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Has a president who promised to put diplomacy first become defined by wars?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden entered the White House on a promise - to change America's relationships with the world after a Donald Trump presidency.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.

FADEL: In the nearly three years since Biden made that speech at the State Department, Russia invaded Ukraine; Hamas attacked Israel; and Israel began its punishing monthslong response in Gaza. And most recently, the U.S. began striking at Houthi targets in Yemen in retaliation for their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. The Houthis say they won't stop until Israel stops its attacks on Gaza. So has a president who promised to put diplomacy first now become defined by wars? William Wechsler is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, now the senior director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council, and he joins us this morning from Bahrain. Good morning, William.

WILLIAM WECHSLER: Good morning.

FADEL: Well, I was thinking about this question on whether Biden is now a president defined by war when he redesignated the Houthis as a terrorist group this week because one of the first things he did when he talked about diplomacy being at the center of U.S. foreign policy is reversed the Trump-era designation of the Yemeni Houthis so that aid could get to people dealing with famine there. Now he's redesignated them. There are the strikes on the Houthis in the last week or so. Does this all indicate a pivot in strategy by the Biden administration?

WECHSLER: I don't think so, actually. I see the Biden administration putting diplomacy first, but doing it in the context of a whole-of-government approach to national security. And part of that government are tools like the military and tools like the Treasury sanctioning authorities. We've seen that in Ukraine. We saw that in dealing with al-Qaida, and we're seeing that now dealing with the Houthis.

FADEL: Now, the Biden administration has been drawn into the Middle East in a way that maybe the focus hadn't been planned. I mean, how much of this did Biden just have to deal with? I mean, he's a president that has had to deal with, now, at least two wars.

WECHSLER: By my count, Biden is the fifth-straight president who came into office wanting to do less in the Middle East and spend less time on the Middle East than his predecessors. And every single one of them leaves office realizing that they, indeed, had to spend a disproportionate amount of time to this relatively small amount of the globe. And the reason is quite simple. It's U.S. interests. It's U.S. interest in freedom of navigation. It's U.S. interest in energy. It's U.S. interest in relative security and stability in a critical region that matters to many people outside the region.

FADEL: So that approach of trying to disengage, I mean, has that proven a failure if the U.S. keeps getting drawn in? Should there be a generally different approach?

WECHSLER: The United States doesn't have any option other than to stay engaged in the Middle East. The question is always how you stay engaged. I mean, just to put one fact in front of your audience is there are eight maritime checkpoints in the entire world that are critical to world trade, that we all depend on for our livelihoods in one way or the other. One is in Europe. One is in the Western Hemisphere. One is in Africa. And one is in East Asia. But four are in the small area where Asia meets Europe meets Africa that we call the Middle East.

FADEL: Yeah. And let's talk about isolation, though. I mean, Biden was very much speaking in 2021 about reestablishing relationships with allies. This war between Israel and Hamas, though, has it made the U.S. more isolated in the region because of Biden's stance?

WECHSLER: It's definitely posed challenges. There's no question about that. Biden, in my view, deserves credit for the strength of his position and the consistency of his position across his entire career, really. But it also demonstrates the centrality of U.S. diplomacy. Secretary of State Tony Blinken was recently in the region meeting with virtually every country that's relevant to this issue. And those meetings are some of the most important diplomacy that's happening around the war right now.

FADEL: William Wechsler is the senior director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council. Thank you so much for your time.

WECHSLER: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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