President Joe Biden’s attempts at deepening ties in the Pacific are again competing with other, pressing issues, this time the brewing war in the Middle East that is looming over his lavish state welcome for Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
Biden’s invitation to his Australian counterpart was a consolation prize after he abruptly scrapped a planned visit down under earlier this year to return to Washington when the US government was on the verge of a calamitous debt default. At the time, the scrambled plans were viewed as a sign of dysfunctional American politics interrupting the administration’s efforts to counter China’s growing influence in the Pacific.
Five months later, Albanese will be welcomed to the White House with the highest trappings of American diplomacy, including a black-tie state dinner underneath a tent erected on the South Lawn.
This time, it’s the escalating crisis in the Middle East that has become an all-consuming focus for the president and his team, who are simultaneously working to free hostages held in Gaza, ease a humanitarian crisis, ensure Israel has the support it needs and prevent a wider war from erupting in the region.
The war in Israel has forced the Biden administration to realign its foreign policy agenda dramatically amid a proliferation of global flashpoints. Officials insist they are more than capable of confronting the new war alongside other foreign policy priorities, and they point to Tuesday’s state visit as evidence of the multitasking. Advisers say no president has had the luxury of grappling with only one crisis at a time.
“You can’t convince me that wisdom and experience are a bad thing – and now we’re seeing that,” former Rep. Cedric Richmond, who is a co-chair of Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign, told CNN.
One former senior US official cited the lack of Cabinet-level departures as evidence the Biden team is well-suited to handle a barrage of issues at once, telling CNN: “There’s no administration that only gets to do one thing at a time when it comes to national security and foreign policy. It’s a very experienced team.”
Yet it’s clear the Israel-Hamas war has added a new and likely long-lasting dynamic to Biden’s foreign policy goals.
Just over a month ago, Biden was on a swing through Asia, meeting with G20 leaders and stopping in Vietnam to counter a rising threat from China. Three weeks ago, he hosted Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in Washington to highlight the urgent need for more aid to Ukraine.
And a little more than two weeks ago, his national security adviser Jake Sullivan suggested in a public interview that the Middle East, amid rising threats elsewhere in the world, was “quieter today than it has been in two decades.”
Sullivan included the caveat that “all of that could change,” and it did eight days later when Hamas launched its attack on Israel, sparking intensive diplomatic American engagement and a last-minute presidential trip to Tel Aviv.
The proliferation of conflicts around the world has raised questions about the sustainability of US involvement, especially as public opinion for certain conflicts wanes. Already, the White House had struggled to secure billions of dollars in new funding for Ukraine. Now, Biden is asking Congress for $61 billion for Ukraine and another $14 billion for Israel’s security needs, drawing early criticism from Republicans.
To further complicate matters, just as when Biden was forced to cancel his trip to Australia earlier this year, he once again confronts a Congress that is in complete disarray.
When Albanese arrives at the White House Tuesday evening, the US House of Representatives will have been without a permanent House speaker – and legislatively paralyzed – for 21 days. Senior Biden administration officials believe that only weeks remain before a lack of additional funding for Ukraine starts to become a serious battlefield concern.
Biden, asked on CBS’ “60 Minutes” this month whether two wars is more than the US can take, was defiant.
“No. We’re the United States of America for God’s sake, the most powerful nation in the history – not in the world, in the history of the world,” Biden said. “We can take care of both of these and still maintain our overall international defense.”
But it’s not just the two hot wars where the administration is devoting resources and brainpower. And experts say supporting allies like Israel and Ukraine – and managing adversaries elsewhere – should not be mutually exclusive.
“This is not a kids’ soccer game – you can’t just chase the issue of the day,” former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy told CNN. “You have to keep your eye on what’s important and long-term.”
To that end, aides are also planning a meeting between Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping – a “strategic competitor” in White House parlance – to occur on the sidelines of next month’s APEC summit in San Francisco.
The meeting, which neither side has confirmed, would see the leaders meet face-to-face for the first time in more than a year, as Biden seeks to bolster allies big and small in the Indo-Pacific to counter China’s influence and pursues economic policies to offset what the US sees as unfair trade advantages.
The White House has been building up toward the bilateral engagement throughout the course of this year, establishing multiple touchpoints to carefully manage the relationship between the two powers, which has broader implications for geopolitical stability.
China’s top diplomat Wang Yi will visit Washington later this week, senior administration officials said Monday, as the two sides continue to work toward arranging the leaders’ meeting next month. Wang will meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Sullivan during his trip to the US capital October 26-28, the officials said.
The officials would not say if Wang would meet with Biden. However, Blinken met with Xi while in Beijing and one of the officials described Wang’s trip as “a reciprocal visit after Secretary Blinken’s trip to Beijing in June.”
The outbreak of war between Israel and Gaza has also put on hold the administration’s efforts to pursue normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Publicly, US officials maintain that the administration has every intention of resuming those efforts but acknowledge that the conflict has been disruptive.
“We understand that both in Israel and, of course, in Riyadh, there’s a different focus right now,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said this week. “We get that.”
With Australia, Biden has worked over his three years in office to cement an alliance that could prove increasingly important in an era of military and economic aggression by Beijing.
Alongside Australia and the United Kingdom, Biden unveiled the AUKUS partnership in 2021 meant to align the countries’ militaries in the region. The centerpiece was a plan to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, part of an emerging defense partnership widely viewed as a bid to counter China’s military ambitions in the Pacific.
Biden also revived the Quad partnership – comprised of the United States, India, Japan and Australia – as he works to strengthen American alliances.
On Wednesday, Biden and Albanese plan to announce new plans to cooperate on technology, including artificially intelligence and clean energy, according to the White House. They’ll also highlight new plans to allow US companies to launch into space from Australia.
A dinner as ‘many are facing sorrow and pain’
The crisis in the Middle East is also likely to arise in the two leaders’ Oval Office meeting, according to National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. But he said balancing a host of issues – foreign and domestic – is part of the job.
“He is commander in chief. That never stops. And the duties and responsibilities are literally global,” Kirby said, adding the task would be made easier if lawmakers would agree to Biden’s request for new funding.
Still, Kirby said, “the president is managing it really, really well, because he of his long experience in government, the wisdom he brings to the job, the relationships that he has.”
The state dinner was set to feature a performance by the B-52s, of “Love Shack” fame, but that performance was cut. Instead, the President’s Own Marine Band and the Army and Air Force strolling strings will provide instrumental music for the event and the B-52s will attend the dinner as guests.
“Nurturing our partnerships and relationships with our allies is critically important, especially in these tumultuous times,” Dr. Biden told reporters as she previewed the state dinner Tuesday evening. “Food is comforting, reassuring and healing and we hope that this dinner provides a little of that as well.”
“While we had initially planned for the legendary B-52s to perform their iconic dance and party music, we are now in a time when so many are facing sorrow and pain,” she said. “So we’ve made a few adjustments to the entertainment portion of the evening.”
Dr. Biden said the decor for the event, which includes light blue and purple tablescapes and florals, was inspired by “the vibrant Australian spring and crisp American autumn as the seasons ripple across our great painted landscape.” She tapped Bryan Rafanelli, the event planner who crafted her granddaughter Naomi’s wedding at the White House last year, to help with the decor and guest experience for the dinner.
The first lady developed the menu with guests chef Katie Button, a James Beard Award nominee who owns a popular tapas restaurant Cúrate in Asheville, North Carolina; White House executive chef Cris Comerford; and White House executive pastry chef Susie Morrison.