The question for Joe Biden is now whether he will act proactively and effectively, or whether his legacy will be one of weakness, surrender, chaos, and sacrifice of democracies to their autocratic neighbors.
By Michael Rubin
Wars that no one saw coming often define the legacy of US administrations. For George H.W. Bush, it was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Bill Clinton faced multiple wars in the Balkans. The September 11, 2001 terror attacks tore George W. Bush’s attention away from domestic issues and led to a 20-year engagement in Afghanistan, and a presence in Iraq that continues. Barack Obama entered the Oval Office promising to “end stupid wars.” He left office with forces in not only Afghanistan and reinserted into Iraq, but also engaged in both Syria and Libya. COVID-19 dominated Trump’s legacy and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shapes Joe Biden’s tenure.
Unfortunately, for Biden, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine may only be one chapter. Aggressors perceive weakness when they see Biden. At issue is not only his physical frailty and declining mental acuity. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan looked shell-shocked after Chinese Politburo Member Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi dressed them down in a March 2021 summit in Anchorage.
The two Biden aides came in overconfident and cocky and did not understand how much older Chinese officials would both perceive them and test them. The desperation with which Biden, Blinken, and Sullivan approached Iran nuclear negotiations and hostage-taking further solidified the perception of America’s enemies that Washington was profoundly unserious and that its redlines ephemeral. Mishandling the Afghanistan withdrawal will haunt America for decades.
Irredentists have taken notice. Not only does Iran believe it and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah can act with impunity, but so do many other dictators. Just prior to winning the 2020 election, then-candidate Biden lambasted President Donald Trump for inaction as Azerbaijani (and Turkish Special Forces) forces poured into Nagorno-Karabakh.
“The administration must fully implement and not waive requirements under section 907 of the Freedom Support Act to stop the flow of military equipment to Azerbaijan, and call on Turkey and Russia to stop fueling the conflict with the supply of weapons and, in the case of Turkey, mercenaries,” he declared. “Under my administration that is exactly what we will do,” he promised.
He broke his promise. Biden and Blinken repeatedly waived section 907 sanctions in order to supply Azerbaijan with weaponry. Had the White House reacted with fortitude, perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin would have thought twice before again invading Ukraine.
Today, the US intelligence community concludes it is only a matter of time until China invades Taiwan, a country both historically and culturally distinct from China. That, however, will likely wait until after Biden leaves office.
Irredentists often calibrate the timing of their aggression to occur when Washington is most distracted, and as election season and political chaos consume Washington and as dictators conclude Biden is a paper tiger, they see an opportunity to get away with murder.
Azerbaijan Targets Armenia
Consider Azerbaijan: President Ilham Aliyev recently showed the Biden administration to be a paper tiger. Just days after Acting Assistant Secretary of State Yuri Kim declared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “We will not tolerate any attack on the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.” When Azerbaijani tanks and troops marched forward, taking full control over the mountainous territory for the first time in Azerbaijan’s history and uprooting its indigenous Armenian community, Biden went silent. Kim and USAID Administrator Samantha Power took a whirlwind tour to express sympathy, but they had no answers and offered only virtue signaling and tone-deaf statements.
Weakness encourages dictators. During a private phone call with lawmakers, Blinken acknowledged concern that Azerbaijan might soon invade Armenia proper. The border between the two countries is not demarcated and Aliyev has questioned Armenia’s right to exist. Cheerleaders in the United States, many of whom benefit directly or indirectly from Azerbaijan’s largesse, affirm Aliyev’s obsession and reflect his biases, convincing him he risks little by continuing his war of aggression.
Just as US Ambassador April Glaspie misled Saddam Hussein into believing there would be no risk to invading Kuwait, a handful of retired American ambassadors, many of whom are intimately involved in the Azerbaijani energy trade, repeat Glaspie’s mistake for purposes that are more selfish.
Ethiopia says it will expand its border to the Red Sea
Ethiopia, too, may soon be on the warpath. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is a failed leader who has run his country into the ground. For two years, he waged genocide against Ethiopia’s Tigray community and, in that war’s aftermath, he continued to pit different ethnic groups against each other. His next actions he tore from the dictators’ playbook: Spark new conflict to distract the public.
In a televised speech to lawmakers this weekend, Abiy argued that Ethiopia must acquire a Red Sea port, either by negotiation or force. “A population of 150 million can’t live in a geographic prison,” he said. “The Red Sea and the Nile will determine Ethiopia. They are interlinked with Ethiopia and will be the fundamentals that will either bring in Ethiopia’s development or bring about its demise,” he explained.
Previously, he spoke of the need to create a Navy, a curious move for a resource-strapped, landlocked country. He also sought to compel Somaliland to forfeit its port of Zayla [Saylac], south of Djibouti, a drive he only backed away from after it became public. In practice, Somaliland remains the likely target given China’s presence in Djibouti and Abiy’s immoral alliance with Eritrea.
Both Armenia and Somaliland are democracies surrounded by larger and more powerful autocracies. Armenia nevertheless seeks to pivot away from Russia while Somaliland has dismissed China in favor of Taiwan. Both suffer for their principle. Nagorno-Karabakh may soon be free of its indigenous Christians for the first time in more than 1700 years, while the United States stood aside as China sponsored a terrorist insurgency in Somaliland and remained silent as the Chinese ambassador to Somalia subsequently took a victory lap.
Blinken continues to engage Armenia not on its own merits, but only through the lens of balance with Azerbaijan. Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Iran continue to squeeze Armenia while Somaliland must worry about aggression by Somalia and Ethiopia.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to the Rescue?
The United States remains the anchor of the post-World War II liberal, rules-based order. Americans are not militaristic. They go to war not for oil, but for principle. In Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq, Americans interceded to protect one country that another sought to wipe off the map.
Other times, America seeks to prevent wider human tragedy, such as in Somalia, Bosnia, Syria, or Libya. Aliyev and Abiy should understand that if they seek an irredentist war, they may like Putin embroil themselves in a conflict from which they will see no victory and they will not be able to extricate themselves. Both may be too blinded by ambition and ego to recognize the precipice upon which they sit. Nor does Blinken have the gravitas to pull them back; too many aggressors do not take his warnings seriously.
If Biden wants to prevent war, then, he should dispatch Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin first to Armenia and then to Somaliland. In Armenia, Austin might discuss the provision of counter-drone technology, intelligence sharing, as well as American troops in Syunik, to serve as a trip wire against any Turkish or Azerbaijani temptation to seize a Zangezur corridor by force. In Somaliland, Austin might discuss leasing space in Berbera as a base for US ships and aircraft.
Biden entered office declaring, “Diplomacy is back.” For diplomacy to work, though, it must be credible. After initial fumbles, the White House responded admirably in Ukraine and could do even better if it stopped second-guessing Ukrainian commanders who know what they need to succeed. Aliyev and Abiy see America distracted and openly see an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong ambition. At issue are nascent democracies and the liberal order. It is not a question of religion. Hamas targets Jews, Aliyev targets Christians, any invasion of Taiwan would victimize Buddhists and Taoists, and an Ethiopian drive on Somaliland would target Muslims.
The question for Biden is now whether he will act proactively and effectively, or whether his legacy will be one of weakness, surrender, chaos, and sacrifice of democracies to their autocratic neighbors.
Arab politics, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Horn of Africa
Bio & Experience
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East.
A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre-and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units.
Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).
Dr. Rubin has a Ph.D. and an MA in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a BS in biology.
- Foreign Military Studies Office: Contract Analyst, 2012–present
- Naval Postgraduate School: Senior Lecturer, 2007–21
- Middle East Quarterly: Editor, 2004–09
- Coalition Provisional Authority (Baghdad): Political Adviser, 2003–04
- Office of the Secretary of Defense: Staff Adviser, Iran and Iraq, 2002–04
- Council on Foreign Relations: International Affairs Fellow, 2002–03
- Hebrew University (Jerusalem): Fellow, The Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations, 2001–02
- Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs: Fellow, 2000–01
- Universities of Sulaymani, Salahuddin, and Duhok (Iraqi Kurdistan): Visiting Lecturer, 2000–01
- Yale University: Lecturer, Department of History, 1999–2000
- Iranian Studies: Assistant Editor, 1994–97
Ph.D. and MA in history; BS in biology, Yale University
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