Will Afghanistan make Biden's Presidency Turn Out like Truman's or LBJ's?Roundup
tags: LBJ, Vietnam War, Afghanistan, Joe Biden, international relations, militarism, Lyndon Johnson
Joseph Cirincione is a distinguished fellow at the Quincy Institute and a national security analyst and author with over 35 years of experience working these issues in Washington, D.C. He is the author or editor of seven books, including Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World before It Is Too Late and Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons. He served previously as president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress and director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among other positions.
President Joe Biden and most of his senior aides view Iran as a distraction from their agenda. They are not wrong. There are six solid reasons why Biden should go slow on diplomacy with Iran. And one very good reason why he cannot.
First, the administration’s major domestic items require the approval of a divided Congress. To end the pandemic, rebuild the economy, promote racial and gender justice, protect voting rights, and reverse climate change, the Biden team needs every single Democratic vote and whatever support he can garner from obstructionist Republicans. His administration will be judged on how he handles the interlocking crises he has inherited, not on foreign relations. “Foreign policy is going to be an enterprise of risk aversion, not risk readiness,” Aaron David Miller told a Quincy Institute seminar March 25.
Second, Biden is still struggling to assemble his administration. At the State Department, Secretary Antony Blinken is home alone, without any confirmed deputies, undersecretaries, or assistant secretaries. All must go through a Foreign Affairs Committee chaired by the hawkish Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who opposed the original agreement with Iran in 2015 and just released a letter opposing any return to the original deal. The main reason Biden did not take a first step such as lifting sanctions on humanitarian trade with Iran, says Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council “is fear of Menendez and need to get nominees through the Senate.”
Third, Biden’s team is still crafting his persona. They like the image of a Trumanesque president tough on national security and progressive on domestic issues. They must have loved George Will’s laudatory March 24 column comparing Biden to Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt, and yes, Harry Truman. “Concessions” to Iran would spoil this image.
Fourth, Biden and his centrist team are implementing a strategy favored by establishment Democrats who fear the party suffers when it takes too progressive a stance on foreign policy. See George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Mike Dukakis. They want to protect their right flank and play to the center by keeping military budgets high and rhetoric tough. This, they believe, will help win elections and open up political space for major domestic reforms.
Fifth, Biden is struggling to exit from Afghanistan and Iraq and draw down the American military presence in the Middle East. A diplomatic deal with Iran could complicate this process, creating the impression of a United States in retreat rather than a great power readjusting its global priorities. Increasingly, as Secretary Blinken did in his March 24 speech to NATO, the administration is grouping Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran together as the main global military threats, a sort of Quad of Evil.
Finally, the majority of the Biden team has bought into the idea that keeping the sanctions Donald Trump levied on Iran and delaying new talks gives them “leverage.” This will help rebuff Iranian demands and perhaps get concessions when they eventually go back to the negotiating table. They also think time is on their side. Iran is weak and has no choice but to come back to the deal, they reason. “They may think that by putting the JCPOA to the side, they can get a bigger, better deal with the Iranians going forward,” says Emma Ashford of the Atlantic Council — even if that means waiting to negotiate with the new hardline government likely to emerge from the June Iranian elections rather than the outgoing pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani.
In sum, all the incentives within the Biden administration are to wait on Iran.
The problem is, they cannot wait. Iran is the foreign policy crisis most likely to explode into war. If the diplomatic window closes and war erupts, it will sink Biden’s entire domestic agenda and his presidency with it.