Our adversaries are hearing a loud and consistent message coming out of the Biden administration. This message is being interpreted across the globe as a greenlight – a permissive environment – to “get all you can!”
It may be too early to judge the foreign policy successes of an administration after only the first 100 days, but it is unfortunately easy to glimpse failures on the horizon, where our enemies see American weakness and ambiguity. Our adversaries are hearing a loud and consistent message coming out of the Biden administration. This message is being interpreted across the globe as a greenlight—a permissive environment—to “get all you can!” From Riyadh to Jerusalem, from Moscow to Beijing, from Baghdad to Tehran, these capitals are getting a glimpse of what the next four years will bring: advantage for our enemies and chaos for our “friends.”
Nowhere is this messaging louder than in the whispers from the Biden team in Vienna as it attempts reentry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, (JCPOA) also known as the Iran Deal. The Biden administration has all the leverage it will never have again with Tehran, and it is ceding that leverage to Tehran, Russia, and China in order to check the box on an early, hollow, and dangerous foreign policy win. Hollow in that the JCPOA is already expiring, and dangerous in that it paves the path to a nuclear bomb, while rewarding the regime in Tehran with sanctions relief. All the while Tehran accelerates its ballistic missile testing, spreads terrorism, and exploits the expiration of sunsets on uranium enrichment and advanced centrifuges.
There are no direct talks between the U.S. and Iran in these negotiations; we are leaving that to the Russians and the Chinese. The two countries that stand to gain the most from the lifting of U.S. sanctions are our “Great Power” competitors—Russia and China. Both nations are set to acquire more of Iran’s resources and infrastructure in exchange for offensive and defensive weapons, which would further fracture the region, and which would allow Iran to defend their illicit nuclear program.
As Russia and China push the U.S. to greater concessions in talks with Iran, the ease in which this is being done signals to both countries that it will be profitable to use leverage of their own in early tests of U.S. resolve regarding Ukraine and Taiwan.
U.S. weakness is also prompting countries to take their own actions, such as the Israeli attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, which set its enrichment capabilities back nine months. Israel is opposed to the U.S. reentry into the JCPOA without addressing ballistic missiles, Iran’s regional behavior, and the extension or removal of sunset clauses on Iran’s nuclear program.
Look how easy Tehran is pushing around the U.S. They think, if Tehran can do it, imagine what we’ll get away with.
Provocations for Concessions
Why not provoke the U.S. for concessions? Look how easy Tehran is pushing around the U.S. They think, if Tehran can do it, imagine what we’ll get away with.
Ironically, as the U.S. tilts out of the Middle East to focus on Great Power competition with Russia and China, the Russians and the Chinese are moving in. CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth McKenzie observes, “we’re beginning to see a resurgence…of great power competition in the Central Command AOR [area of responsibility] as China and Russia begin to find weaknesses and begin to move into it.”
Others are hearing the “get all you can” message as well. The Taliban are moving on areas where the U.S. is pulling out, leaving the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to deal with a threat they haven’t been willing or able to beat since their inception. Afghans in and out of the government and its security forces have been threatened repeatedly with this prescient statement, “the Americans will leave one day, we will always be here and we will remember your actions.”
The militias in Iraq, beholden to Tehran, have launched 30 separate attacks against U.S. compounds and convoys since President Biden took office.
ISIS and Al-Qaeda are set to exploit the coming security vacuum in Afghanistan as they did following the Iranian pressured pullout of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011. Tehran insisted on that concession to secure initial JCPOA talks with the Obama administration.
The militias in Iraq, beholden to Tehran, have launched 30 separate attacks against U.S. compounds and convoys since President Biden took office. Iran began testing the administration by proxy from the onset. Again, Tehran is demanding a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq as a sign the Biden team is serious about making concessions to secure reentry into an expiring nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Another signal to Tehran is already embarrassing the administration. The Biden team reversed a Trump decision to designate the Iran-backed Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), and since this reversal, the terrorist group has significantly increased the number of attacks on Saudi Arabia. When one lifts a designation against an active terrorist group, don’t be surprised when it continues to conduct terrorist attacks. “We continue to be alarmed by the frequency of Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia. Escalating attacks like these are not the actions of a group that is serious about peace,” stated White House press secretary Jen Psaki, lamely.
In mid-April, both Russia and China simultaneously moved to test President Biden through escalation and show-of-force military postures against Ukraine and Taiwan, respectively. Russia is massing on the Ukraine border and warning the Biden White House of a Russian “red line” if it interferes. Despite reports that Putin has withdrawn the force, only a few thousand of the one-hundred-thousand man force have moved back to staging areas. All equipment remains along the border with the majority of the force. Current troop levels mirror the force used to annex Crimea in 2014. In a Senate Intelligence Committee meeting this week, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency stated the Russian buildup, “has reached the point that it could provide the basis for a limited military incursion… It is something not only the United States but our allies have to take very seriously.” Biden hopes to meet with Putin during a June trip to Europe ahead of the NATO summit in Brussels to diffuse the situation–Putin will want something in return.
China is stepping up its harassing military activity against Taiwan and warning the U.S. to not interfere. The intelligence community states in its annual U.S. Threat Assessment that, “China is attempting to exploit doubts about U.S. commitment to the region, undermine Taiwan’s democracy, and extend Beijing’s influence.” China is warning that the U.S. is “playing with fire” when it comes to taking positions on China’s provocations with Taiwan. “There is zero room for compromise and not an inch to give… We urge the U.S. side to grasp the situation, earnestly abide by the one-China principle and the three China-US joint communiqués, refrain from playing with fire, immediately stop official contact with Taiwan in any form.” The Biden administration then fired back with, “Washington’s official policy is ‘Strategic Ambiguity.’” That is certainly the most accurate description of Biden’s foreign policy, and the reason our adversaries believe “Strategic Ambiguity” is codeword for a permissive environment.
Thinking Like the Enemy.
“Strategic Ambiguity” sounds a lot like Obama’s “Strategic Patience.” Obama’s “Strategic Patience” policy stated that, “America leads from a position of strength. But this does not mean we can or should attempt to dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world. As powerful as we are and will remain, our resources and influence are not infinite.” We remember what ISIS, Putin, Iran, and Syria’s Assad did with Obama’s permissive policy of Strategic Patience: they grabbed all that they could because the name itself signaled clearly that the U.S. would do nothing to upset the fragile Iran Deal.
The team that caved to Tehran and brought you the fatally flawed JCPOA under the Obama-Biden administration are again caving to Tehran, Moscow, and Beijing in Vienna. The Obama-Biden team of 2015 has been promoted to take on more ruthless and capable adversaries in Russia and China, and those countries cannot hide their covetous smiles. While the U.S. military focuses on climate change, Covid-19 vaccinations, and routing extremists – well, Trump supporters — from its own ranks, our adversaries will be moving to grab all they can. It’s Greenlight Chaos. The next four years will see the rise of the next iteration of ISIS, an emboldened Tehran ever closer to a nuclear weapon, Russian and Chinese moves to secure sovereign territory from U.S. allies; the loss of Afghanistan to the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS; likely renewed attacks in the U.S. by ISIS and al-Qaeda; and an as yet unseen military intervention based on a threat we are not paying attention to right now.
U.S. allies feel abandoned and will take measures to safeguard their national security interests.
All the signs are there. The Cassandras inside and outside the intelligence community are being ignored by cautious transitional leaders who are being led to ignore indicators of what our enemies are doing out in the open and with a smile.
American allies believe they will have to fend for themselves, and as a result Israel will not look to the U.S. for approval of its actions to counter Iranian threats – and they won’t be alone in their independent actions. U.S. allies feel abandoned and will take measures to safeguard their national security interests.
The U.S. has all the leverage and should use it to end the strategic patience game our adversaries use to wait out an American administration. We have election interference because our adversaries believe there are election outcomes that favor them. One hundred days in, the Biden administration is proving them right.
Our adversaries are applying pressure they wouldn’t dare do under the previous administration and Washington should be embarrassed. The last couple of days prove this out. Iran has heard the message loud and clear and is acting on it. Tehran is ratcheting up the pressure on the Biden administration to cave on all demands by targeting U.S. allies and interests. The regime is targeting the U.S. mission in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan; and U.S. allies Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The Biden administration is being tested on all fronts and is failing with a lack of remorse that is both dangerous and submissive.
The regime’s nod to its terror proxy groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) to launch crude rocket and missiles at civilian targets in Israel is another provocation meant to push the Biden team to cave in Vienna – to capitulate and lift sanctions on the regime. Iran wants to demonstrate what it can do with impunity with the Obama-Biden-Obama team – yes, that is what I meant to say – in place. The regime is not worried about being countered now, though they were very worried before January 20th.
The Biden administration is being tested on all fronts and is failing with a lack of remorse that is both dangerous and submissive. It is not hard to see the strings behind the provocations, simply look at which adversaries benefited under the permissive environment of the Obama administration and which ones are benefitting now in Obama’s third term – they are one and the same. After a four- year hiatus, our enemies are primed to get all they can.
Michael Pregent is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He is a senior Middle East analyst, a former adjunct lecturer for the College of International Security Affairs, and a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.