February 2, 2024 | FDD Tracker: January 11, 2024-February 2, 2024

Biden Administration Foreign Policy Tracker: February

February 2, 2024 | FDD Tracker: January 11, 2024-February 2, 2024

Biden Administration Foreign Policy Tracker: February

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.

After initially restricting itself to playing defense against Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the administration struck back. U.S. forces, in cooperation with the United Kingdom and other allies, conducted a series of strikes against Houthi military assets. So far, however, the Houthis do not appear ready to stop their attacks.

Meanwhile, an Iran-backed militant group killed three U.S. service members and injured dozens more in a drone strike near the Syrian-Jordanian border. President Joe Biden has vowed a military response, but it remains unclear exactly what U.S. forces will strike or whether it will convince Tehran to rein in its proxies.

U.S. aid for Ukraine remains stuck in limbo thanks to congressional obstruction. Some Republicans, under pressure from former President Donald Trump, have all but killed a bipartisan Senate effort to reach a compromise deal that would pass Ukraine aid in exchange for border security measures.

In the Indo-Pacific, Beijing suffered setbacks as Taiwan’s pro-sovereignty ruling party won a third presidential term and Chinese authorities reported middling economic growth in 2023. While China’s economic slowdown could offer Washington a strategic opportunity, the administration for now seems more concerned with stabilizing U.S.-China relations.

Check back next month to see how the administration addresses these and other challenges.


Taiwanese voters defied Beijing and handed the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) an unprecedented third consecutive presidential term. The Taiwanese dismissed Chinese warnings that supporting the DPP, which strongly advocates for Taiwanese sovereignty, would equate to voting for war with the mainland. However, the election was not a total loss for Beijing. The DPP’s presidential candidate, William Lai, garnered just 40 percent of the popular vote, and the DPP lost its parliamentary majority.

Beijing has already hinted at plans to exploit Taiwan’s fragmented electoral outcome by increasing support for politicians and parties more receptive to China’s reunification goals. It remains uncertain whether the Biden administration intends to assist Taiwan in countering such Chinese interference. The administration may fear that doing so could destabilize U.S.-China relations.

Meanwhile, state authorities said China’s economy grew by a meager 5.2 percent in 2023, its slowest since the post-Tiananmen Square period, excluding the pandemic years. Projections suggest further deceleration in 2024 and 2025. Paradoxically, the Biden administration has signaled it plans to bolster China’s economy — and thus Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s grip on power — by boosting U.S.-China economic ties.

Instead, Washington should exploit China’s economic woes to increase American leverage over Chinese decision-making and weaken China’s global position, albeit without negatively affecting the U.S. economy. Members of Congress have proposed bipartisan legislation to screen and ban certain outbound investments to China. Additionally, raising tariffs on select Chinese exports, such as electric vehicles, could help prevent China from flooding the U.S. market and undermining domestic producers.


The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation jointly released a cyber incident response guide for the water and wastewater sector. The guide provides resources on the roles of federal agencies, information sharing, and incident response planning. Developed with partners across industry, nonprofits, and state and local governments, this effort better utilized public-private collaboration than the EPA’s now-abandoned efforts to impose cybersecurity regulations.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) lost $7.5 million in grant money to hackers, according to officials, leaving recipients without necessary funds. Fortunately, HHS recently released its healthcare-specific cybersecurity performance goals, which, if adopted, should help organizations prevent similar attacks in the future.

A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that agencies are increasingly using the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP), but several agencies continue to use non-FedRAMP-authorized services. FedRAMP provides a standardized approach to security assessments of cloud services. Use of non-authorized services may leave agencies at risk. To ensure full adoption, the report recommends that the agencies managing the FedRAMP program provide better guidance.

Another GAO report released this month assessed the State Department’s Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy (CDP), the office led by Ambassador Nate Fick and responsible for leadership of cyber-related diplomacy. While CDP has elevated cyber priorities and better positioned the department to achieve its goals, the report warns that State needs to continue to clarify the division of responsibilities between CDP and other offices.


A January 28 drone strike by an Iran-backed militia killed three U.S. servicemembers and injured more than 40 at Tower 22, a small base in Jordan near the border with Syria and Iraq. The United States reportedly failed to stop the attack “when the enemy drone approached its target at the same time a U.S. drone was also returning to base.”

Following Hamas’s October 7 terror attack on Israel, the administration pursued a policy of restraint, believing that could best avoid a regional war. Instead, Tehran and its proxies predictably interpreted U.S. restraint as a sign of weakness and a greenlight for additional aggression.

Between October 17 and January 27, Iranian proxies attacked American troops in Iraq and Syria more than 160 times. The Biden administration responded only about nine times. Meanwhile, from November 19 to January 8, the Iran-backed Houthis attacked commercial shipping 25 times despite repeated warnings from Washington. Throughout that period, the administration insisted on a reactive, defense-only strategy, trying to intercept drones and missiles while refusing to conduct proactive strikes in Yemen to prevent and disincentivize the attacks. With little reason not to escalate, the Houthis launched a major escalatory attack on merchant vessels on January 9. The administration then belatedly responded with attacks inside Yemen that were not aggressive enough to stop attacks on commercial vessels.

The Biden administration is now preparing to respond to the attack in Jordan, but it is not clear whether the administration has taken the necessary steps to protect U.S. forces from the inevitable counterpunch.

Europe and Russia

U.S. officials are rightly encouraging Ukraine to embrace a defensive strategy in 2024, when Western production of artillery ammunition will be insufficient to resource a major offensive. The administration has also begun taking steps to encourage greater defense-industrial cooperation with Ukraine. By this spring, the administration hopes to conclude a 10-year agreement pledging security and economic support for Ukraine. Kyiv has recently signed or is negotiating similar agreements with other Western countries pursuant to a commitment made last July.

But while the administration vows to help Ukraine achieve a secure, prosperous, and democratic future, U.S. officials have said nothing about plans to help Kyiv go back on offense in 2025. Instead, one gets the impression that the administration merely hopes a protracted stalemate will eventually force Moscow to accept peace negotiations. This lack of vision has contributed to congressional reluctance to pass further Ukraine aid.

At present, however, the chief problem is not the White House but Congress. The legislature’s inaction has forced the administration to halt new aid commitments for Kyiv even as Ukrainian troops are running dangerously low on key munitions. The administration and Senate leaders from both parties made a good-faith effort to reach compromise legislation that would both fund aid for Ukraine and Israel and help secure the southern border, as many Republicans demanded. Yet that initiative now seems doomed, as some Republicans are demanding further concessions. The alternative is to pass legislation that only addresses aid, but it remains unclear whether or when such a bill will advance.


Beginning on January 12, U.S. and UK forces have conducted a series of strikes against the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen to erode its capabilities and deter it from targeting commercial shipping in the Red Sea, a vital thoroughfare for international trade. The Houthis have been trying to respond, including by launching surface-to-air missiles.

The Biden administration also re-designated the Houthis as a Special Designated Terrorist Group, although the administration refrained from reimposing the group’s designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, a more powerful measure. The administration had revoked the designations in January 2021 over concerns that the sanctions would disrupt the flow of humanitarian aid to Houthi-controlled territory. To facilitate aid delivery, the Biden team softened the new sanctions with a 30-day implementation delay and general licenses carving out broad exceptions.

Washington is also indirectly providing cash to Houthi coffers through annual American assistance to the Sanaa government, which stood at $444 million in 2023. While this aid is meant to support Yemen’s UN-recognized government, which is fighting the Houthis, much of the assistance gets siphoned off by the terror group.

The United States has not coupled its strikes with a parallel diplomatic effort to resolve the Yemen conflict, suggesting that Washington plans to restrict its intervention to securing global shipping lanes rather than pushing to resolve the decade-old crisis. The Sanaa government has criticized the “defensive” U.S. effort, arguing that America and Saudi Arabia should help the government’s forces “eliminate the Houthis’ military capabilities.”


The White House announced plans to host Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for a state visit in April, aiming to strengthen relations with one of Washington’s closest Indo-Pacific allies. The upcoming visit comes at a critical juncture as the two nations confront growing Chinese and North Korean aggression in Northeast Asia. To that end, the Biden administration has smartly ordered the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is forward deployed in Japan, to accelerate efforts to test new capabilities and bolster regional readiness. Those measures include a renewed focus on strengthening maritime domain awareness via new “expeditionary advanced base operations” near Okinawa.

Meanwhile, the United States, Japan, and South Korea announced plans to expand trilateral security cooperation to counter China, with the three countries condemning China’s “dangerous and escalatory behavior” in the South China Sea. Beijing has reiterated its firm opposition to the trilateral alliance, labeling it “exclusionary,” which is all the more reason for Washington to continue fostering enhanced security collaboration with Tokyo and Seoul in 2024.

Nevertheless, China succeeded in convincing Nauru to switch its allegiance from Taipei to Beijing for about $100 million in annual aid. Tuvalu and Palau are next on Beijing’s radar, with both countries set to hold election this year that could pave the way for potential recognition shifts. Taiwan’s principled stance against “dollar diplomacy,” while commendable, should be reassessed given its diminishing support. Here, Washington can help by offering financial support to regional governments in a bid to prevent Beijing from buying them off.

International Organizations

The Biden administration announced a pause in new U.S. assistance to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) following reports that 12 employees took part in the October 7 Hamas massacre and more than 1,000 others are affiliated with terrorist organizations. The administration, however, continues to allow UNRWA to receive previously approved funding, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted that UNRWA remains indispensable to humanitarian work in Gaza. The United States halted aid to UNRWA in 2018, partly out of terror finance concerns, but has provided more than $1 billion to the organization since President Biden took office. While the decision to pause funding is welcome, the administration will likely resume aid to UNRWA in the near future unless Congress outright prohibits assistance in the upcoming emergency supplemental appropriations bill.

Separately, in a praiseworthy move, the administration forthrightly rejected South Africa’s bid to hold Israel in violation of the Genocide Convention at the International Court of Justice. The U.S. stance helped delegitimize the motion and made the court less willing to entertain it.

Finally, the United States on January 29 commenced the concluding session of negotiations over a new UN convention on cybercrime. The convention has sparked concerns that Russia and China will use the text to justify online censorship. There are also questions as to whether it will provide any concrete tools to hold cybercriminals in those countries — in addition to Iran and North Korea — accountable.


Iran-directed militias killed three American soldiers and wounded 34 others in a January 28 drone strike on a U.S. military post on the Jordan-Syria border. There have now been more than 165 attacks since October 17, 2023, and more than 250 since January 2021. Three U.S. contractors have also died in these attacks, and a member of the 82nd Airborne was put into a coma after taking shrapnel to his head during a strike this past Christmas. Yet the Biden administration has never responded militarily against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which coordinates and supports these attacks. Even after the latest attack, the State Department did not rescind a waiver allowing Iran to access $10 billion of previously escrowed funds held in Iraq. Nor has the administration launched a crackdown on Iran’s oil exports to China or triggered the snapback of UN sanctions on Iran.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration finally reimposed counterterrorism sanctions against the Iran-backed Houthis. But the administration also issued five broad general licenses that effectively gut the sanctions against the terrorist group. Despite limited U.S. strikes against Houthi military assets in Yemen, the group has continued to attack vessels in the Red Sea, including with an intercepted missile strike on a U.S. Navy destroyer and a successful strike on a British-owned commercial vessel on January 26.

Despite a late December 2023 report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warning that Iran had dramatically accelerated its production of high-enriched uranium, the United States did not request an emergency IAEA board meeting to hold Iran accountable.


President Biden released a statement on January 14 marking 100 days since Hamas’s deadly October 7 attacks. Biden recounted his administration’s efforts to secure the release of the hostages being held by Hamas, including as many as six Americans. CIA Director William Burns and White House advisor Brett McGurk are leading the U.S. effort to free the hostages. On January 28, Burns met with the director of Israel’s Mossad and Qatar’s prime minister in Paris to discuss the release of the hostages. Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked the Hamas-supporting Qataris for their help in mediation efforts.

In another troubling sign, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on January 16 said a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors are “linked and connected.” This linkage approach, reportedly also expressed by Blinken the previous week, hands the Palestinians a veto over the foreign policies of Israel and the rest of the region.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby noted that Israel has been receptive to American advice on ameliorating Gazans’ lives and reducing casualties. Despite Kirby’s positive sentiments, NBC reported in late January that the administration was considering slowing or pausing some weapon sales to Israel to get Jerusalem to scale back its operations against Hamas. The administration denied the report. On February 1, the White House issued an executive order authorizing sanctions against Israelis committing violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. This could have broad applications and draws a false comparison between West Bank settler violence and Hamas’s October 7 massacre.


North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui visited Russia in mid-January, continuing the exchange of high-level envoys between the two countries. After Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited last July, Kim Jong Un traveled to Russia in September. Pyongyang has since provided Moscow with large amounts of military aid for its war against Ukraine, while Russia reportedly assisted North Korea with its first successful November military satellite launch. North Korean state media said Russian President Vladimir Putin told Choe that he is willing to visit North Korea soon.

In early January, the White House said Russia began using North Korean-provided ballistic missiles late last year. John Kirby, the National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, threatened consequences for the arms transfers. The U.S. Mission to the United Nations issued a strongly worded statement, but neither Moscow nor Pyongyang blinked. The State Department issued symbolic sanctions that will do nothing to stop the Russia-DPRK relationship or the arms transfers.

North Korea is also bolstering its ties with China, on which Pyongyang relies for sanctions evasion. In late January, North Korea hosted a delegation led by a Chinese vice foreign minister. Last September, Chinese Vice Premier Liu Guozhong attended the 75th anniversary of North Korea’s founding.

The United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea continued their trilateral engagement following the August 2023 Trilateral Leaders’ Summit at Camp David. In January, senior State Department officials met with their Japanese and ROK counterparts to discuss Indo-Pacific issues and North Korea.

Latin America

The October 2023 Barbados Agreement, in which Venezuela’s opposition and the Maduro regime laid out a roadmap toward a competitive presidential election later this year, is on life support. In late January, Venezuela’s Supreme Court upheld a regime decision disqualifying the leading opposition candidate. The Biden administration noted the ruling is “inconsistent” with the regime’s previous commitment to allow a fair election in exchange for U.S. sanctions relief. On January 30, the administration re-imposed sanctions on Venezuelan gold exports. Unless the regime reverses the court ruling, sanctions on Venezuela’s oil and gas sector will come back into effect in April.

The administration continued to support Guyana against Maduro’s claims to the contested region of Essequibo. The U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs, Daniel P. Erikson, visited Guyana on January 8 to reaffirm U.S. support for Guyana’s territorial integrity and the need for a negotiated solution to the border dispute. Continuous U.S. engagement is critical to signal to Caracas that any attempt to settle the Essequibo dispute by force will be met by strong U.S. response.

Ecuadorian immigrants, motivated by rising violence, continue to flock to the U.S.-Mexico border, adding to a record migration crisis that is stretching U.S. resources to the brink. On January 9, Ecuador’s new president, Daniel Noboa, declared a state of internal armed conflict after narco-criminals took over multiple prisons. The Biden administration dispatched a senior delegation to Quito to explore how to expand U.S assistance to Ecuador. Increased U.S. intelligence sharing and military assistance will be critical.


Hezbollah continued to attack Israel with drones, anti-tank guided missiles, and rockets, prompting retaliation by an Israeli military increasingly concerned that the simmering conflict with Hezbollah will escalate. By January 5, the Iran-backed terror group had conducted over 670 attacks, according to Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. While he continues to insist that Hezbollah does not seek a wider war, the group’s attacks have upended civilian life in northern Israel and undermined the Israeli economy. Most of the 115,000 Israelis evacuated from the Israel-Lebanon border area still have yet to return. The White House, intent on restraining Israeli retaliation, has downplayed Hezbollah’s attacks. During a January 23 press briefing, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby stressed that Washington has “not seen Hezbollah jump in with both feet, and come to the aid of Hamas.”

Meanwhile, the administration continues to hope U.S. diplomat Amos Hochstein’s shuttle negotiations will achieve a cessation of hostilities. Hochstein visited Lebanon in mid-January and will likely visit again soon even though Hezbollah has repeatedly rejected his proposals. The proposed solutions themselves are probably unworkable. They would rely either on an unwilling Lebanese government reining in Hezbollah or on Hezbollah willingly withdrawing from the border — without a mechanism to guarantee the group’s fighters will not return in the future. Nevertheless, the administration has signaled its willingness to pressure Israel to begin negotiations with Lebanon toward resolving their longstanding border dispute. In effect, Washington would be giving into Beirut’s attempt to use Hezbollah’s attacks to extract Israeli concessions on border demarcation.

Nonproliferation and Biodefense

Egypt began construction of the fourth and final unit at Cairo’s Russian-built El Dabaa nuclear reactor complex. Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the ceremony virtually. Egypt and other countries’ nuclear cooperation with Russia continues apace absent U.S. and Western leadership on sanctioning Rosatom, Moscow’s state-run nuclear corporation.

The Financial Times reported new details about U.S. efforts to wind down America’s own ongoing business with the Russian conglomerate. FT detailed a “three-pronged strategy to rebuild the enrichment and conversion supply chain: [subsidize] domestic industry; enlist international partners in a ‘friendshoring strategy’; and impose sanctions on Russian imports to protect investments by taxpayers.” Rosatom claimed that it earned $14 billion in revenue last year even as Moscow’s war against Ukraine rages on.

A senior U.S. National Security Council official called on China to respond to U.S. overtures and engage in arms control talks and risk-reduction efforts. Beijing is set to expand its nuclear arsenal at an unprecedented rate over the coming decade.

The International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran continues to expand its enriched uranium stockpile. The agency’s director general called Tehran’s nuclear advances a “frustrating cycle” in which the UN watchdog frequently feels held hostage to Iran’s grievances with the West. Tehran is believed to possess enough enriched uranium to, if further enriched to weapons-grade, fuel up to 12 atomic bombs. That estimate will likely rise further in late February when the IAEA issues a new report on Iran’s nuclear activities.

Sunni Jihadism

Amid U.S.-Iraq tensions over retaliatory U.S. military strikes against Iranian-backed militias, as well as an attack by an Iranian proxy group that killed three American soldiers at a base in Jordan, there are reports that the Biden administration is considering ending the mission to defeat the Islamic State and withdrawing its forces from Iraq and Syria. The United States currently has an estimated 2,500 troops in Iraq and 900 in Syria. The Pentagon denied that current talks with the Iraqi government indicate the United States is preparing to withdraw its forces. As for Syria, U.S. officials have given mixed signals, although it does not appear a withdrawal is imminent.

The U.S. military launched the year’s first airstrike against al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s branch in Somalia. U.S. Africa Command continues to describe al-Shabaab as “the largest and most active Al Qaeda network in the world” and a group that “has proved both its will and capability to attack U.S. forces and threaten U.S. security interests.” On January 10, Reuters reported that al-Shabaab had seized a United Nations helicopter that was conducting a medical evacuation, capturing two Somali men and several foreigners. In late December, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the arrest an American citizen living in Egypt who had traveled to Kenya to join al-Shabaab.


“We shall respond,” President Biden pledged after a drone strike by an Iran-backed militia killed three U.S. troops and injured dozens more at an American base on the Jordanian border with Syria. Iran-backed militias are responsible for more than 165 attacks on U.S. bases in Syria and Iraq since mid-October as well as dozens more dating back to 2021. After the first wave of attacks in mid-October, Biden sent a direct message to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warning him to prepare for a U.S. response if the aggression did not stop. Biden authorized intermittent air strikes when the attacks continued, mainly hitting low-value militia targets. Administration officials still insist they want to avoid escalation. Yet if Tehran’s proxies are the only ones who pay a price, it is not clear why the regime would call off the militias. The Biden administration also remains committed to lax enforcement of sanctions despite Iran’s march toward a nuclear weapons capability.

Meanwhile, the administration denied reports that it is considering withdrawing the roughly 900 U.S. troops who remain in Syria to support local partners and prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State. One report indicated the administration wanted to pave the way for withdrawal by forging an alliance between America’s Syrian Kurdish allies and the regime of Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian client. Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s top Middle East policy hand, proposed just such an alliance prior to assuming his current position.


On January 24, President Biden sent a letter to leaders of key congressional committees, informing them that he would begin the formal notification process for the sale of F-16 fighter aircraft to Turkey. He urged Congress to greenlight the deal “without delay.” Biden’s letter came after Turkey’s parliament voted to ratify Sweden’s accession to NATO by a vote of 287-55. The following day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed the bill and published it in the presidency’s official gazette, ending Ankara’s 20-month delay of Sweden’s accession to the transatlantic alliance.

Following Turkey’s ratification, the State Department on January 26 “made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to the Republic of Turkey of F-16 Aircraft Acquisition and Modernization and related equipment for an estimated cost of $23.0 billion.” Congress has 15 days to review and object to the State Department’s notification, but the sale will likely go through. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, remarked that his “approval of Turkey’s request to purchase F-16 aircrafts has been contingent on Turkish approval of Sweden’s NATO membership.” Previously, Cardin and other U.S. legislators had consistently opposed the sale of jets to Turkey, citing Ankara’s aggressive stance toward NATO ally Greece, poor human rights record, and refusal to approve Sweden’s NATO membership bid.


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