January 10, 2024 | FDD Tracker: December 6, 2023-January 10, 2024

Biden Administration Foreign Policy Tracker: January

January 10, 2024 | FDD Tracker: December 6, 2023-January 10, 2024

Biden Administration Foreign Policy Tracker: January

Trend Overview

By John Hardie

Welcome back to the Biden Administration Foreign Policy Tracker. Once a month, we ask FDD’s experts and scholars to assess the administration’s foreign policy. They provide trendlines of very positive, positive, neutral, negative, or very negative for the areas they watch.

In response to attacks against commercial vessels by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi terrorist group, the United States launched a multinational operation that has helped protect Red Sea shipping, although Houthi attacks have continued. The White House has so far declined to strike Houthi military assets in Yemen, likely fearing escalation.

The United States continued to supply military aid to Israel for its war against Hamas. At the same time, administration officials, including President Joe Biden, publicly pressured Jerusalem to reduce the number of civilian casualties in Gaza. Such casualties will likely decline as Israel shifts to lower-intensity operations in the coastal enclave. But U.S. officials now say they increasingly worry about potential escalation with Hezbollah or other Iran-backed terror groups.

Meanwhile, despite urging by administration officials and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Congress failed to reach a deal on supplemental funding for Ukraine aid before the holiday recess. U.S. officials have begun discussing a strategy to help Ukraine weather what will likely be a tough 2024, although it remains unclear whether Washington will fully commit to helping Ukraine eventually go back on offense.

Check back next month to see how the Biden administration deals with these and other challenges.


Mere weeks after President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met in San Francisco in November, the Biden administration declassified an intelligence assessment revealing extensive Chinese meddling in the 2022 U.S. midterm elections. The report specifically documented how Beijing interfered in a handful of political races, including by undermining a congressional candidate because he supported the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Overall, Beijing apparently aimed to portray America’s political system as chaotic and ineffective — themes consistent with China’s broader efforts to erode pillars of democratic governance in the United States and around the world.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration has given no indication that it has raised concerns about Chinese election interference with Beijing. The readout of Xi and Biden’s meeting does not mention this issue, nor does the readout from a subsequent call between Secretary of State Blinken and his Chinese counterpart. The administration’s refusal to confront China, likely out of fear of destabilizing the bilateral relationship, could invite even greater interference during the 2024 election cycle.

Meanwhile, Xi’s New Year’s message affirmed that Taiwan remains a flashpoint between the two superpowers. Xi vowed that China and Taiwan will “surely be reunified,” building on his warning in San Fransisco that “China needs to eventually move toward a resolution” of the Taiwan question. Neither remark elicited a response from the Biden administration, even though longstanding U.S. policy opposes any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. A perceived lack of U.S. resolve regarding Taiwan could encourage Chinese overreach and miscalculation or, worse, war.


The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released an update to its cybersecurity strategy for the healthcare and public health sector. The updated strategy includes four lines of effort. Most notably, it indicates HHS will create standardized cybersecurity performance metrics and provide incentives and funding for hospitals to encourage implementation. This is a much-needed development for the sector, which has been disproportionately affected by cyberattacks.

Meanwhile, Henry Coker was sworn in as the new national cyber director, in which capacity he will lead the administration’s cybersecurity policy and strategy. The position had been held by acting directors after Coker’s predecessor, Chris Inglis, stepped down 10 months prior.

Internationally, the U.S. Department of State, along with various international partners, formalized the Tallinn Mechanism, which “aims to coordinate and facilitate civilian cyber capacity building” in Ukraine and support the country’s “long-term cyber resilience.” The mechanism works to streamline donor support to make the various donations coherent and effective.

In unfortunate news, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency announced that threat actors compromised public-facing servers of an unidentified federal agency earlier this year by exploiting vulnerabilities in outdated and unsupported software. Although the hackers did not manage to exfiltrate files, this compromise highlights the federal government’s need for increased investment and improved policies in the use of secure software.


In response to attacks on commercial vessels by the Iran-backed Houthis, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced the establishment of Operation Prosperity Guardian on December 18. Consistent with FDD’s previous recommendations, the operation is being run by the pre-existing Combined Task Force 153, which focuses on the Red Sea. As of January 4, 22 nations were contributing to the operation.

Unfortunately, the U.S.-led operation failed to stop Houthi attacks. It did, however, prevent any Houthi drones or missiles from hitting merchant vessels, according to the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. By January 4, the United States and its partners had shot down 19 drones and missiles since the operation started, permitting about 1,500 merchant ships to safely transit the Red Sea, he said.

The administration deserves credit for building an international coalition to defend commercial vessels. But the White House’s apparent reluctance to authorize strikes on Houthi launchers, radars, and facilities enabling the attacks undermines U.S. force protection and invites more of the same.

Despite the escalating regional tensions, the U.S. 6th Fleet announced on January 1 that the USS Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group will depart the Eastern Mediterranean after a twice-extended 244-day deployment. The Ford repositioned there following Hamas’s October 7 terror attack on Israel. After the announcement, the Pentagon emphasized that it retains “extensive” combat capabilities in the region, including the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group in the Middle East and a reaggregated Bataan Amphibious Ready Group in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as additional cruisers and destroyers.

Europe and Russia

“We’re out of money” for Ukraine, the Pentagon’s press secretary declared last week. The administration announced three small security assistance packages for Ukraine in December and can still give Ukraine $4.2 billion worth of materiel from U.S. stocks. But the Pentagon is reluctant to use that authority because it has run out of funding to replace donated items. The bottom line is Congress must pass additional Ukraine aid as soon as possible. To help make this argument, the administration hosted President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Washington. The legislature’s continued inaction likely reinforces Vladimir Putin’s belief that Russia can outlast Western resolve in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Washington and Kyiv are discussing future war strategy following the failure of Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive. U.S. officials are smartly advocating that Ukraine embrace a defensive posture in 2024, during which time Kyiv will face munition shortages and a more confident Russia seeking to conquer the rest of the Donbas region. As part of its strategy, the administration also wants to bolster Ukraine’s defense industry. In December, Washington hosted the U.S.-Ukraine Defense Industrial Base Conference, with the White House announcing various measures to boost U.S.-Ukraine defense-industrial cooperation.

However, the administration still has yet to articulate a plan to help Ukraine expand its offensive potential with an eye to 2025. Washington should use 2024 to address help Ukraine redress weaknesses that hamstrung its 2023 counteroffensive, including by improving U.S. training for Ukrainian troops. Administration officials may instead simply hope to convince Putin to accept peace talks by demonstrating that Russia cannot gain more ground.


Six weeks after the Biden administration said it was considering redesignating the Houthis as a terrorist organization, and despite a surge in Houthi attacks on commercial ships sailing through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, the administration has merely sought to manage the crisis rather than compel the Houthis to deescalate or accept a settlement.

Following Hamas’s October 7 attack against Israel, the Houthis initially threatened to intercept only ships headed to Israel. But the Iran-backed terror group went on to target any commercial ship sailing through the strait. Washington responded by establishing Operation Prosperity Guardian, a U.S.-led coalition that seeks to ensure “freedom of navigation of all countries” in “the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.”

Yet the coalition did not deter the Houthis. By December 28, the Houthis had attempted 22 attacks on international shipping since mid-October, during which time the U.S. Navy shot down dozens of missiles and explosive drones. On December 31, the United States sank three Houthi boats, killing 10 militiamen who were trying to board a Maersk vessel.

The White House quickly telegraphed timidity. “We don’t seek a conflict wider in the region and we’re not looking for a conflict with the Houthis,” said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. “The best outcome here would be for the Houthis to stop these attacks.” The White House has declined to strike Houthi military assets or reimpose the group’s terrorist designation. Such measures could help deter the Houthis and nudge them closer to a settlement.


Amidst escalating tensions in the South China Sea, Beijing ordered its Coast Guard vessels to collide with Philippine ships resupplying a disputed outpost. Chinese vessels also targeted Philippine ships with water cannons, damaging one ship’s mast.

China’s coercion has bolstered relations between Washington and Manila, which plan to rehabilitate several military bases across the Southeast Asian country. The U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, signed in 2014 and upgraded by the Biden administration, now encompasses nine sites in the Philippines. Notably, Naval Base Camilo Osias, located on the northern tip of the country’s largest island, will receive a new airstrip, pier, and enhanced facilities to accommodate additional soldiers.

The Philippines exemplifies how China’s aggression is driving its neighbors closer to Washington — a development on which the Biden administration has capitalized. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited the region four times and toured eight Indo-Pacific countries in 2023. The Defense Department also requested a record $9.1 billion to fund the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which aims to enhance U.S. force posture and the readiness of U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific.

However, Washington still faces the lingering challenge of securing economic funding for the Compacts of Free Association states, which include the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau. These compacts grant the United States exclusive military access to strategically vital parts of the Pacific. Congress failed to fund the compacts in the recently passed annual defense authorization bill, raising questions about the Biden administration’s strategy for advancing this crucial initiative in early 2024.

International Organizations

The Biden administration demonstrated inconsistent support for Israel at the UN Security Council and other UN agencies in December. The administration also maintained a purely defensive posture rather than going on offense against Israel’s detractors.

On December 8, the United States vetoed a draft UN Security Council resolution that condemned Israel, ignored the October 7 Hamas massacre, failed to acknowledge Israel’s right to self-defense under international law, and advocated a permanent ceasefire that would keep Hamas in power in Gaza. But two days later, during a December 10 special session of the World Health Organization’s Executive Board, the administration supported a similar resolution that blamed Israel for a “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza and inaccurately called parts of Jerusalem “occupied Palestinian territory.” The resolution also failed to condemn Hamas for the October 7 massacre, holding hostages, denying the Red Cross access to hostages, using hospitals and ambulances as terror platforms, deliberately targeting Israeli hospitals with rockets, and employing human shields.

Then, on December 14, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations welcomed the UN Women agency’s executive director to the U.S. mission’s holiday reception — embracing an agency that refuses to condemn or even acknowledge the horrific sexual crimes committed by Hamas. Finally, appearing desperate to avoid using its veto power again, the United States abstained on a December 22 Security Council resolution that contained many of the same flaws as the resolution the administration previously opposed. The U.S. abstention allowed the resolution to pass.


Iran continues to use international media attention on Gaza to press ahead with domestic repression and its nuclear program. The regime has executed a spate of jailed protestors, activists, and dissidents, reportedly killing over 115 people in November alone. The Islamic Republic has also stepped up its stockpiling of enriched uranium as well as the pace of enrichment, which had briefly slowed in fall 2023 amid a U.S.-Iran hostage deal. While the Biden administration and its transatlantic partners have condemned Tehran’s nuclear advances, the Western allies have not threatened to snap back international sanctions or impose any other specific consequences.

In the region, aside from sanctions against its drone technology procurement networks, Iran has continued to get away with supporting terrorist groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen while avoiding direct responsibility for the actions of its proxies. U.S. intelligence alleges that Iran is helping the Houthis in Yemen target commercial vessels in the Red Sea. While Washington has rallied an international coalition to protect Red Sea shipping under the auspices of Operation Prosperity Guardian, the coalition has not moved beyond its defensive role. The Biden administration has instead opted to sanction financial networks supporting the Houthis while still refusing to restore the group’s designation as a terrorist organization.

In a small piece of good news, the Biden administration issued its most forthright endorsement to date of freedom and democracy for Iranians in a video made by U.S. Deputy Special Envoy for Iran Abram Paley commemorating the Iranian winter solstice holiday of Yalda.


The Biden administration vacillated between supporting and constraining Israel’s campaign against Hamas. In late December, the administration approved a nearly $150 million emergency arms sale to Israel. By contrast, Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized Israel’s handling of the war, saying there is a “gap” between Israel’s intent to protect civilians and reality. President Biden warned on December 12 that Israel could lose support due to “indiscriminate bombing.”

Internal criticism within Israel has blamed mounting Israeli soldier deaths on U.S. pressure to scale back attacks. Relatedly, Israeli media have reported that the administration is pressuring Israel to wrap up the war, although Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin insisted Washington does not seek to “dictate timelines or terms” on Israel’s counter-Hamas operations.

In addition, the State Department announced a travel ban on Israelis believed to have engaged in West Bank violence. The administration is reportedly delaying the sale of over 20,000 rifles to Israel due to similar concerns. In late December, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations warned of a “sharp increase in violence by extremist settlers in the West Bank,” though Israeli data reportedly indicate this violence has declined.

The two allies have also disagreed on “day-after” plans for Gaza. Counter to American plans, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clarified that the Palestinian Authority has no constructive role to play in Gaza’s reconstruction. Washington and Jerusalem agree, however, that the war should eliminate the Hamas threat in Gaza and that Israel should not occupy the enclave once fighting has stopped.


North Korea launched five intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), more than 25 other ballistic missiles, and three satellite launch vehicles in 2023. The United States and nine other countries condemned these launches “in the strongest terms” on the margins of a United Nations Security Council meeting that discussed Pyongyang’s December 17 ICBM launch. China and Russia protected North Korea at the meeting, preventing any substantive result.

Pyongyang continued to export artillery munitions and other materiel to Russia. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby confirmed that North Korea has provided Moscow with “several dozen” short-range ballistic missiles. In return, “Pyongyang is seeking military assistance from Russia, including fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, armored vehicles, ballistic missile production equipment or materials, and other advanced technologies,” Kirby said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that North Korea’s light water reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex may be operational. The IAEA has not visited nuclear sites in North Korea since Pyongyang stopped all cooperation with the agency in April 2009.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said Pyongyang will launch three additional military reconnaissance satellites in 2024 after having placed one in orbit, likely with Russian help, in November.

The Biden administration responded to these developments with strongly worded statements. Washington did not issue any North Korea sanctions in December, concluding a largely lackluster effort for the year. The administration is distracted by other foreign policy priorities, increasing the danger that Kim could coerce South Korea and Japan into actions contrary to U.S. interests.

Latin America

The Biden administration expressed “unwavering support” for Guyana as the regime of Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro escalated tensions over the contested region of Essequibo. The United States announced joint military drills with Guyana on December 7, aiming to deter Maduro.

At the same time, the administration continues to equivocate with Maduro, sending contrasting messages. The administration granted Venezuela temporary relief on oil and gold sanctions last October, threatening to reimpose them if Maduro did not reverse his decision to disqualify leading opposition candidate Maria Corina Machado from Venezuela’s 2024 presidential election by November 30. The regime, in a concession to Washington, has allowed Machado to appeal the ban but has yet to lift it. Venezuelan authorities also continue to harass opposition figures, including people connected to Machado’s campaign. Nevertheless, the administration has failed to follow through on its threat to reinstate sanctions.

Meanwhile, the administration struck a deal to secure the release of the remaining U.S. hostages held by Venezuela, swapping them for Maduro regime oligarch Alex Saab. The United States had indicted Saab for corruption and money laundering in 2019. The businessman was later detained during a technical stopover on his way to Iran and was extradited to the United States, where he should have faced trial. Instead, the administration caved into hostage diplomacy and released him after President Biden granted him clemency — and de facto impunity. Caving to hostage diplomacy undermines U.S. justice and telegraphs to Venezuela and other authoritarian states that taking Western citizens as hostages continues to pay off.


Beirut continues to allow Hezbollah to attack Israel from Lebanese territory. This policy is an outgrowth of Beirut’s permitting the effective transformation of sovereign Lebanese territory into a headquarters for Hezbollah and a hub for the group’s allies, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Lebanese government have done nothing to restrain these unprovoked attacks or to counter Hezbollah’s presence or operations in Lebanon. This failure contravenes Lebanon’s obligations under UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which requires the LAF to clear the area near the Lebanon-Israel border of any Hezbollah military presence.

Beirut is reportedly attempting to use the leverage generated by Hezbollah’s ongoing attacks against Israel in order to coerce its foreign partners into blessing the election of a Hezbollah-friendly president. If the so-called “five Nation Group for Lebanon” — of which the United States is a member alongside Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, and France — grants that concession, Beirut says it will implement Resolution 1701. In other words, Lebanon is trying to blackmail Washington using security obligations it is already required to fulfill under international law.

The Biden administration continues to provide Lebanon with humanitarian aid and assistance for the LAF, including by supplementing LAF salaries. Washington hopes this aid will strengthen Lebanese sovereignty and curb the influence of nonstate actors operating on its soil, primarily Hezbollah. The Biden administration, like administrations before it, has failed to leverage this aid to prod Lebanon to rein in Hezbollah. Nor has the administration held Beirut accountable for its failures.

Nonproliferation and Biodefense

The United States, South Korea, and North Korea traded nuclear threats throughout December. The U.S.-South Korean Nuclear Consultative Group released a statement warning: “Any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies is unacceptable and will result in the end of the Kim regime.” In mid-December, an American nuclear-powered submarine arrived in South Korea in a demonstration of deterrence.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned via state media that he would not hesitate to launch nuclear weapons at the United States in response to a “nuclear provocation.” In an end-of-year speech, Kim also announced that his country will produce more fissile materials for nuclear weapons, launch additional spy satellites, and manufacture more drones in 2024. The pledges came after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that North Korea had activated a second nuclear reactor for plutonium production.

The New York Times reported that satellite imagery analysis suggests China is restoring its nuclear weapon test site at Lop Nor, a conclusion The Times says is shared by American intelligence officials who have monitored construction at the site over the past five years. While China has not tested nuclear weapons since 1996, the United States assesses that Beijing has conducted low-yield underground testing.

The IAEA reported on December 26 that Iran recently tripled its rate of producing highly enriched uranium (HEU). By amassing HEU, Tehran moves closer to being able to quickly produce weapons-grade uranium — enriched to 90 percent purity — for atomic bombs.

Sunni Jihadism

The U.S. military presence in Iraq, where more than 2,500 American troops are supporting Iraq’s fight against the Islamic State, is in jeopardy. Under pressure from Iran-backed Shiite militias, the Iraqi government said it wants U.S. forces to leave the country after the United States killed a commander from the Iranian-backed militia Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba in a strike in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, in a December 7 statement, the U.S. military said it killed four Islamic State operatives and detained 33 more during operations in Iraq and Syria in November 2023. The Islamic State killed over 80 people and wounded hundreds more during a double suicide attack in Iran near the grave of Major General Qassem Soleimani, the previous leader of Tehran’s Quds Force who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020. The Islamic State announced a new global campaign, dubbed “Kill Them Wherever You Find Them,” and said its twin suicide bombings in Kerman, Iran, were the opening blow to punish Tehran for using Palestinians in Gaza as pawns in Iran’s fight against Israel.

In an effort to help the Somali government battle al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, U.S. Africa Command launched three airstrikes against al-Shabaab targets in southern Somalia. One strike killed an al-Shabaab fighter near Jilib, while no battle assessment was released for the two strikes, which occurred near Kismayo. Somali officials claimed that al-Shabaab leader Moalim Ayman was killed in the strike near Jilib, but Washington and al-Shabaab have not confirmed his death.


Iran-backed militias continued to strike U.S. military positions in Syria and Iraq, bringing the total number of attacks to roughly 115 since October 7. On December 7, seven mortar rounds landed in the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad, although without causing injuries. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin identified two Iraq-based militias — Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba — responsible for targeting U.S. personnel. Washington had previously sanctioned both groups for terrorism. On January 4, an American strike killed Mushtaq Jawad Kazim al-Jawari, a Nujaba leader the Pentagon identified as responsible for targeting Americans. The strike suggests the White House has begun to recognize it must exact meaningful costs from aggressors rather than continuing the pin-prick attacks that have repeatedly failed to re-establish deterrence. Yet this one strike is unlikely to have more than a marginal effect. There will need to be enduring costs for the militias’ aggression.

In an address to his ruling Ba’ath party, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said American “support, money, loans, and investments” were responsible for the rise of Nazism in the decades prior to World War Two. Assad also said the Nazis employed “no method of torture or killing specific to killing Jews.” Rather, he claimed, the issue was politicized to justify Jewish settlement in Mandatory Palestine, even though today’s Jews are the descendants of pagan converts from Central Asia who have “nothing to do whatever with the [original] people of Israel.” Holocaust denial and antisemitic conspiracies theories have a long history in Syria and are a staple of the Islamist regime in Tehran and its clients throughout the region.


Turkey moved one step closer to approving Sweden’s membership bid to join NATO, which Ankara has delayed for over a year. Although it has agreed in principle to allow Sweden to join the transatlantic alliance, Ankara has repeatedly said Stockholm must first address supposed concerns related to groups in Sweden that Turkey sees as a security threat. In truth, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to use Sweden’s accession bid as leverage to secure Washington’s permission to acquire new F-16 fighter jets from the United States.

Sweden’s ability to join NATO hinges on a ratification vote by the Turkish parliament, which is controlled by Erdogan’s party and its allies. While Erdogan referred the matter to parliament last year, the legislature’s foreign affairs committee did not take it up until now. On December 26, the committee approved Sweden’s accession bid and referred it for a full floor vote, which requires a simple majority of the 600 parliamentarians.

For this to happen, Ankara wants to act “simultaneously” with Washington, Erdogan said last month before the committee vote. As parliament ratifies Swedish accession, Turkey expects the Biden administration to seek congressional approval of the F-16 sale. In a phone call the day after the committee vote, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan told his American counterpart that Ankara expects the Biden administration and Congress to “keep the promises made,” a Turkish diplomatic source explained to Reuters.


The analyses above do not necessarily represent the institutional views of FDD.