Every president wants to form his own foreign policy. Some presidents even see their names attached to doctrines that transcend their time in the White House.
The Truman Doctrine, for instance, was based on the policy on containing communism as the Cold War hardened into what would become a multi-generational, global conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
But as often as American presidents try to shape events to their advantage, unforeseen events shape presidencies. And how a chief executive manages crises not of his own making can determine whether a presidency succeeds or fails. Take Jimmy Carter and the Iran hostage crisis; on April 25, 1980, a sullen Carter told the nation a military operation to rescue the 52 embassy staff had ended in disaster in the Iranian desert.
All presidents inherit problems left over (or created by) their predecessors. Lyndon Johnson did not start the Cold War. Neither was LBJ responsible for the initial U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Its origins could be traced to the end of the Second World War.
But Johnson and his hawkish advisers made a decision that led to his presidency’s unraveling. In March 1965, U.S. Marines landed at Da Nang, the first step into the quagmire of the Vietnam War.
In 2003, George W. Bush made what some critics called the worst foreign policy decision in American history. While the U.S. invasion of Iraq succeeded at devastating the Iraqi army and toppling Saddam Hussein, the ensuing violence and chaos rippled across the Middle East for years, birthing a refugee crisis and the Islamic State terrorist group.
The U.S. has yet to fully extract itself from Mr. Bush’s war, which also produced the unintended consequence of elevating Iran’s influence by toppling the secular, Sunni counter-balance of Saddam Hussein.
John F. Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis. Ronald Reagan had Iran-Contra but also the final stages of the Cold War to manage. His successor, George H.W. Bush, saw his approval rating soar to 90% for successfully leading an international coalition to expel Hussein from Kuwait in 1991. Bill Clinton had Somalia and the Balkans. Barack Obama was met with the Arab Spring.
Today, President Biden, whose foreign policy acumen upon taking office exceeded that of his recent predecessors, must deal with the fallout from two decades of war in the greater Middle East among an array of geopolitical entanglements involving Russia and China — problems prior presidents tried unsuccessfully to resolve or exacerbated.
For starters, Mr. Biden is seeking to reverse President Trump’s stance of “America First” by repairing the relationship with European allies. And the president has already scheduled a summit this month with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose relationship with Mr. Trump dogged the latter during his entire four years in office.
What unforeseen crisis or unforced errors will happen on Mr. Biden’s watch? One early flare-up was contained: the 11-day clash between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. What’s next? China and Taiwan? The fall of Kabul to the Taliban? A Russian cyberwar?
In the latest episode of History As It Happens, The Washington Times national security team leader Guy Taylor discusses Mr. Biden’s foreign policy and the initial challenges he faces.
On Mr. Biden’s overall approach:
“He puts U.S. allies first. Out of the gate his [and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s] first major trips have been to Japan, to South Korea, to NATO, to European allies, to try to immediately show countries around the world there is stability in Washington.”
On resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after the fourth war between Israel and Hamas since 2007:
“Biden’s team is trying to show that there could and should be some sort of peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis. The problem is they haven’t done anything new at all.”
On Mr. Biden’s request for an investigation into whether the coronavirus was created in a lab in Wuhan, China:
“There’s a desire and well-rooted need to own the narrative on this. We’re talking about an information war at this point… Biden knows there is an incentive to show the United States wants to get to the truth.”
On the upcoming summit with Mr. Putin:
“The task for Biden is to try to make it clear to Putin that Russian threats and provocations, like hacking, are not going to result in anything other than more sanctions from Washington.”
For the full interview with The Washington Times’ Guy Taylor about Mr. Biden’s foreign policy, listen to this episode of the History As It Happens podcast.