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Accidental uniter: In a divided DC, Biden foreign policy fiascos elicit rare bipartisan scorn

From his deal to free Brittney Griner to the Afghanistan withdrawal, key foreign policy decisions by the president have brought lawmakers from both parties together in opposition.

Published: December 10, 2022 9:51am

Updated: December 10, 2022 11:15pm

Writing in his 2014 memoir, Robert Gates, the eminent national security professional who served as CIA director under George H.W. Bush and secretary of defense under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said of Joe Biden: "He has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades."

Gates stood by his statement years later, just two weeks after Biden announced his 2020 presidential bid. 

Fast-forward to today, and several Democrats in Biden's own party have already sided with Republicans on key foreign policy decisions made by the president, from Taiwan to Venezuela. In a deeply polarized Washington, these much-criticized policies have united many in both parties in opposition to Biden.

Most recently, Biden announced on Thursday he secured the release of WNBA player Brittney Griner from imprisonment in Russia by agreeing to a prisoner swap and releasing notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed "The Merchant of Death."

Griner had pleaded guilty earlier this year to drug possession and smuggling charges and was sent to a forced-labor camp as part of a 9-year prison sentence. Bout was convicted in 2011 of conspiring to kill Americans and providing material support to terrorists.

Republicans blasted the prisoner swap, but they weren't alone. Some Democrats took issue with Biden's one-for-one prisoner exchange, which didn't include ex-Marine Paul Whelan, who's been detained in Russia since 2018 and is currently serving a hard labor sentence following an espionage conviction.

"This should be a moment of deep reflection for the United States government to recognize we have a serious problem with hostage-taking of Americans," Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. "The Russians and other regimes that take American citizens hostage cannot pretend that there is equivalence between the Brittney Griners of the world and people like Viktor Bout, the so-called 'Merchant of Death.' Nothing could be further from the truth, and we cannot ignore that releasing Bout back into the world is a deeply disturbing decision."

Other Democrats specifically pointed to the fact that Whelan wasn't included in the deal.

"While we are very happy that Brittany Griner is returning home, we cannot forget we still have Americans unlawfully detained in Russia — specifically Paul Whelan," tweeted Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.). "I have been in touch with his family, and they and Paul deserve all of our country's efforts to bring him home."

Former President Obama's ambassador to Russia echoed those sentiments and also mentioned another U.S. prisoner in Russia, a teacher who was arrested with a small amount of medical marijuana that had been prescribed for chronic pain.

"Please don't forget about Marc Fogel," tweeted Michael McFaul. "I knew Marc when I was U.S. ambassador to Russia. He was a teacher to many of our diplomats and soldiers. He is a real patriot. We must fight for his release as well."

Beyond the Griner deal, another issue on which many from both parties are in agreement is the ongoing anti-government protests in Iran. Prominent Republicans have called for the Biden administration to be more supportive of the Iranian people and tougher on the regime, but so too have many Democrats amid an escalating government crackdown on demonstrations. This bipartisan support was evident at a briefing hosted by the Organization of Iranian American Communities on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

"I stand with the people of Iran," Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said at the event. "This is one of those issues that I am proud to say is not a partisan issue. Senators from both sides are coming together, discussing what we can do to support the Iranian people. That is the test of this country: Where do we stand, and what will we do?"

Booker wasn't alone.

"In Iran, people are taking to the streets to demand basic human rights and fundamental freedoms," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). "The world is watching, and we are standing in awe with what is happening in Iran, but it is not enough to be impressed by their bravery. We must also stand in lockstep with the people of Iran as they struggle to take back their lives and freedoms."

A day earlier, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a bipartisan resolution reaffirming U.S. support for Iranian protesters and calling on the Biden administration to impose additional sanctions on Iranian officials and entities responsible for cracking down on the protests.

Analysts and activists have criticized Biden for being slow to support the protests, arguing he needs to do more.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) earlier this year openly defied Biden by visiting Taiwan as part of an Asian tour with other lawmakers, irking both China and the White House.

Biden had said that military officials thought it would be unwise for Pelosi to include a stop in Taiwan, which China considers a renegade Chinese province that must be reunified with the mainland — by force if necessary.

"The military thinks it's not a good idea right now," Biden told reporters in July. The White House had also been quietly urging Pelosi not to go for weeks, according to reports.

But Pelosi went to Taiwan in August nonetheless, leading Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, to publicly double down on America's so-called One China policy, which doesn't recognize Taiwanese independence.

Latin America is another region where Biden's foreign policy has stirred criticism from Democrats, some of whom have bluntly warned the administration against easing sanctions on Venezuela and and Cuba.

"I will use the strength of my voice and power of my office to ensure U.S. policy for dealing with murderous tyrants does not betray our values to reward bad behavior," Menendez said in May. "The Biden administration must refrain from lifting any additional sanctions until [Venezuela's socialist leader Nicolas] Maduro makes concrete concessions at the negotiating table. Moreover, the United States cannot afford to provide the regime with any more handouts until Maduro releases the remaining American citizens currently being held hostage in Caracas."

"Allowing investments in the Cuban private sector and easing travel restrictions will only serve to fund the corrupt dictatorship," said Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), who was at one time under consideration to be Biden's vice presidential running mate.

Democrats in Florida were dismayed by Biden's softer approach to both Venezuela and Cuba.

"It's frustrating, no question," Democrat state Sen. Annette Taddeo told Politico.

Perhaps most infamously, Biden's order to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan last August — a decision that led to the Taliban taking over the country — earned widespread derision from both parties.

"In implementing this flawed plan, I am disappointed that the Biden administration clearly did not accurately assess the implications of a rapid U.S. withdrawal," Menendez said in a press release at the time ripping the decision. "We are now witnessing the horrifying results of many years of policy and intelligence failures."

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) also didn't hold back, saying hours after Biden's announcement of the withdrawal that the "rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan reveals a failure to prepare for a scenario where the Afghan government and military would refuse to fight the Taliban's advances when put to the test."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) chided the administration for "failures of intelligence, diplomacy, and a lack of imagination as we transitioned military forces from the country."

The New Republic, a liberal publication, reported on the bipartisan backlash as the withdrawal was happening last August.

"Biden finally unifies Congress — against his Afghanistan withdrawal debacle," read the headline above a subhead adding: "In a rare display of bipartisanship, angry lawmakers of both parties are pushing the president to do more to aid Afghan refugees."

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