Here’s How the U.S. Is Preparing to Handle Multiple Foreign Policy Crises At Once

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Reuters
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Reuters
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While supporting Ukraine in its existential battle with Russia remains a dominant concern for the Biden administration’s national security team, there is a keen awareness that the year ahead could bring other potentially major crises for which they must be preparing now.

This is not to minimize their concern about the potential for escalation in the war in Ukraine, or for developments that will demand new forms of support. But based on conversations with multiple senior U.S. officials, it is virtually certain that the spring will bring more intense fighting. Demands for expanded U.S. support will continue. Sooner or later, the West may have to provide aircraft and longer-range missiles.

That said, eager not to trigger a massive Russian expansion of the war or the dangerous embrace of WMDs, the administration recognizes there are red lines that are especially important to Russia, notably the provision of missiles that can penetrate deep into Russia. For that reason, while continuous supply of weapons seems likely, weapons with a range of over 250 miles does not.

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Another concern, subject of recent headlines, is that China might provide lethal weapons to Russia which, if the supplies are meaningful in nature and number, could be a major boost for Moscow. But, importantly, China has yet to do so. Recent speculation about the provision of modest numbers of drones are seen more as a gesture and not as something that can change the calculus of the war.

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Sunday that there would be “real costs” for the Chinese government if they, in the end, did provide Russia with weaponry. Administration officials have repeatedly noted that they and European allies are actively using diplomatic channels to try to dissuade China from taking such actions, noting that it was not in China’s interests to become a party to Russia’s serial war crimes.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping before an extended-format meeting of heads of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit (SCO) member states in Samarkand, Uzbekistan September 16, 2022. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Sputnik / Sergey Bobylev / Reuters </div>

Sullivan said to me, “Russia’s conduct in this war has put China in a difficult position. They have their own challenges at home and worldwide, and to be drawn further into a conflict that Russia has mismanaged from the start is a distraction and a potential blow to their international relationships they do not need.”

Spiking tensions with China are, of course, another area of concern especially in the wake of the recent balloon incident.

Should House Speaker Kevin McCarthy go to Taiwan as he has suggested he will, the expectation is that China will be obligated to respond much as it did when then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited last year. Such escalations are likely not intended to provoke a war, but accidents can happen when militaries start demonstrating their capabilities to one another.

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However, the area of potentially greatest danger of a military crisis is once again in the Middle East.

Recent reports of Iran having enriched uranium to 84 percent puts it within striking distance of producing an atomic bomb. Over this past weekend, CIA Director Bill Burns indicated that the administration does not believe the Iranian leadership has made the decision to produce such a weapon.

That said, Iran is so close that it will not take much in the way of movement or a new revelation to trigger a crisis. Likely, that crisis would be driven by a desire by Israel’s government to take action to stop Iran before it could actually become a nuclear weapons state. Given that the Netanyahu government holds the most extreme views on this subject of any in the country’s history, the Biden administration considers that possibility to be real.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>A wounded Ukrainian soldier reacts as he lies on the operation table inside a frontline medical stabilisation point, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, Donetsk region, Ukraine February 28, 2023. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Alex Babenko/Reuters </div>

A wounded Ukrainian soldier reacts as he lies on the operation table inside a frontline medical stabilisation point, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, Donetsk region, Ukraine February 28, 2023.

Alex Babenko/Reuters

Israel, however, might have another reason to push for an attack—to change the subject from its government’s increasingly odious behavior within its own borders. To give you an idea of how erratic and potentially dangerous the current Israeli government has become, you need only look as far as their finance minister's recent call to "wipe out" a Palestinian town. It is a statement that the U.S. State Department justifiably called "irresponsible, repugnant and disgusting."

Still, it has also long been U.S. policy that we would not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons nor develop the capacity to produce them. For that reason, senior U.S. officials have indicated that they would advise the president to take military action to stop such a development. Further, they are confident that they can do significant damage to Iran’s nuclear capabilities without a protracted conflict.

How Iran might react to such attacks is another matter. Iran’s Russian allies might like nothing better than the West to become distracted with another crisis. It should also be noted that Israel’s close ties to Moscow might also be strained by pursuing such action, although Iran is still seen as the single greatest threat facing Israel, and it seems extremely unlikely anything could stop the Israeli government from taking action should Iran appear to be ready to finish the job and turn enriched uranium into atom bombs.

Bibi Is Putting Israel on a Collision Course With U.S.

As the recent devastating earthquake in Turkey has demonstrated, natural disasters can also produce significant geopolitical consequences. In addition, preparedness for potential terror strikes, including cyberattacks, continues to be an area of concern for top U.S. national security officials, as does the recklessness of the North Korean regime.

The challenge, of course, is not only that preparing for such potential crises demands critical bandwidth and resources from the U.S. administration, but they can also distract from longer term strategic objectives, such as the repositioning of the U.S. to meet the challenge of a rising China, addressing the climate crisis, and ensuring that we continue to cultivate our strength as a nation from within (while also containing serious domestic threats.)

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy gestures as he poses for media during the European leaders summit, amid his second international trip since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Brussels, Belgium February 9, 2023. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Daina Le Lardic / European Union 2023 / Reuters </div>

Given this confluence of known and potential threats, long-term shifts and short-term upheavals, the Biden team has had to be especially nimble. Fortunately, that has been one of the traits that have distinguished this president and his top national security advisors, likely due to their years of experience working together and the simple, if often underplayed fact, that this group gets along exceptionally well, has clearly defined roles, and has put in place disciplined processes that have worked well in terms of planning, diplomacy, intelligence, implementation, and communications.

It is a delicate moment internationally, but given the demonstrated strengths of this team and their intensive on-going assessment of potential risks worldwide, the U.S. is unlikely to be blindsided by events or unprepared for those that we do encounter.

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