Sure, Washington Post opinion editor Jackson Diehl recently confessed, Joe Biden has made his share of mistakes when it comes to foreign policy. But he’s learned from them. How? Diehl doesn’t say. In fact, he dedicates most of his column on the subject to contending that Biden’s demonstrably flawed record on foreign affairs was actually pretty good. What’s more, the Post editor argues, we can be sure that Joe Biden would make short work of “the distinctive evils of Trumpism.”
Left unmentioned in that list of evils are the components of Donald Trump’s foreign policy that Joe Biden appears to admire. At least, that’s the conclusion we must draw from Biden’s efforts to appropriate aspects of the president’s record for himself.
During a town hall-style event on Monday, one savvy South Florida voter expressed his discomfort with how admiring of socialism many within the Democratic Party’s orbit have become—a development that troubles voters with a living memory of life under socialist regimes in Cuba and Venezuela. Biden cannily reminded the audience that he successfully campaigned in the primary against his party’s left flank, and he might have left it at that. But he did not.
“I have taken on the very people that, in fact, we’re worried about,” Biden stressed. “I’ve taken on the Castros of the world. I’ve taken on the Putins of the world. I’ve taken on all these dictators.” The former vice president was so proud of these remarks that his campaign posted this clip to his official Twitter account.
“Just look at the record,” Biden concluded. Yes. Let’s.
Did Biden and the administration in which he served really take on the Castro brothers in Cuba? Hardly. The Obama administration’s approach to Cuba was to unilaterally normalize relations in the absence of any reciprocity from Havana, save the release of an American hostage (though a number of fugitives from American justice continue to reside there comfortably). The White House did not seek liberalization or the relaxation of Cuba’s abusive policies. Indeed, in the immediate wake of Obama’s decision, the Cuban Commission on Human Rights observed a dramatic uptick in politically-motivated arrests. Nor was there any effort to pressure Havana to abandon its illicit arms trade with rogue nations like North Korea and Venezuela. Statements of friendship between the DPRK and Cuba continued throughout 2015 and 2016, and Cuban soldiers were instrumental to the Maduro regime’s efforts to put down democratic rebellions during Barack Obama’s second term.
The Obama administration went to bat for the Castro regime. The 44th president removed Cuba from the list of state terrorism sponsors, abstained from a United Nations vote that called for an end to the American embargo, allowed direct travel, tourism, and commercial investment to resume, and rewarded Havana with a presidential visit. The Trump administration reversed many of these policies to Obama’s foreign policy team’s vocal consternation in exile. Apparently, though, Joe Biden now disagrees with the Obama brain trust.
And what about Russia? This has not been a nominally “socialist” country since December 31, 1991, so it’s unclear why Biden included it on his list of socialist rogues. But his pledge to be tough on Moscow is, nevertheless, a welcome diversion from the path forged by the Obama administration.
Barack Obama entered office determined to “Reset” American relations with Moscow. In practical terms, that meant making concessions: abandoning pledged missile-defense and radar installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, reducing U.S. troop deployments in Europe, and declining to sanction Russia for its 2008 invasion of Georgia. Moscow simply banked these allowances and engaged in a global diplomatic offensive, increasingly inserting itself into European affairs and cementing arms deals and economic compacts across the Middle East and Central Asia.
In 2013, Obama invited Moscow to play peacemaker in the Syrian conflict, and his administration insisted—all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding—that Russia had successfully negotiated the liquidation of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile. The fateful move preserved the Assad regime, set the stage for Russian military intervention in the conflict in 2015, and preserved the conditions that eventually gave rise to the Islamic State. Only after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 did the Obama administration reluctantly impose targeted economic sanctions. But Obama dismissed the invasion and annexation of sovereign European territory as a sign that Russia was a mere “regional power” exerting “less influence” on the global stage. The extent of Russia’s geopolitical ambitions would not become clear to the president until Moscow brazenly interfered with the 2016 election cycle—too late.
By contrast, and despite President Trump’s sordid compulsion to praise Vladimir Putin, this administration preserved Obama-era sanctions on Moscow and tightened the screws. This White House imposed Magnitsky Act sanctions on Russia’s Putin-linked elite—sanctions that the Obama administration lobbied Congress against. The Trump administration provided lethal arms to the Ukrainian government, expelled Russian diplomatic personnel, and seized Russian consular property. The U.S. military under Trump has engaged in set-piece land battles with Russian mercenaries in Syria. This administration oversaw the expansion of the NATO alliance, despite covert Russian action intended to derail that effort, and abandoned the defunct 1987 intermediate-range nuclear-forces treaty, a compact to which even the Obama administration conceded only the United States was beholden.
If Joe Biden has determined that it is in America’s interest to get tougher on the rogue regimes that govern these two states, that’s great. There is, however, precious little evidence to suggest that Biden has had a genuine change of heart.
The former vice president has, in fact, pledged to end Cuba’s economic and diplomatic isolation, which he claims stifles Cuban entrepreneurs and strengthens the regime in Havana. His vague but detectable hostility toward fracking would relieve the economic pressure America’s virtual energy independence has imposed on the Kremlin. He has tacitly endorsed a de facto partition of Syria, pockets of which would be administered by Russia and the Western coalition—a move that would legitimize Russia’s troop presence in the Levant and commit the U.S. to an open-ended conflict in defense of no well-defined interest.
Though he didn’t do much to prove his thesis, Diehl is right: Joe Biden does seem to have learned from past mistakes. In the case of these two pariah regimes, those mistakes were Barack Obama’s, not Donald Trump’s.