The Political Costs of Biden’s Wars

As another showdown with Trump looms, Biden’s record abroad is his biggest liability

Donald Trump won big in Iowa this week, as anyone with an ounce of sense knew would happen, despite days of dishonest and tedious wishful thinking from CNN and MSNBC, and some print media, about the possibility of a Haley surge in Iowa that could carry over to New Hampshire.

Forget about that. The Republican nominee will be Donald Trump, unless he is stopped by the courts, and at this point the odds are that he, if untethered, will sweep to victory this November and could bring the House and Senate with him.

The Democratic response, with a few exceptions, has been to enter a state of denial. In my Washington world, the looming disaster is swept aside by loyal Democrats who insist that Biden beat Trump once before and he can do it again. Those who complain, or duty note, the lack of political viability of Vice President Kamala Harris are told they are racist or a misogynist.

Biden’s initial accomplishments—legislation that improved the daily lives of millions of Americans in desperate need—has been etched away by a series of foreign policy blunders that stem from ignorance and the visceral Russophobia that made him, and his foreign policy aides, refuse to assure Russian President Vladimir Putin before he pulled the trigger that the United States would never support Ukraine’s entry into NATO. That might have been enough, with fuller elaboration, to keep the Russian ruler from launching a war that was far from necessary. 

Last November, an analysis by Michael von der Schulenburg, a retired United Nations official, Hajo Funke, a political scientist, and General Harald Kujat, the highest ranking German officer of the Bundeswehr and at NATO before his retirement, concluded that a settlement of the war was possible in March 2022, one month after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. The paper, whose findings were widely reported in Europe but not in the United States, said that the talks were sabotaged by objections from NATO as well as the Biden administration and the British government then headed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Nonetheless, secret peace talks are still ongoing between the leading generals of Russia and Ukraine, with an agreement about an exchange of prisoners on the verge of being worked out. It was the release of American prisoners of war by North Vietnam that was the key factor in ending that war. It’s not clear where the Biden administration stands on such a deal. It’s also not known whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is in any way involved with the talks. At this point it seems unlikely.

Biden’s support for Israel and its wildly disproportionate response—the heavy bombing that still goes on—to the horrors of the Hamas’ October 7 raid is on the record: “We’ve got your back,” he famously told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, referring to the bombs and other arms that continue to flow to Israel, most recently without Congressional approval, as mandated by law. The president talks about a ceasefire but has made no specific on-the-record demand to Tel Aviv for such. Millions around the world, including untold thousands in America, have been protesting America’s support for Israel’s war, but the president hangs on. The best defense he can muster is his claim that he has raised the issue of a ceasefire with the Israelis.

The clearest expression of Biden’s view of American responsibilities after October 7 came in a televised speech he made on October 19, after his second, very brief visit to Tel Aviv, when he and Secretary of State Antony Blinken sat in on an Israeli national security meeting. It was a time when the ferocity of the Israeli bombing attacks on the homes and apartments buildings throughout Gaza City with their many thousands of civilian casualties, had just begun raising questions. Israel clearly was responding to the Hamas attack by targeting everything standing in Gaza.

“I know we have our divisions at home,” Biden said. “We have to get past them. We can’t let petty, partisan, angry politics get in the way of our responsibilities as a great nation. We cannot and will not let terrorists like Hamas and tyrants like Putin win. I refuse to let that happen.” He asked Congress for a $100 billion foreign aid appropriation that included funding for both Israel and Ukraine.

The last two weeks have seen Biden decide to order the US Navy to attack the Houthis of Yemen, who have been firing missiles for weeks in a successful effort to force some of the world’s largest shipping companies to avoid the ten-day shortcut between the West and the Far East by no longer risking to sail via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. The missiles will not stop, the Houthis say, until Israel ends its bombardment and permits the flow of needed food, water, medicines, and other life-saving aid to the terrified civilians of Gaza. As of this writing, there have been three rounds of attacks, by sea and air, by American and British ships and aircraft. The Houthis, revolutionary Shiites whose launchers are mobile and can be easily hidden, are still at it. The New York Times reported this week that the continuing Houthis campaign has “made clear how difficult it might prove to remove the threat posed to shipping in and around the Red Sea.”

The Pentagon planners might have done well to check with the Saudis before bombing Yemen. As Princeton professor of Near Eastern studies Bernard Haykel writes in a 2021 essay, the Saudis “somewhat mistakenly” viewed the Houthis as purely an Iranian proxy force akin to Hezbollah, the Shiite militia that now plays a prominent political role in Lebanon and is still seen by Israel as a major threat. “The Houthis are indeed close allies of Iran, but they have a distinctly more radical ideology about transforming society. . . . Indeed, the Houthis’ revolutionary program can be compared to the Vietcong.”

The Viet Cong? Haykel invokes the guerilla fighters that successfully confronted the United States, with much aid from North Vietnam, after more than a decade of brutal fighting that cost America 58,000 dead as well as the deaths of 1.6 million Vietnamese soldiers, 260,000 Cambodian soldiers, and 2 million civilians in the region. 

In a war that was initiated in 2015 by then defense minister Mohammed bin Salman, now the crown prince, and was marked by incessant Saudi bombing of Houthi targets, it took the Saudis only seven years to say uncle and seek a settlement with the Houthis. America was a vital Saudi ally in that war, supplying intelligence, weaponry, and airborne refueling for Saudi fighter jets. One major factor in the settlement was the Houthis’ continued ability, despite the constant barrage of Saudi bombs and strafing to fire missiles that struck key targets, many related to the production of oil, in eastern Saudi Arabia.

Today’s American war planners have far more tools and intelligence than were available at the height of the Vietnam War, but the early days of conflict in the Red Sea have replicated the Saudis’ experience. America and Britain attack targets with missiles and rockets that are precisely calibrated, and it all does little to degrade the Houthis’ ability to attack: the Viet Cong phenomenon. 

Two points seem clear, even at this early stage of Biden’s new war: there will be no American ground invasion of Yemen, and no one in the Biden White House can be sure what the attack on the Houthis will accomplish. The world’s major shipping firms may decide to avoid the risk of a fatal direct hit, unlikely as that may be, and spend the ten days and extra fuel to avoid the Red Sea shortcut. The costs, especially in terms of the downstream price for gasoline here in America are hard to predict, but any significant jump in that price would be another nail in Biden’s political coffin.

I raised the issue of Biden’s political chances last week with a veteran oil man, an old friend who told me: “One should never underestimate the Houthis. They don’t fear disrespect.” 

So, what can one safely assume the president knew about the Houthi history of being immune to threats, and bombs, as he approved what could be a difficult and perhaps intractable war with a fanatical religious sect? The likely answer is: not much.

Does the president understand that the American-led attacks on the Houthis, even if successful, won’t undo the political damage he is suffering for his continued support of a losing war in Ukraine? It’s also unlikely. More significantly, it’s doubtful he understands the cost, especially in terms of the youth vote, of his unwillingness to stop supplying weapons to Israel and to demand a ceasefire from Netanyahu, who has proclaimed that Israel will continue the war until all elements of Hamas are destroyed? Netanyahu is supported in that insistence by a majority in Israel.

Biden may view his staying the course as essential to winning a second term, but there are many who are deeply involved in high-level fundraising for the Democrats who do not agree. These insiders are known to understand that former President Barack Obama, who will never publicly acknowledge the extent of his dissatisfaction, fears that the chances of winning the race against Trump are dwindling unless there is a change in strategy, beginning with convincing Biden to give up his control of campaign finances. That is seen as a first step toward taking control of the campaign—and perhaps convincing the incumbent to step aside.