President Joe Biden is set to give his first foreign policy speech as president later Thursday, where he will announce that America is pulling back its participation in the war in Yemen and steps to promote LGBTQ rights around the world.
But it was not immediately clear whether the Yemen announcement is much more than a symbolic move, as the U.S. military currently plays an extremely limited role in the conflict.
Biden also will outline his goal of burnishing U.S. leadership on the world stage amid challenges ranging from the coronavirus to Russian hacks to the rise of China. He will also announce that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will conduct a review of the U.S. global force posture and freeze troop withdrawals from Germany that former President Trump had authorized.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan previewed Biden’s remarks in a press briefing on Thursday morning.
Biden’s remarks follow a coup in Myanmar earlier this week and the Russian government’s sentencing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny to more than two years in prison — events that pose a challenge to one of Biden’s top global priorities: promoting democracy. Biden is likely to touch on that goal as well as his desire to reengage with U.S. allies who were alienated by his predecessor, Donald Trump.
While Biden’s message will contrast Trump’s “America First” agenda, it won’t necessarily be divorced from it. Biden and his international affairs team, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Sullivan, have argued that U.S. foreign policy decisions should be made with the needs of ordinary Americans in mind — a domestically linked theme Biden will likely emphasize in his remarks from Foggy Bottom.
“It’s about thinking about national security as national competitiveness,” Sullivan said during the briefing. Biden and his aides have stressed that to triumph in the “great power competition” with China and Russia, the U.S. needs to invest more domestically in areas like education and infrastructure.
Backing away from the Yemen conflict
Sullivan gave few details about exactly how the U.S. will curtail its participation in Yemen, where Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have been fighting Saudi-led forces. Sullivan announced that the U.S. will end support for “offensive operations in Yemen,” but declined to provide details on what exactly this means.
A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment.
The United States currently plays an extremely limited role in the war in Yemen, where the war and subsequent humanitarian crisis has persisted for years. The Trump administration, under congressional pressure ended the practice of providing aerial refueling support to the Saudi-led coalition. The U.S. military currently conducts training for the coalition on reducing civilian casualties and shares some intelligence related to the defense of Saudi Arabia.
The announcement does not extend to U.S. support of the fight against al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula, Sullivan said.
The one concrete move the new administration has made was to freeze the sale of additional weapons to the Saudi-led coalition, which has bombarded Yemen with U.S.-made precision guided bombs. Lawmakers tried to end the sales under the Trump administration, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed them through using emergency authority.
Strains in the relationship with Saudi Arabia as well as concerns about what’s happening inside Yemen led Biden to promise to end America’s role in that conflict once he became president.
Biden also is expected to name a U.S. envoy to focus on Yemen, a nod to the need for diplomacy.
A first overture for a human rights foreign policy
Sullivan also said Biden will announce a presidential memorandum on “protecting the rights of LGBTQ individuals worldwide.”
Biden’s decision to visit the State Department is also symbolic in the sense that it’s a morale booster for U.S. diplomats, who frequently felt mistreated under Trump. The former president once called their institution the “Deep State Department” — a reference to his and many of his aides’ belief that a shadow government existed within the bureaucracy that aimed to thwart his agenda.
When they arrive Thursday afternoon at Foggy Bottom, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are due to first speak with State Department staff members. The two then will meet with Blinken before Biden delivers his speech.
Biden and his aides take over at a time of international wariness about the direction of U.S. foreign policy, with many allied countries in Europe and beyond questioning America’s long-term reliability. Events overseas since Biden took the oath of office on Jan. 20 have only added to the pile of challenges that await him.
On Monday, the military in Myanmar overthrew the country’s civilian government. The coup is a setback for democracy, and, intentionally or not, a blow to Biden’s efforts to promote democratic ideals. Biden has denounced the coup and threatened sanctions on the Myanmar military. His administration is also coordinating with other countries to find ways to further pressure the junta.
Those efforts come amid growing, bipartisan U.S. concern over the global ambitions of China’s authoritarian government. Biden and his aides have made it clear they view China, which neighbors Myanmar and is its biggest trading partner, as America’s main international competitor.
The Biden administration also is dealing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where opposition leader Navalny’s poisoning and subsequent jailing has sparked mass protests and thousands of arrests.
Sullivan said that while the administration will “take steps to hold Russia accountable” for its malign activities, including the SolarWinds hack and interference in U.S. elections, that “does not rule out” working with Moscow where it is in the U.S. interest.
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