Opinion | Biden And His Awkward Jugglery With Domestic Politics, Foreign Goals

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The outcome of the November 2024 US Presidential elections remains mired in uncertainty. The two main candidates, incumbent President Joe Biden and his immediate predecessor and rival reincarnate Donald Trump, continue to be statistically tied, gauged from opinion polls. This, in itself, is a challenge to US self-projection as a "beacon" to the world, given the ongoing criminal and civil cases against Trump, his past and promised rejection of unfavourable election outcomes, encouragement to supporters on January 6, 2021, to storm the US Capitol where his loss in the 2020 elections was being legislatively certified, and erratic personal interest-driven behaviour while in office from 2017 to 2020.

Student Protests And A Growing Discontent Over Gaza

Biden is facing his own political challenges, stemming from both domestic and external factors. There is an erosion of the support and enthusiasm of the African-American community, which had been one of the critical factors in his 2020 win. Republicans have been making inroads into the Hispanic and Jewish vote base, negating the earlier trend of minority groups generally favouring the Democratic party. The recent wave of student protests on university campuses, followed by donor and politics-driven responses by the university administrations as well as the police, could generate resentment among younger voters. 

Read | Explainer: What Is Behind Pro-Palestinian Protests At US Universities?

Biden's external challenges are playing a huge role in these elections. Student protests have been galvanised by perceptions that the US is not doing enough to curtail or bring to an end Israel's continued action in Gaza, where even the American administration has repeatedly reminded Tel Aviv of the need to observe international humanitarian law and avoid civilian casualties. The US has reiterated its "ironclad" guarantee for Israel's security and has not conditioned any of its continued military supplies. It has also fully backed Israel's decision to act to ensure that the October 7 Hamas attack last year is not repeated, placed two aircraft carrier battle groups in the Eastern Mediterranean to discourage regional escalation, actively collaborated with Israel to shoot down incoming Iranian drones and missiles, and along with the UK, carried out attacks against Houthi sites targeting shipping in the Red Sea.

Balancing Competing Interests

It's in this climate that Biden has to deal with competing domestic and external interests and pressures.

The over 7 million-strong Jewish community in the US strongly identifies with Israel and its security, mindful of the historical discrimination against and the persecution of the Jewish people in Europe and elsewhere, continued or revived anti-Semitism in many parts of the world, and memories of the Holocaust during the Second World War. The community has a significant influence on the funding and outcome of many elections. Traditionally, around 70-80% of Jewish votes have been for Democrats. 

Republicans have been making concerted efforts to dilute this, claiming that they are stronger backers of Israel's security interests. As President, Trump moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018 and closed the consulate there dealing inter alia with the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, signalling an acceptance of Israel's claims. Contrary to international positions, in 2019, he unilaterally recognised Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which had come under its control from Syria in 1967. In April 2004, Republican US President George Bush, in a letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, stated, "United States reiterates its steadfast commitment to Israel's security, including secure, defensible borders, and to preserve and strengthen Israel's capability to defend itself...against any threat or possible combination of threats". He also expressed support for Israel's position that any Palestinian refugees be resettled only in a future Palestinian state and that realities on the ground, including the existence of some large settlements in the West Bank, be factored into any eventual agreement.

Anger On The Arab Street

While being mindful of the Jewish vote, Biden has to also contend with the views of many in the left wing of the Democratic party who are critical of Israel's actions, as well the angst within the Arab and Muslim-American population, which has a significant presence in key swing states such as Michigan. In addition, in the face of growing anger and protests on the Arab street, the US needs to reassure its Arab allies and partners, such as Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, that it is also mindful of their regime and security interests. Hence, aside from cautioning Israel on some of its actions, the US has also pushed for the enhanced supply of relief material to Gaza and publicly expressed opposition to any major Israeli action in Rafah until the security of the civilian population is ensured.

During his recent visit to the region (April 29- May 1), the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, demonstrably visited sites in Jordan and Israel that were on the route of humanitarian assistance to Gaza. Many Arab countries want to sustain closer ties with the US given Iran's enhanced strengths derived from military capabilities and links with non-state actors such as the Houthis in Yemen, the Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, and so on.

Read | Joe Biden slams Donald Trump for "bowing down" to Putin

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has also brought an internal-external dynamic into play. Aside from reports and claims that Russia had access to a few in Trump's campaign in 2016, the latter also wanted to showcase that he was following a policy distinct from Obama's. Trump was often perceived as not being critical enough of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In fact, the CAATSA (Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) passed in 2017 was also seen as a way to tie Trump's hands. 

Support To Ukraine, And A Complicated China Dynamic

In contrast to Trump, the Biden administration has sought to project that it has added to America's strengths and security by focusing again on its alliances and partnerships. It has galvanised Europe and NATO to supply more than $100 billion of economic and security assistance. The US Congress recently authorised $90-billion of assistance to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. However, because of strong opposition from a section of the Republican party to additional support for Ukraine, the Republican Speaker of the US House of Representatives had to rely on Democratic votes to have the measure passed. There is now an ongoing move among Republican representatives to oust the Speaker.

There is a similar dynamic regarding the China relationship, although with a different coalition of actors. There is broad convergence among Republicans and Democrats, as well as the strategic community, on the need to push back against China's increasingly assertive and unilateral actions in the East and South China seas, the Taiwan Straits, Beijing's build-up of excess industrial capacity to the detriment of others, and its subsidy to various industries, including electric vehicles. China is recognised as the primary economic, technological and military challenge to the US and the only global actor with the intent and capability "to replace the US in the international system". 

However, there has been a pushback from the US industry and financial sectors that are heavily engaged in the Chinese economy. They are looking more at their short-term balance sheets rather than the longer-term strategic challenge. The Biden administration's articulation has thus shifted from "decoupling" to "de-risking", with a "small yard and high fence" focusing on technologies with national security implications. Here, too, a few US allies are not entirely in sync with its strategy. German Chancellor Scholz, who recently visited China with a large business delegation, was criticised for not raising issues like excess capacity, subsidies, or human rights violations in Xinjiang or Hong Kong. 

During Bill Clinton's Presidential campaign in 1992, it was famously said, "It's the economy, stupid", to draw attention to an often decisive factor in poll outcomes. In US foreign policy, it can similarly be said that "It's (also) the domestic politics, stupid".

(The author is a former Indian Ambassador to the US, France and Israel)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author