October 4, 2023 | FDD Tracker: September 2, 2023-October 4, 2023

Biden Administration Foreign Policy Tracker: October

October 4, 2023 | FDD Tracker: September 2, 2023-October 4, 2023

Biden Administration Foreign Policy Tracker: October

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.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has yet to confirm whether he will attend November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco. He may hope that dangling his attendance will deter the Biden administration from advancing tough China policies. Beijing may similarly hope that two newly announced U.S.-China working groups will lead Washington to tread more cautiously for fear of sinking the diplomatic initiative. Elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, the administration is working to shore up vital relationships with Pacific Island countries while avoiding the fallout from a diplomatic spat between Canada and India.

As the fiscal year drew to a close, Congress passed a last-minute continuing resolution to avert a government shutdown. GOP members, however, stripped out provisions related to Ukraine aid. That short-sighted move forces the Pentagon to delay replenishment of U.S. stocks and inhibits planning for future phases of the war. In better news, President Joe Biden reportedly promised to grant Ukraine’s longstanding request for ATACMS missiles.

The administration issued a sanctions waiver enabling Iran to access another $6 billion in frozen funds as part of a broader deal with the regime. Yet Tehran continues to demonstrate bad faith on the nuclear file, most recently by barring some international inspectors from the country.

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


Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s attendance at November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco remains uncertain despite numerous visits to China in recent months by senior U.S. officials looking to fortify bilateral ties. Beijing likely hopes its non-committal stance will forestall additional U.S. export controls or other actions that could exacerbate China’s economic slowdown.

In a bid to ease bilateral tensions, the United States and China on September 22 announced the formation of two working groups to discuss financial and economic issues. However, similar to the recent U.S. trips to China, the working groups’ objectives are not clearly defined, especially since Chinese officials are already well aware of U.S. concerns regarding China’s predatory non-market practices.

Further adding to the policy confusion is the State Department’s reticence to publicly address the Chinese government’s alleged hacking of its sensitive networks. In a recent breach, Chinese hackers reportedly obtained 60,000 emails, as detailed in a Senate staff briefing late last month. The hackers compromised sensitive information, such as detailed travel itineraries and nuanced diplomatic deliberations involving U.S.-China policy.

Meanwhile, Xi declined to attend the G20 summit and UN General Assembly, seemingly to avoid endorsing Western ideologies or engaging with Western leaders. His absence coincided with the release of a Chinese government white paper outlining China’s vision for a new world order — one reflective of Beijing’s values and interests. The timing of the paper’s release was likely deliberate. Xi is expected to present this proposal at the upcoming Belt and Road Forum in China, a platform that notably excludes the United States.


The Department of Defense (DOD) released the unclassified summary of its 2023 DOD Cyber Strategy, which draws on recent “real-world experience,” including the DOD’s policy of “defending forward” and lessons learned from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The new strategy emphasizes the department’s commitment to building allies’ cyber capabilities to improve collective resilience to cyber threats.

In an example of actualizing the strategy, U.S. Cyber Command announced it had completed its second “hunt forward” operation in Lithuania. U.S. cyber operators worked with their Lithuanian counterparts for months to root out vulnerabilities and defend networks from malicious cyber actors. This represents Cyber Command’s 50th such operation since the program started in 2018.

To promote partnerships, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) held the two-day Western Hemisphere Cyber Conference, convening representatives from 21 countries to discuss their most pressing cybersecurity challenges and how to address them. All representatives committed to continue ongoing cooperation and promote shared values and interests in cyberspace.

DHS also released its 2024 Homeland Threat Assessment, which contains a list of cyber threats to critical infrastructure. Ransomware is back in the limelight, with ransomware hackers on track for their second-most profitable year after 2021, the report said. Following a slight dip in ransomware revenues in 2022, optimists had hoped these cyberattacks would continue to decline. Yet this report suggests ransomware is here to stay until effective critical infrastructure protection makes it unprofitable.


The White House on September 13 announced the launch of the Comprehensive Security Integration and Prosperity Agreement (C-SIPA) with Bahrain, described as “a new framework to promote cooperation across a range of areas, from defense and security to science, technology, and trade.” The agreement will further deepen bilateral defense relations with Bahrain, which hosts the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. C-SIPA also formalizes “steps being taken by U.S. Central Command to integrate the region’s air and missile defense systems and increase maritime domain awareness,” the White House said.

The next day, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin welcomed Bahrain’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa to the Pentagon. Austin congratulated him on the three-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords and noted Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s visit to Bahrain on September 4 to inaugurate Israel’s new embassy in the Gulf nation. A Middle East security architecture that includes the United States, its Gulf Cooperation Council partners, and eventually Israel would promote regional security and inflict a serious setback on Iran’s longstanding efforts to divide and attack its neighbors and adversaries.

Meanwhile, the eleventh-hour legislation Congress passed on September 30 to avert a government shutdown did not include funding for Ukraine. Austin issued a statement that evening applauding congressional action to avert a shutdown but called on “Congress to live up to America’s commitment to provide urgently-needed assistance to the people of Ukraine.” The administration’s ability to convince Congress that the United States should continue to support Ukraine will have far-reaching consequences.

Europe and Russia

During President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s trip to Washington last month, President Biden reportedly promised to grant Ukraine’s longstanding request for the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS. Kyiv had been asking for ATACMS for well over a year. The administration initially explained its refusal by citing the risk of Russian escalation. More recently, U.S. officials argued the Army simply had no ATACMS to spare. Evidently, the administration has overcome those concerns, perhaps in part because the Army will soon field a replacement system.

The administration has not yet made an official announcement, but it reportedly plans to give Ukraine a cluster munition variant of ATACMS. Whereas the more modern ATACMS variants carry unitary warheads, the Block I and Block IA versions disperse hundreds of anti-personnel/anti-materiel bomblets. The U.S. Army reportedly possesses just under 1,500 ATACMS, including around 360 Block IA missiles. (The Army no longer has Block Is in its inventory.) Press reports suggest the administration will send a modest number of them to Ukraine.

ATACMS, while not a silver bullet, will be a valuable addition to Kyiv’s increasingly diverse arsenal of long-range precision-strike systems. As a ground-launched ballistic missile, ATACMS offers a highly survivable, all-weather capability that can attack fleeting targets more swiftly than Kyiv’s European-donated air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). Although ineffective against bridges and command posts, the Block IA is well-suited to take out air defense systems and other soft-skinned targets deep in the rear. It will thus offer a useful complement to Ukraine’s ALCM arsenal — which will hopefully soon include Germany’s Taurus.


The Biden administration is tamping down expectations for a breakthrough on Saudi-Israeli normalization. Ironically, the administration itself is complicating negotiations by attempting to shoehorn the Palestinian-Israeli issue into the Saudi-Israeli deal.

The Saudis continue to signal readiness for normalization. In late September, Israel’s Tourism Minister became the first Israeli minister to lead a delegation to Saudi Arabia, where he participated in a UN conference. Meanwhile, the Saudi ambassador to Palestine visited the West Bank for the first time since 1967, likely seeking to secure Palestinian acquiescence to normalization. In a key step toward a deal, Riyadh agreed to accept U.S.-requested safeguards for its nascent nuclear program, which the Saudis want to expand as part of a potential normalization agreement.

On September 20, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman said the two countries “get closer” to normalization “every day.” Later that week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that the world is “at the cusp of … an historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia.”

Statements from the White House, by contrast, are more cautious. On September 5, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters not to expect “any imminent breakthrough.” The Palestinians are a key sticking point. The administration insists that Jerusalem make significant concessions to the Palestinians as part of an agreement. While Riyadh also says it wants such concessions, it would likely settle for considerably less than what Washington is seeking.

Instead of counting on Saudi-Israeli normalization to facilitate Palestinian-Israeli peace, the Biden administration is holding normalization hostage to peace, which has proven elusive since 1993.


The White House held its second annual U.S.-Pacific Islands Forum Summit with leaders from small but strategic nations such as Fiji, French Polynesia, and Kiribati. President Biden announced various agreements, including for the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the Cook Islands and Niue. Nevertheless, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare skipped the summit, deriding the gathering as a forum for U.S. officials to “lecture you about how good they are.” Also absent was the prime minister of Vanuatu, Sato Kilman.

The summit’s mixed results coincided with last-ditch negotiations to renew a strategic agreement between the United States and the Marshall Islands before the deal’s September 30 expiry. A prolonged delay in finalizing an agreement could harm U.S. standing in the region at a time when China is making significant diplomatic inroads there. Also unclear is whether U.S. economic assistance to the other two Compact of Free Association states, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia, will continue beyond the 45-day continuing resolution Congress passed to avert a government shutdown.

Making matters worse, Washington found itself embroiled in a major diplomatic dust-up between Ottawa and New Delhi, with Canada claiming that agents linked to the Indian government were involved in the assassination of a Sikh activist in Vancouver. The United States reportedly shared intelligence, included intercepted communications, with Ottawa about India’s alleged role in the murder. The Biden administration must now find a way to balance between backing Canada’s investigation and partnering with India to counter Chinese revisionism.

International Organizations

The Biden administration’s decision to rejoin the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) without first demanding certain reforms backfired in September as the agency designated the ancient city of Jericho as a Palestinian historical site, ignoring the Jewish Biblical connection to the city. UNESCO had previously delegitimized Jewish historical ties to Jerusalem and to Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs, and the United States rejoined the organization without requiring it to reverse prior antisemitic decisions. While the administration claimed the United States needed to rejoin to counter China within UNESCO, Beijing continues to use the agency to advance its own cultural and historical revisionist agenda.

Separately, this year’s UN General Assembly was net-negative for U.S. interests. Neither British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak nor French President Emmanuel Macron attended the gathering, diminishing the West’s show of resolve in the face of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine. The Biden administration did, however, grant visas to Iran’s delegation. This enabled Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to threaten the lives of former U.S. officials from New York and allowed Raisi’s delegation to harass reporters from Iran International.

Finally, the United States pledged an additional $73 million to UNRWA, the UN refugee agency dedicated solely to Palestinians. Washington gave the funds in part to “provide immediate humanitarian relief to people in Jenin and Ein el Hilweh,” without acknowledging that both camps have been turned into terrorist bases of operations. Weeks before the money was pledged, ongoing gun battles erupted in Ein el Hilweh, Lebanon’s largest UNRWA camp, while Israel continued to root out terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank’s Jenin camp.


As part of a broader, unacknowledged nuclear deal with Iran, the Biden administration issued a sanctions waiver granting Tehran access to another $6 billion in previously frozen assets. South Korea transferred the funds to accounts in Qatar for Iran’s use. The U.S. also swapped five Iranian criminals for five Iranian-Americans held hostage in Iran. The administration formally notified Congress about the waiver for Tehran, the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, on the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. All told, the administration has enabled Iran to access at least $50 billion in unfrozen funds, International Monetary Fund special drawing rights, and sanctions-busting oil revenue.

Meanwhile, President Biden failed to express support for Iran’s ongoing protest movement in his 2023 UN General Assembly address, which came days after the one-year anniversary of the brutal killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Her murder at the hands of Iran’s morality police over alleged dress code violations sparked nationwide demonstrations. Despite lackluster U.S. support, Iranians have continued protesting against the regime, with over 420 protests reported just this past September.

Despite the U.S. concessions, Iran announced it would ban one-third of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Moscow and Tehran further tightened defense ties, with Russia’s defense minister visiting Iran and inspecting various Iranian weapons. His visit prompted speculation that Tehran may sell Moscow missiles after the UN missile embargo on Iran expires later this month. Finally, in late September, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force launched yet another three-stage mixed-propellant space-launch vehicle, a possible precursor to an intercontinental ballistic missile.


Capping a years-long process, the Biden administration admitted Israel into its exclusive Visa Waiver Program on September 27. Starting on November 30, Israeli citizens and nationals will be able to visit the United States for up to 90 days without applying for a travel visa. This will strengthen commercial and cultural exchanges.

In his September 19 speech at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), Biden promoted Israel’s regional integration immediately following a reference to Saudi Arabia. Normalization will likely factor into Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s possible trip to the region in October. And on September 22, the I2U2 — a working group comprising Israel, India, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates — announced a new joint space venture.

Despite these positive steps, a State Department spokesperson said on September 26 that the Palestinians must be part of the potential Israel-Saudi normalization deal. This approach would perpetuate a system whereby the recalcitrant Palestinian leadership can hold Israel’s regional affairs hostage.

On September 20, on the sidelines of the UNGA, Biden met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time since the latter returned to power. The long delay and the meeting’s location in New York rather than in Washington seemed to confirm the friction between the two leaders. While they discussed several issues critical to Jerusalem’s security, Biden also pressed Netanyahu on Israel’s domestic judicial overhaul issue.

Finally, Biden nominated Jack Lew on September 5 to serve as the next ambassador to Israel.


Kim Jong Un traveled to Russia’s Far East to meet Vladimir Putin to discuss increasing military cooperation to support Moscow’s war in Ukraine. This was Kim’s first trip abroad since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ahead of the visit, U.S. and allied officials told The New York Times that the two leaders planned to discuss a potential deal for supplies of North Korean artillery ammunition and other arms to Russia. Pyongyang allegedly provided a relatively small amount of munitions to Russia earlier in the war, but Moscow seeks larger-scale deliveries to sustain its forces.

The Kim-Putin summit further solidified their relationship. Moscow has routinely violated UN and U.S. sanctions on North Korea. Putin highlighted that Kim showed “great interest in rocket technology,” and that Russia could aid North Korea’s development and launch of satellites. Pyongyang’s second satellite launch this year failed in August.

Kim traveled to Vladivostok after the summit and met Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Shoigu had visited North Korea in July, likely to discuss the potential arms deal. Kim toured Russian military and defense-industrial facilities and received briefings on various Russian weapon systems. Russia and North Korea’s expanding military cooperation could allow Russian scientists and engineers to aid Pyongyang in developing its military.

On September 14, the American, South Korean, and Japanese national security advisors held a call and noted that the Russia-North Korea cooperation violates UN sanctions. The administration should sanction additional individuals, companies, and banks focused on Kim’s revenue generation to force him to decide between his strategic priorities and helping Putin.

Latin America

The UNGA provides a platform for U.S. administrations to highlight their priorities. But as world leaders flocked to Turtle Bay, the Biden administration afforded little attention to Latin America — particularly the authoritarian regimes challenging U.S. interests and influence in the region.

Brian Nichols, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, highlighted four priorities: Haiti, Sustainable Development Goals, human rights, and modernizing multilateral institutions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined 33 other nations from around the world in calling for the United Nations to approve a security support mission to help Haiti in ongoing struggles with violent crime.

Notably, Nichols did not mention Venezuela except when prompted by journalists. The administration has remained silent even as Venezuela’s Maduro regime has barred leading opposition candidates from participating in upcoming elections.

Meanwhile, Mexico, America’s largest trading partner in the region, allowed a Russian military unit to march in a parade celebrating Mexico’s Independence Day. While Ukraine’s ambassador swiftly criticized the move, the State Department spokesman simply referred to it as “an odd decision.”

In positive news, the United States and Colombia convened their third counternarcotics working group session, pledging to increase interdictions and expand efforts to combat money laundering. The administration also sanctioned nine leading members of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel for their involvement in fentanyl smuggling as well as the leader of the Clan del Golfo, one of Colombia’s largest drug enterprises.


The Biden administration agreed to a UN Security Council resolution that refers to the Israeli region of Har Dov in the Golan Heights as “the occupied Shebaa Farms,” the term used by Lebanon, which claims the territory. This new language, contained in a resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, directly contradicts the U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. It also implicitly legitimizes the Hezbollah’s ongoing campaign of provocation in the Har Dov region.

In fact, it is possible that the administration might even reverse the longstanding U.S. position rejecting the Lebanese claim to the area. Although it denied that the resolution signaled a change in U.S. policy, the administration pointedly refused to affirm Israel’s sovereignty over the area. What is more, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf deliberately did not rule out that the so-called Shebaa Farms would be “in the mix” in a U.S.-brokered initiative to settle the Israeli-Lebanese land border. Asked again, Leaf refused to “pre-judge” whether the Shebaa Farms would be on the table, thereby jettisoning the U.S. position both on Israeli sovereignty and on the non-Lebanese identity of the territory.

Likely emboldened by the administration’s reversal, Hezbollah and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which functions as an auxiliary to the terrorist group, escalated their provocations in the area. Twice in one week, the LAF fired tear gas and smoke grenades at Israeli troops in Har Dov.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration is rewarding the LAF by granting it $30 million in funds originally allocated for Egypt.

Nonproliferation and Biodefense

New data reported by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) indicates that Iran added to its enriched uranium stockpiles and breakout capability since May, even though the United States granted Tehran access to $16 billion in frozen Iranian assets held by Iraq and South Korea in a bid to reduce tensions. Following a statement by 63 countries at an IAEA Board of Governors meeting calling on Iran to cooperate with the agency, Tehran barred one-third of the IAEA’s nuclear inspectors from the country, further diminishing international monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities. A bipartisan group of 29 U.S. lawmakers wrote a letter to France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, which are still parties to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, urging them to prevent UN missile and drone sanctions against Tehran from expiring on October 18, as scheduled under UN Security Council Resolution 2231.

Following a spate of North Korean missile tests, nuclear threats, and Pyongyang’s unveiling of a new missile interceptor, South Korea’s president Yoon Suk Yeol responded with a threat of his own. Washington and Seoul, he said, will “respond overwhelmingly to end the North Korean regime” should Pyongyang carry out a nuclear strike. Yoon reminded Pyongyang that the United States and South Korea possess “an integrated response system that combines U.S. nuclear assets with [South Korean] non-nuclear assets.” Yoon also vowed before the UN General Assembly in New York that Seoul “will not stand idly by” if Russia provides assistance to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. South Korea fears Moscow may provide such help to North Korea in exchange for weapons for Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Sunni Jihadism

The U.S government continues to downplay al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan. A recent intelligence assessment claims that “Al Qaeda is at its historical nadir in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and its revival is unlikely,” according to a senior U.S. official. This assessment is in direct contradiction to the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team’s recent analysis. That analysis notes that al-Qaeda considers Afghanistan a “safe haven” and is operating training camps in six provinces as well as safehouses and a media center across the country. Additionally, three al-Qaeda leaders are serving in the Taliban’s government, and the Taliban is issuing passports and national identity cards to al-Qaeda operatives and their families. The U.S. government dismisses the UN report out of hand.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military continues to target the Islamic State’s network in Iraq and Syria. On September 23, U.S. Special Operations Forces based in northern Syria captured an Islamic State operative who had “relationships throughout the ISIS network in the region.” In August, the U.S military launched 28 raids in Iraq and eight more in Syria, resulting in seven ISIS operatives killed and 25 captured.

The status of the U.S. military base in Niger remains in doubt as the leaders of the recent coup continue to restrict its airspace to U.S. drones conducting counterterrorism operations in the Sahel. The loss of the base would severely restrict U.S. counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

In Somalia, al-Shabaab continues to attack the government and military. The group conducted 14 suicide attacks in Somalia during September, the highest monthly total since it began launching such attacks in 2006.


On September 27, Senators James Risch (R-ID) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced a Senate companion to the Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act, which the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved by voice vote in May. The House version has 48 cosponsors, including senior figures on both sides of the aisle. The legislation is a response to the Biden administration’s resistance to enforcing human rights sanctions on the Syrian regime and quiet support for Arab governments’ re-engagement with Damascus.

Amid congressional opposition, the administration has backed away from its overt endorsement of Bashar al-Assad’s rehabilitation. When asked on September 23 whether she stands by her previous comments favoring Arab engagement with Damascus, Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf avoided giving a direct answer. Instead, she attributed criticism of U.S. policy to a misunderstanding of her earlier remarks or even “wishful thinking on the part of the Assad regime.” She also conceded that normalization is unlikely to bring about the desired change in Assad’s conduct, especially with regard to narco-trafficking.

Some of the Arab advocates of normalization are coming to this conclusion as well. Speaking at the same conference as Leaf, King Abdullah of Jordan said, “We are fighting every single day on our border to stop massive amounts of drugs coming into our country.” Abdullah condemned both the Assad regime and its Iranian partners for taking advantage of the drug trade. On September 26, the Jordanian army reported that it had shot down a pair of drones bringing crystal methamphetamine across the Syrian border.


The U.S. government sanctioned five Turkish entities in September for facilitating sanctions evasion by Russian companies supporting Moscow’s defense-industrial base or military. In its press release announcing the designation package, the U.S. Treasury Department noted that it had “repeatedly raised the issue of the shipment or transshipment of dual-use goods to Russia with the Government of Türkiye and the Turkish private sector.” These sanctions demonstrate the Biden administration’s willingness to continue designating Turkish entities that circumvent sanctions against Russia thanks to Ankara’s inability or unwillingness to crack down on evasion.

The sanctions come at a delicate time, with the Biden administration hoping that Ankara will finally ratify Sweden’s NATO membership in October. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has indicated that it is up to the Turkish parliament to ratify Swedish accession. In reality, Erdogan can influence how parliament will vote on the issue, owing to his government’s parliamentary majority. Before Ankara greenlights Swedish accession, however, Erdogan first wants the U.S. Congress to authorize the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. This has been a non-starter for many members of Congress, including erstwhile Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who has expressed numerous objections to the sale. But Ankara hopes that following Menendez’s indictment and subsequent resignation as SFRC chairman, the committee’s new leadership may be more willing to approve the sale.


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