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Does Biden Understand U.S. Power?  

The Biden team has a choice to make: in foreign policy, do they look to Obama or Trump?

The Soapbox // Gedalia Guttentag


"Being powerful,” said Margaret Thatcher, “is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

Like an iron fist wrapped in a velvet glove, that maxim packs the punch of someone who faced down the Soviets, plus Britain’s overweening trade unions, and fought the Falklands War thousands of miles from home shores.

A slightly less elegant definition of power comes from someone with more meager experience in statesmanship.

“Power,” reads the Guttentag doctrine, “is a function of your foes’ belief that you’ll use it.”

Whichever of these two maxims you follow, the Biden administration should look to its predecessor, and not to President Obama, to understand the basics of what gives the United States its clout. Because American power is not just about those immense aircraft carriers, each with enough jets to pummel a medium-size country. It doesn’t come down to its number of special forces, or the effectiveness of its cyber capabilities.

All of these things are necessary. But what determines whether the world’s bad actors toe the line is credibility; whether they believe that America has the stomach to enforce its own red lines. From Beijing to Moscow and Ankara, strongmen everywhere calibrate their moves by assessing how serious America is about those pronouncements from Pennsylvania Avenue.

And that’s where the Biden team has a choice to make: in foreign policy, do they look to Obama or Trump?

The Obama doctrine seemed to be to speak loudly and carry a small stick. The 44th president never recovered from his failure to enforce his own red lines over Syrian use of chemical weapons. In a landmark speech after signing the Iran Deal, President Obama compared America’s $600 billion defense budget to Iran’s paltry $15 billion. But that missed the point: Iran was willing to flex its small muscles, whereas he kept American forces on a tight leash. And both Russia and China took notice.

Trump, on the other hand, spoke very loudly, but occasionally wielded an even larger stick, such as hitting General Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s murderously effective Revolutionary Guards chief. Whereas Obama’s Bin Laden raid was within the foreign policy consensus, taking out an international terrorist, even Trump’s critics agreed that killing the military leader of a sovereign state was unprecedented.

Halfway through Joe Biden’s much-discussed “first 100 days,” he might have an Obama-esque credibility problem. He’s talked loudly about Alexei Navalny’s rights, but only slapped ineffectual personal sanctions on a few Russian officials. He’s made much of the Myanmar military’s seizure of power, but officials there shrug off consequences. On Iran, his march back to the Iran Deal means ignoring major Iranian provocations (see The Backstory, opposite page).

The seeming quiescence of Bidenism on the world stage is worrying even those on the non-hawkish side of the political map. “Does Biden’s ‘normal’ foreign policy need a dash of Trump?” wondered a recent Politico headline.

It’s still the early days, and there’s enough time for President Biden to snap out of his unbecoming modesty on behalf of American foreign policy. There’s nothing like a sharp response to the ayatollahs’ provocations to calm jangling nerves in Asia and Eastern Europe.

But unless Biden shakes off the deadweight of Obama’s foreign policy legacy, the Axis of Strongmen will show that they understand American power better than the man in the Oval Office.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 852)

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