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By Habib Siddiqui 1 February 2023
Former U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates wrote in his memoir, Duty, that Joe Biden has been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” For progressives, “Biden appears to be a man of the past: an unapologetic champion of American exceptionalism,” Foreign Policy reported in June 2020.
Many insiders who had worked closely with Mr. Biden would beg to differ on such assertions.
When Biden took office as the US president, he was confronted with a variety of global crises and a deeply divided country left behind by his predecessor. On January 20, 2021, on his first day in office, President Biden signed the instrument to bring the United States back into the Paris Agreement. Per the terms of the Agreement, the United States officially becomes a Party again. Climate change and science diplomacy will never again be “add-ons” in US foreign policy discussions.
In his inaugural speech, Biden promised that US will “lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example,” and that US “will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security.” He challenged fellow Americans to ensure that “democracy and hope, truth and justice, did not die on our watch but thrived; that our America secured liberty at home and stood once again as a beacon to the world.”
Within days, it became clear how America should operate abroad. Much to the delight of the NATO and EU partners, here was the reorientation of the Trump-era isolationist and arrogant ‘America first’ US policy to ‘America is back’ policy.
In the words of Matthew Duss, a visiting scholar in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Biden and his advisers understood important realities—that a diminishing share of global power limited what the United States could accomplish; that decades of corporate-led trade policies have diminished the livelihoods of too many Americans; and that climate change, pandemic preparedness, and anti-corruption are central national security challenges. He was also responsive to a growing constituency in the Democratic Party calling for a less militaristic international posture, and broader dissatisfaction in the country with 20 years of the expensive and destabilizing global war on terrorism.”
President Biden pulled out American forces, stationed in Afghanistan, from what has been aptly described as America’s ‘forever war.’ There was no better face-saving way to pull out of a country that has long been known to be ‘the graveyard of empires’ after losing the two-decades long war to the Taliban.
Biden reduced U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, ramping up diplomatic efforts to end the war. However, if he wants to stick to his pre-presidential promises, Biden needs to end all support for the Saudi war.
His administration broke its promise to swiftly reenter the Iran nuclear deal, and now faces the possibility of getting no deal at all.
He cautiously responded to the Ukraine Crisis by arming the Ukraine military. It was for a just and noble cause. With U.S. support, Ukraine has preserved its independence—without the U.S. military fighting Russian troops, a war that must be avoided between the two superpowers.
Democrats’ 2020 platform sought to redefine national security and “place values at the center of our foreign policy.” But so far this has not been reflected in Biden’s policies. The Biden administration continues to castigate U.S. adversaries for lack of democracy and human rights but gives a pass to America’s egregiously repressive partners, such as Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Last year when veteran Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was fatally shot while covering an Israeli military operation in the West Bank, the US determined that gunfire from the Israeli military was “likely responsible” for Abu Akleh’s death. Palestinian officials and members of Abu Akleh’s family have criticized the US probe and have urged the US to do more to hold Israel accountable for the killing. Footage obtained by CNN – corroborated by testimony from eight eyewitnesses, an audio forensic analyst and an explosive weapons expert – suggested that Abu Akleh, who was wearing a helmet and blue protective vest marked “Press” at the time of her killing, was shot dead in a targeted attack by Israeli forces.
It is worth noting here that in 2022, at least 220 people died in Israeli attacks across the occupied territories, including 48 children. Of the total death toll, 167 were from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and 53 were from the Gaza Strip. Last Thursday (January 26, 2023), the Israeli forces killed nine Palestinians (including an elderly woman) and wounded several others in the West Bank city of Jenin. Hours after the Jenin raid, a tenth Palestinian was killed in what Israel Police called a “violent disturbance” near Jerusalem. The death toll makes Thursday the deadliest day for Palestinians in the West Bank in over a year. It brings the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces this month to 35 (including 8 children), according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health figures.
A day after the raid, a Palestinian shooter near a synagogue outside of Jerusalem killed seven people and injured three more. The action was lauded as “a response to the crime performed by the occupation in Jenin and a natural response to the occupation’s criminal deeds,” by a spokesman for the Islamist movement Hamas.
The apartheid state continues to inflict collective punishment of home demolition of Palestinian suspects’ families.
Its latest unprovoked drone attack inside Iran last Saturday (January 28, 2023), just two days after the U.S. and Israel concluded their largest ever set of war games and on the eve of US Secretary Blinken’s trip to Israel, speaks volumes that such criminal acts are endorsed by the Biden administration.
Like his predecessors, Biden will continue to be a trusted ally of Israel despite her horrendous crimes against and repression of the Palestinian people. And so is the ‘Amen Corner’ inside the Capitol Hill, which remains the Zionist state’s trump card. US presidents may come and go. Expecting any policy change vis-à-vis Israel is foolish.
A rare bright spot in Biden’s otherwise blind eye for human rights abuses by Israel came when the administration blacklisted Israel’s NSO Group for supplying spyware used by authoritarian regimes to target human rights activists and journalists. As noted by Matthew Duss, if the Biden administration is serious about supporting human rights, it will need to pick more fights like this one. He opines that America’s lack of credibility as a rule-follower may be one reason why many countries in the global south have hesitated to join the coalition backing Ukraine.
Mindful of balancing China’s fast-growing influence in Asia-Pacific region, the Biden administration has strengthened ties with Narendra Modi’s government whose bigotry-ridden policies have bolstered Hindutvadi fascists to lynch Muslims and demolish their homes, businesses, and mosques. Even the historical mosques are not immune from being demolished by the BJP-run state apparatuses. In the Indian state of Gujarat alone, some 500 mosques and Muslim shrines have been demolished to date. What a laughingstock Indian secularism has become!
The Biden administration has not chastised Modi’s government for such gross violations of human rights. Nor did it punish India for buying Russian oil. It must score better by walking the talk to allay doubts about Biden’s commitment for world peace, democracy and hope, truth and justice.
Mike Tyson, the legendary boxer, famously said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” before his fight in 1997 with Evander Holyfield, when he was asked if he was worried about his opponent’s plans.
What is the U.S. national strategy in matters of security under the Biden administration?
On 12 October 2022 the White House released its National Security Strategy (NSS), which detailed the country’s international interests and policies. It came at a time when the risk of conflict between major powers is increasing, and democracies and autocracies are engaged in a contest to show which system of governance can best deliver for their people and the world. It recognizes that the quality of American democracy at home affects the strength and credibility of American leadership abroad.
The NSS report outlines how the Biden Administration will advance America’s vital interests, position the United States to “outmaneuver” her “geopolitical competitors, tackle shared challenges, and set our world firmly on a path toward a brighter and more hopeful tomorrow.”
It promises that “Americans will support universal human rights and stand in solidarity with those beyond our shores who seek freedom and dignity, just as we continue the critical work of ensuring equity and equal treatment under law at home. We will work to strengthen democracy around the world because democratic governance consistently outperforms authoritarianism in protecting human dignity, leads to more prosperous and resilient societies, creates stronger and more reliable economic and security partners for the United States, and encourages a peaceful world order.”
The five key takeaways from the report are: (1) China – the biggest ‘geopolitical challenge’, (2) constraining Russia, (3) countering Iran, (4) ironclad commitment to Israel, and (5) maintaining and increasing international cooperation on shared challenges.
In a speech discussing the NSS, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said, “Transnational challenges that do not respect borders or adhere to ideologies” – including climate change (which is described as the ‘existential challenge of our time’), diseases and food insecurity – represent a major strategic challenge for Washington.
“Around the world, the need for American leadership is as great as it has ever been,” the report claims, because “no nation is better positioned to lead with strength and purpose than the United States of America.” It pronounces that “we must proactively shape the international order in line with our interests and values.” It promises, “We will not leave our future vulnerable to the whims of those who do not share our vision for a world that is free, open, prosperous, and secure.” “Our strategy is rooted in our national interests: to protect the security of the American people; to expand economic prosperity and opportunity; and to realize and defend the democratic values at the heart of the American way of life,” the report states.
No one within the Biden administration expects another 9/11 type crisis to occur in the American mainland. America’s greatest security threats in recent years have come from domestic terrorism, white supremacy, and gun violence. Despite the focus on such domestic issues, global dominance or at least primacy will remain an integral part of U.S. national identity. Nor will liberal and democratic ideology be retired as a major driver of U.S. foreign policy. The Biden administration will thus continue to use values as a glue to further consolidate its allies and as a weapon to attack its adversaries. It helps the White House to portray authoritarian regimes in countries like China and Russia, viewed as main adversaries, negatively both across the U.S. political spectrum and among its allies and partners.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has allowed the Biden administration to take up such a global challenge by stepping back from styling itself as the world’s benign hegemon to assume the combat posture of the leader of the West under attack. The NSS report said, “We will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine as they fight back against Russia’s naked aggression… And we will rally the world to hold Russia accountable for the atrocities they have unleashed across Ukraine.” “The United States will not allow Russia, or any power, to achieve its objectives through using, or threatening to use, nuclear weapons,” the document reads.
What’s needed is the realization that the Cold-War zero-sum mentality and escalation of geopolitical rivalries and trade wars harm not just those living outside but also those who live inside the USA. Food insecurity has been one of the major drivers for the unprecedented migration taking place in our time.
According to Matthew Duss, “Biden should return his focus to the priorities Democrats identified in 2020, rooted in the country’s enduring needs. Otherwise, Biden could pass down an even more costly and risky U.S. foreign policy than he inherited, setting up the next generation of Americans to face the regular prospect of catastrophic war and democratic decay, all while the planet burns.”
In the end, it’s the success or failure of reshaping America, and not Iraq or Afghanistan, that will determine not just the legacy of the Biden administration, but the future of the United States itself.
Will President Joe Biden prove Bob Gates wrong?