Opinion: Tricky politics behind Biden’s foreign policy challenges

File photo/Evan Vucci, Pool/The Associated Press / President Joe Biden sits on a train as he goes over his speech marking the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine after a surprise visit with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday, Feb. 20, 2023, in Kyiv. More Americans think foreign policy should be a top focus for the U.S. government in 2024 amid ongoing wars in the Gaza Strip and Ukraine.
File photo/Evan Vucci, Pool/The Associated Press / President Joe Biden sits on a train as he goes over his speech marking the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine after a surprise visit with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday, Feb. 20, 2023, in Kyiv. More Americans think foreign policy should be a top focus for the U.S. government in 2024 amid ongoing wars in the Gaza Strip and Ukraine.

President Joe Biden's decision to launch a limited but days-long air attack on Iranian terrorist enclaves throughout the Middle East reflects just one of the array of complex decisions facing him in that always-volatile region this election year.

The raids come at a time when the fallout from continued fighting and civilian casualties from Israel's retaliatory invasion of Gaza poses a significant threat to Biden's hold on normally pro-Democratic younger voters, as well as Muslim Americans.

It shows how hard it will be to guide American power through the Middle East's tricky cross currents in a way that furthers U.S. overseas objectives, prevents localized skirmishes from blowing up into full-scale regional war and maintains domestic political support.

Biden entered the White House with a mixed record in foreign policy.

As vice president, he was an active participant in President Barack Obama's foreign policy deliberations, opposing what proved to be a successful plan to kill terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and an unsuccessful one that temporarily added more troops to fight in Afghanistan.

Obama's defense secretary, Bob Gates, a highly regarded national security expert who served administrations of both parties, contended in his 2014 memoir that Biden, for all his experience, "had been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades."

In 2021, Biden's own administration got off to a bad foreign policy start by mishandling the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

He has done much better since then, anticipating and then acting when Russia's Vladimir Putin sought to destroy an independent Ukraine.

Biden correctly saw the Russia-Ukraine war as a proxy for the global battle between the forces of autocracy and democracy and mobilized allied support for Ukraine.

The decision to help Ukrain was a relatively easy one, compared with what has transpired in the Middle East since the horrific Hamas attack on the people of neighboring Israel.

Biden's initial decision was straightforward; he and most Americans stood by Israel and its retaliatory assault on the terrorists who murdered, raped and kidnapped hundreds of Israelis.

But the scope and brutality of Israel's ensuing campaign in Gaza has since sapped that support.

For some weeks, it's been apparent the Israeli intention to "destroy" Hamas is not feasible without more civilian deaths and physical carnage than is acceptable to the outside world.

Under pressure at home and abroad, Biden has gradually segued from all-out support for Israel to a more flexible approach, simultaneously backing it militarily while pressuring it to end the fighting and enable the political and physical rebuilding of Gaza to begin.

Unsurprisingly, Iran and its other Middle East clients — like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen — have taken advantage of the situation to stir trouble throughout the region.

Despite the immediate demands, Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are working with Saudi Arabia and other "friendly" Arab countries like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to forge a comprehensive Middle East settlement that both protects Israel and resists Iran.

But a full regional rapprochement won't be possible without a cessation of the hostilities in Gaza and Israel's re-commitment to a two-state solution that includes an independent Palestinian state. That won't happen while Netanyahu retains power.

The sophisticated U.S. diplomacy that will be needed to further these goals will likely take longer than the remaining 11 months of Biden's presidency. His administration's ability to pursue it is yet another argument in favor of Biden's re-election, though it is unlikely to play a major role in the outcome — assuming the Gaza war subsides.