Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Biden's Foreign-Policy Problem Is Incompetence

| June 04, 2024

The U.S. military's collapsed pier in Gaza is symbolic of a much bigger issue.

As the New York Mets compiled a record of 40 wins and 120 losses during their comically inept inaugural season, manager Casey Stengel famously lamented: "Can't anyone here play this game?" I thought of Stengel's remark when I learned that the temporary pier the United States had built to bring relief aid into Gaza had collapsed. It was an apt metaphor for the Biden administration's handling of the whole Gaza conflict, as critics on social media were quick to point out. Constructing the pier was essentially an expensive PR stunt undertaken because U.S. officials were unwilling to force Israel to open the border crossings and allow sufficient relief aid for civilians facing a man-made humanitarian catastrophe. This largely symbolic effort managed to deliver about 60 truckloads of aid before rough seas damaged the structure and aid deliveries were suspended. Repairs are now underway and will reportedly take at least a week, and the cost of the whole operation is already hundreds of millions of dollars and rising.

One might see this sorry episode as just a small part of a larger tragedy, but I think it raises larger questions about American ambitions and pretentions. Foreign-policy experts in the United States obsess about preserving "credibility," largely to justify spending vast resources on conflicts and commitments that are of minor strategic importance. In the 1960s and 70s, U.S. leaders understood that South Vietnam was a minor power of little intrinsic strategic value, yet they insisted that withdrawing short of victory would cast doubt on America's staying power, undermine its credibility, and encourage allies around the world to realign toward the communist bloc. None of these gloomy forecasts came to pass, of course, but the same simplistic arguments get recycled whenever the United States finds itself in an unwinnable war for minor stakes.

Those who fetishize credibility typically assume all that is needed is sufficient resolve. They believe the United States can achieve whatever goals it sets if it just tries hard enough; in their minds, victory is just a matter of staying the course. But seeing credibility and influence solely as a matter of will overlooks another key ingredient, one that is arguably more important. That key ingredient is competence.

If the main institutions charged with conducting America's foreign relations—the National Security Council; the departments of state, defense, treasury, and commerce; the intelligence services; and various congressional committees—are not very competent, all the will in the world will not convince others to take our advice and follow our lead. The Berlin airlift in 1948 was a clear signal of Western resolve, for example, but it would have backfired if the United States and its partners had been unable to pull off a complicated logistical effort successfully. Building a superfluous pier in the Mediterranean and having it fall apart about 9 days later sends a rather different message.

Unfortunately, there is ample reason to question whether America's foreign-policy institutions can fulfill the lofty global role that U.S. leaders have taken on. The list of dismal performances keeps getting longer: a Middle East "peace process" we were told would yield a two-state solution but which has produced today's "one-state reality" instead; an avoidable and clumsily waged war over Kosovo in 1999, which included the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade; the policy errors and intelligence failures that enabled the Sept. 11 attacks; the disastrous decision to invade Iraq in 2003; the 2008 financial crisis; a series of scandals and collisions at sea involving the U.S. Navy; a bloated defense procurement process that can't pass an audit and buys aircraft that are rarely ready for action; the failure to anticipate where open-ended NATO enlargement would eventually lead; the vain hope that economic sanctions would quickly crash Russia's economy; or the cheerleading that overlooked the abundant signs that Ukraine’s summer 2023 counteroffensive was doomed to fail. If I tossed in the failed interventions in Afghanistan and Libya, you'd accuse me of piling on, and I haven't said a word about the clown asylum that the U.S. House of Representatives has become....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Biden's Foreign-Policy Problem Is Incompetence.” Foreign Policy, June 4, 2024.

The Author

Stephen Walt