The Middle East is on fire. Eastern Europe is gridlocked in war. America’s southern border looks like a scene out of “Mad Max.” And Southeast Asia is a tinderbox that could ignite with one wrong move. After four years of expanding peace under President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden is presiding over a world careening toward mayhem. “Mean tweets and world peace” has a nice ring to it. But it’s also worth exploring why Trump’s unorthodox approach to foreign affairs produced such markedly better results than Biden’s heralded return to normalcy.
The current state of the Middle East — where most recently on Biden’s watch, Iranian-backed Hamas terrorists attacked Israel, slaughtered civilians, and even took American citizens hostage — is a case study in the contrast between the two presidents.
In 2017, President Trump announced he was moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He made this decision against the advice of the professional diplomatic service at the State Department and in spite of opposition from his own secretaries of state and defense.
The day after the announcement was made, I was walking with him between meetings when a television hanging on the wall outside the Oval Office caught his attention. Images of Palestinians protesting his embassy decision were flashing across the screen, and members of the foreign policy establishment took turns decrying his decision as reckless and ill-advised. Biden, for his part, derisively called it “short-sighted and frivolous.”
Trump watched the segment casually but intently. When it concluded, he shrugged it off without a word, going about the rest of his day unaffected by the backlash. He had trusted his gut and made good on a pledge that Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama had all bailed on for one core reason: fear, the ultimate impediment to creativity and innovative thinking.
Biden’s criticism made it clear he would have mindlessly walked the same, well-worn path that bogged down so many presidents before him: prioritize the interests of the Palestinians, making a deal with them the only starting point to broader Middle East peace. After all, Biden doesn’t merely listen to the members of the foreign policy establishment who surround him; he is one of them, the living embodiment of conventional thinking.
Trump turned this paradigm on its head. He secured normalization agreements between Israel and Arab leaders acting in the interests of their own nations, increasing the likelihood the Palestinians would have to negotiate in good faith or risk getting left behind. The resulting Abraham Accords were a groundbreaking series of agreements that Biden had every opportunity to build upon after taking office.
But instead of proliferating peace, Biden’s actions may actually result in the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Iran and, at minimum, will necessitate the U.S. spending more time and money focusing on the Middle East, just when Americans thought we might finally move on.
In late 2019, Iran was engaged in an escalating series of attacks on U.S. forces. When Trump’s military advisers presented a menu of options to deal with Iran’s terrorist mastermind, Qasem Soleimani — who was actively plotting more attacks — he chose the most aggressive option: a Hellfire missile that tore him to pieces.
Biden panicked, warning that the killing could bring the Middle East to “the brink of a major conflict.”
Trump doubled down, telling the Iranians that if they responded by harming Americans, they would be “HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.” Fortunately for them, they backed down.
After years of the Obama administration placating the Iranian regime — at one point even flying literal pallets of cash totaling $400 million to Tehran — Trump coupled crippling economic sanctions with a demonstration of raw, hard power, finally doing what it took to deter Iran from constantly terrorizing the region.
Once again, when Biden took office, he reverted to the failed ways of the past. His administration desperately chased a new, Obama-style nuclear deal. They unfroze Iranian assets. They gave a sanctions waiver to the Central Bank of Iran. They effectively made ransom payments for the return of American prisoners in Tehran. They allowed Iran to shrink its nuclear breakout time to under two weeks. And according to stunning reports, they even allowed the Iranian regime to establish an influence operation within Biden’s administration, elements of which remain to this day.
As it turns out, they were being duped every step of the way. Even as they enriched the Iranian regime and bent over backward to meet their demands, the Iranians were actively supporting the Hamas terrorists who invaded Israel and killed and captured American citizens.
This week, as Israel retaliates against Hamas and the Biden administration scrambles to contain the spread of war, American diplomats are struggling to get U.S. partners and allies in the region to help. This brings us to a third study in contrast: Saudi Arabia.
In 2017, Trump empowered a small group of White House aides to lay the groundwork for Riyadh to be his first foreign stop as president. Again, even his own secretary of state decried the decision and staged an internal protest by refusing to participate in the planning. The results included bilateral economic, military, and counterterrorism agreements and a clear signal that America was serious about doing business with the Arab world — and about isolating Iran.
Again, Biden had an opportunity to build on this momentum, and again he reversed course. He proudly declared he would make Saudi Arabia an international “pariah” and suspended U.S. weapons sales to the country. Yet again, his actions produced negative consequences for the American people. When oil prices surged in early 2022, the Biden administration couldn’t even get the Saudis to return their calls, much less help ease the pain. The next thing Biden knew, the Saudis were running into the open arms of America’s top geopolitical rival, China, where they sought increased security and economic cooperation. By the time Biden realized how badly he had erred — showing up at the Riyadh airport while not being received by the kingdom’s rulers — it was too late, even as he tried to ease the tension with an infamous fist bump with the crown prince.
As it turns out, breathless moralizing and condescension are not a recipe for diplomatic success. Being self-righteous is not cost-free. And if you’re going to be sanctimonious, you’d at least better have a plan.
Does it not strike one as strange that the Biden administration lectures the leaders of nations with whom we share strategic interests while cozying up to America’s sworn enemies in Iran? One must admit, it is a strange perch from which to constantly claim the moral high ground.
As Biden would say, here’s the deal. In my experience working under Trump, I observed a president with a unique capacity to endure criticism without wavering, which makes outcomes that previously seemed out of reach — such as the expansion of Middle East peace — suddenly possible. He has the courage to do what’s necessary to deter America’s enemies, who can smell weakness like sharks smell blood in the water. And he’s willing to do business in tough neighborhoods when a deal could spread peace, increase stability, and serve America’s interests.
And these examples are from just one region of the world. Let’s also not forget that Russia invaded Georgia under President Bush, took Crimea under President Obama, and invaded Ukraine under President Biden. Yet when Donald Trump was president, Russia did not seize territory from any of its neighbors. The same principles apply. Ditto for the reasons China wasn’t seemingly on the precipice of seizing Taiwan for those same four years.
Unlike Trump, Biden is not shaping global events so much as he is reacting to them. So when their approaches are presented side-by-side, it becomes clear why Obama’s Secretary of Defense Bob Gates famously said Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”