisis — the bigger the crisis, the bigger the change. The picture this draws is one where every administration enters office believing it is the one that can end America’s “forever wars,” only to find out that the world is a dangerous place, and that, without America being willing to use our military as a stabilizing force, things can become very unstable very quickly.
So kudos to President Biden for putting the national interest, and the safety of our troops, over silly campaign rhetoric about “ending forever wars.” And here’s to hoping that he will keep this up and that voters will one day learn that the only realistic path to global stability is American hegemony.