Typically a new president is granted a honeymoon, a period in which the opposition and media tread lightly.
Yet, while the country argues over whether the January 6 assault on the Capitol was an insurrection or not, and whether Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex deserve the world’s sympathy, and whether or not there is a crisis at the border with Mexico, three errors of judgment of the Biden administration have already emerged since the inauguration on January 20.
The first is the recent tilt toward Iran. Cutting off military aid to Saudi Arabia in its efforts to suppress the Houthis in Yemen will only embolden Iran in its quest for a so-called Shiite arc through much of the Middle East, including the heart of the Levant.
The Arabian Peninsula is a bleak place of deserts and escarpments. While Yemen has some mineral deposits and modest oil production, it needs international support. In geopolitical terms, Iranian dominance of this part of the Arabian Peninsula through surrogates is said by Saudi and Yemeni officials to put the Saudi oil fields in range. We have already seen one devastating attack on the Saudi oil fields by drones and cruise missiles in late 2019, with Saudi Arabia charging that the attacks were engineered by Iran. Nearly six million barrels of oil were taken off the daily world market, according to an estimate of Standard & Poor’s.
The Trump administration, not recognized for doing much good anywhere, remarkably strengthened the architecture of the Middle East, bringing a collaborative spirit among Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Israel — with fear of Iran being the common denominator. Indeed, if a conflict with Iran ever came to pass, the U.S. would need the support of the modern air forces of those countries, with fleets including the F-16, F-15, and F-35, to limit the exposure of American pilots while allowing the Navy to attack Iranian installations with stand off cruise missiles.
Second, while Republicans and Democrats debate responsibility for a failed immigration policy, the border with Mexico has been closed, and the Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has predicted that the onslaught of migrants from Central America will reach a level not seen for two decades. By restricting media access at the border, the Biden administration has made the situation worse. Years ago, the Obama administration was confronted with a similar wave of asylum seekers, with President Obama expressing fear of an “actual humanitarian crisis on the border.” Nonetheless, the migrants now view President Biden as the “migrant president,” according to Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador — in view of his affirmation that he would reverse the policies of the Trump administration. This is how the president has allowed himself to be branded; even during his campaign, he made it clear that he would encourage cross-border migrations.
Third, the recent U.S.–China summit talks in Anchorage, Alaska, were not only poorly timed but also poorly executed. The U.S. and China have myriad issues that divide the world’s two largest economies: the suspected origin of COVID-19 and the Chinese belated disclosure to avoid embarrassment; the theft of intellectual property and unfair trade practices and policies that disadvantage U.S. multinationals in China; militarization of the South China Sea, claims of territorial waters, and bullying of neighbors such as India; the appropriate measurement of greenhouse gas emissions; charges of an undervalued yuan and currency manipulation by the U.S. Department of the Treasury; cyber intrusiveness; additional cooperation against trafficking of fentanyl or its precursors; the crackdown on civil rights in Hong Kong and persecution of China’s Uighur population; and a general disregard for a rules-based international order.
It is unreasonable to believe that even a few of so many material differences may be reviewed and moderated less than two months after the inauguration — with a new secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and new national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, meeting with their Chinese counterparts. There could not have been adequate preparation on objectives and possible concessions and tradeoffs during such a short period of time. And it is most unwise to stage a high-visibility summit unless there is prior due process that yields common ground, with at least some agreement likely to be predetermined. With prior policy preparation on both sides, a well-publicized agreement on just one issue would be a good signal to the world. All in all, the initiative in Anchorage was misguided, ill-timed, and amateurish.
These are national security challenges; Congress and the media should not tread lightly, and there should be no honeymoon.
Frank Schell is a business strategy consultant and former senior vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago. He was a lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago, and is a contributor of opinion pieces to various journals.