The war in Ukraine and Gaza is not just the beginning of wars; uncertainty about American leadership has also encouraged dictators to believe war works. The wars, not peace, will define Joe Biden’s presidency as his term winds down.

By Michael Rubin 

It is a truism across administrations: unexpected crises define foreign policy legacy. For Jimmy Carter, it was Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Ronald Reagan faced the Marine Barracks bombing in Lebanon, followed two years later by a humiliating withdrawal. For George H.W. Bush, it was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Bill Clinton faced the “Black Hawk Down” crisis in Somalia, followed by wars in the Balkans. The September 11, 2001, terror attacks catapulted George W. Bush into wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Barack Obama promised to end “dumb wars,” but not only did he return troops to Iraq and remain in Afghanistan, but he also joined fights in both Libya and Syria. Donald Trump was the first president since Carter not to engage troops in a new conflict, but COVID—and the Chinese Communist Party—transformed his presidency.

Joe Biden ran on his foreign policy credentials. He proclaimed, “diplomacy is back,” while surrogates declared, “the adults are back in charge.” As Biden’s term winds down, wars, not peace, will define his presidency. Spin aside, the Afghanistan withdrawal confirmed defeat. And, while Biden is not to blame for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambition, the humiliation and abandonment of allies Biden was willing to accept in Afghanistan colored Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.


His legacy in the Middle East will be poor. Just days before Hamas set the region aflame, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan credited Biden diplomacy for making “The Middle East region … quieter today than it has been in two decades.” However the war ends, its reverberations will ripple through the region for years. These wars may just be beginning. With the Islamic Republic of Iran even threatening Antarctica, the liberal order is under assault on every continent.

Consider the following conflicts that could become hot at any moment:

Venezuela vs. Guyana

Over four decades have passed since a transnational war erupted in South America. In 1982, Argentine dictator General Leopoldo Galtieri took a page from failing dictators worldwide: instigate a conflict to distract the public with jingoism. With the economy in shambles, he reignited dormant claims to the Falkland Islands, ruled by the British for almost 150 years. Galtieri calculated that the United Kingdom, riven with domestic discord, no longer had the will to defend a few thousand sheep farmers in the far reaches of its empire. He was wrong. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rallied and roundly defeated Argentina.

Today, the pattern repeats; it is only the fortitude of the White House, not 10 Downing Street, under challenge. Socialism has transformed Venezuela, once South America’s richest country, into one of its poorest. As President Nicolás Maduro has little charisma and few friends, he takes a page from Galtieri, reviving a territorial dispute that Venezuela settled more than a century ago and then reaffirmed a half-century ago. Maduro’s claims to Guyana’s Essequibo region are groundless. It was Dutch territory that the Netherlands ceded to Great Britain during the 1815 Congress of Vienna to form British Guyana, and it never belonged to Venezuela.

In 2009, as vice president, Maduro briefly resurrected the claim. At the time, it was an empty threat; today, it may not be. The situation in Venezuela is exponentially worse. On December 3, 2023, Maduro sponsored a referendum to demonstrate popular support for using the Venezuelan military to seize oil-rich Essequibo. While Biden’s team condemned the move and rushed some troops to Guyana to participate in joint exercises, White House attention was scattered. Over the last month, the White House has sent Jon Finer, Sullivan’s deputy and chief messenger, to pledge support for Guyana. Still, just a week later, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby downplayed Venezuelan troop movements as being “of a small nature and size and scale and scope.”

Kirby reflects the White House’s wishful thinking. Satellite imagery shows significant Venezuelan military preparations. During a meeting with visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on February 20, 2024, Maduro signaled his desire to meet with Putin after the Russian elections in March; Maduro likely seeks a green light.

If Maduro orders troops into Guyana, there may not be much Guyana can do. Its military numbers only 3,400 men, roughly the size of Washington, DC’s police force. Unlike Ukraine, it is unclear whether Guyana can fight or, Finer’s assurances notwithstanding, the United States will engage militarily. While defending Guyana’s offshore oil infrastructure is easier, Maduro may calculate he can either compel Exxon-Mobil to suspend operations or lead the White House to bend to pressure. That is, after all, what both Special Envoy Amos Hochstein did with Lebanon’s expansive maritime claims and what Secretary of State Antony Blinken has done by promising arms to Turkey even as it doubles down on its illicit claims to Cypriot waters.

It Is Not Just Ukraine and Gaza Joe Biden’s Wars Are Just BeginningAzerbaijan vs. Armenia

Guyana is not the only small state under threat. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may not be Europe’s last war on Biden’s watch. Biden entered office promising to recognize the Armenian genocide. He, unlike his predecessors, followed through and deserves credit. There is no doubt that more than one million Armenians died during and immediately after World War I. Nor, despite what the Bernard Lewis School of Turkish Studies teaches in the United States, were their deaths the result of the fog of war. The Young Turks planned and then executed genocide. For all President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bluster, Turkey (Türkiye) is a paper tiger. When successive countries recognized the genocide, Turkey did nothing.

Unfortunately, Biden’s team believed it could play both sides. Just two days after Biden recognized the Armenian genocide, Blinken waived sanctions on Azerbaijan despite its attack months before on millennia-old Armenian communities in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s claim that Nagorno-Karabakh belonged to it did not justify its military action. Nor, for that matter, was Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh as cut-and-dry as its supporters claim.

Both before the September 2023 seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh and after, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signaled his goal both to eradicate Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and to conquer Armenia proper under the notion that present-day Armenia is Western Azerbaijan. “Present-day Armenia is our land,” he declared on December 24, 2022. Aliyev may believe he can get away with murder because of the emptiness of the State Department’s red lines. Four days before Aliyev ordered his forces to complete Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic cleansing, for example, Acting Assistant Secretary Yuri Kim declared, “We will not tolerate any attack on the people of Nagorno-Karabakh” only then to do just that.

Aliyev’s belligerence is proportional to his belief he can act without consequence. Blinken and Sullivan compound the problem with a rush to peace. Forcing concessions from democratic Armenia and allowing Aliyev to avoid demarcating the Azerbaijan-Armenia border while he undertakes a multibillion-dollar military build-up guarantees renewed conflict and may lead Aliyev to believe he can overrun Armenia.

Congo vs. Rwanda and Ethiopia vs. Somalia

Ossified State Department policy has pushed the Horn of Africa and Africa’s Great Lakes region to the brink of war. It need not have been like this. Somaliland and Rwanda are African miracles. Both Somaliland’s Isaaqs and Rwanda’s Tutsis survived the genocide. Both emerged stronger and became regional oases. Somaliland even became the first country in the world to secure voter registration with biometric iris scans.

In a region where insecurity is permissive, Somaliland and Rwanda are exceptions. Both states deny space to terrorists, weapons smugglers, militant groups, and foreign militaries. Both host multi-billion dollar companies and investments. Somaliland’s Berbera port can compete with Djibouti and Dubai’s Jebel Ali. Rwanda, meanwhile, has become Africa’s Silicon Valley. Both are among the world’s greatest success stories in the war against corruption. Today, Rwanda ranks alongside Slovakia, Poland, and Greece in terms of levels of corruption, while its neighbors Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo are among the world’s most corrupt states. Somaliland’s e-economy enables transparency.

Neighbors, however, now threaten both countries. Somaliland became independent in 1960 and, after a failed merger with Somalia, re-declared independence in 1991. While “Blackhawk Down” seared Somalia’s failure and anarchy into the American mind, Somaliland remained at peace. Democracy and government capacity matter. When drought hit the Horn of Africa in 2006, 2011, and 2017, Somalis suffered, but Ethiopia and Somalilanders rallied, transporting food where the population needed it most and saving their citizens’ lives. Much of the population of Somaliland escaped starvation as, local government officials explained to me, they were able to transport food across the country without fear of looting.

Somalia’s warlords, however, are not far away. Using billions of dollars in aid, Mogadishu purchased Chinese weaponry and Turkish drones. In December 2022, China sponsored a localized insurgency in the Somaliland Sool district to punish Somaliland for choosing Taiwan over China.

The threats Rwanda today faces are likewise rooted in 20th-century genocide. What many Americans know about Rwanda’s anti-Tutsi genocide is from the Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda. Few know the aftermath. When the Rwandan Patriotic Front took Kigali and drove the French-backed Hutu génocidaires across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo, conflict continued.

Here, the United Nations is to blame. Just as it established refugee camps for Palestinians just across from Israel’s borders and refused to disarm the militants inside them, so too did the UN allow génocidaires to establish camps within sight of Rwanda’s borders. In 2021, I surveyed the Rwanda-Congo border from Goma northward for several dozen miles; I could see the smoke of rebel camps just two miles away. Just as armed Palestinians destabilized Lebanon, so too have Hutu génocidaires undermined eastern Congo’s stability. As a result, Africa’s Great Lakes region remains a tinderbox like the Horn of Africa.

Enter Team Biden with a match. Whereas the United States once treated the Somalia-Somaliland issue in parallel to China’s one country, two systems policy, today Blinken treats Somaliland as a pariah to appease Somalia. By signaling blind support for Somalia, Washington encourages Somali revanchists to choose force.

Faced with U.S. efforts to appease its tormentors, Somaliland has turned to Ethiopia, striking a bargain in which Somaliland leases landlocked Ethiopia a port in exchange for recognition. On cue, the State Department condemned the deal. Many in Mogadishu see the condemnation as a green light to act militarily. Today, a fight looms just a stone’s throw across the Bab el-Mandeb from where Houthis attack global shipping.

Rwanda, too, faces a war born out of American incompetence. The Democratic Republic of Congo is, by area, Africa’s second-largest country. Theoretically, it should be one of its wealthiest, with $24 trillion worth of strategic minerals within its borders. Decades of war and dictatorship, however, took a toll, killing more than five million. While many Congolese blame Rwanda, failure to disarm Hutu militias and the Congolese government’s effort to co-opt the génocidaires catalyzed the fight.

Enter Michael Hammer, the U.S. ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo until recently. Regional diplomats say that he pressed for Washington to accept the end of a UN-mandated military purchase reporting requirement to ingratiate himself with local leaders while still in Kinshasa. UN Security Council Resolution 2641 passed in June 2022 with U.S. acquiescence,  lifting the requirement. President Félix Tshisekedi then went on an opaque shopping spree that coincided with his turn to ethnic politics in eastern Congo, a reality acknowledged by both sides during research trips to both Kigali and Kinshasa.

Over the past fifteen months, approximately 1,200 mercenaries from two companies—the Bulgaria-based Agemira and the Romania-based Asociatia-RALF—have arrived in Goma, eastern Congo’s major city. The mercenaries today deploy across the region. In June 2023, regional sources say approximately 200 mercenaries arrived in Goma and traveled to Bukavu by boat. In October 2023, a Boeing 737 arrived in Goma from Bucharest, Romania, via Luxor, Egypt, to supplement the existing deployment and rotate out some private contractors. Blackwater founder Erik Prince is also in Congo.

The mercenaries train the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo snipers and supplement the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FLDR), which grew out of the exiled génocidaires. They also help train the Congolese army to operate recently purchased unmanned aerial vehicles, many of which are of Chinese origin.

While Congo undertakes an unprecedented military build-up, Blinken and U.S. Agency for International Development Administration Samantha Power blame the victim and criticize Rwanda instead. This may lead Tshisekedi to believe Washington would turn a blind eye should Congo attack. Additionally, he confuses possession of advanced platforms with military competence. His new Chinese toys and misplaced State Department encouragement have created a perfect storm that may soon erupt into war.

Entering the Eye of the Storm

Adversaries are sophisticated. They study the American political calendar and time operations to coincide with American distractions. Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and Azerbaijan’s 2020 attack on Nagorno-Karabakh both coincided with American election season. As the 2024 campaign crystalizes, danger looms. Uncertainty about American leadership has encouraged dictators to believe war works. Forces of altruism do not fill the vacuums of leadership. Biden may be about to learn that lesson the hard way.

Michael RubinAbout Michael Rubin

Senior Fellow

Research Areas

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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