Present at the Restoration
A year and a half-ago I reviewed the Dick Cheney “biopic” Veep. I use “biopic” in parenthesis as normally such a genre involves basic research, interest in the subject, and a minimal effort to understand them as an individual. None of those were present. Instead, what was present was the “Liberal” American view of the preceding decades. One in which everything which had gone wrong was the result of an amorphous conspiracy to “create” problems. The rise of Talk Radio and Fox News was the result of a deliberate plot between Republican politicians and billionaires such as the Koch Brothers in the early 1980s(despite one of the brothers running against Reagan as a Libertarian in 1980. The Iraq war was part of an ideological agenda to establish a unitary executive to do what exactly? This was where the film, and the theory behind it broke down. It was unclear who ended up making money off of Iraq in the end. It was equally unclear why so much effort would expended creating a unitary executive only to hand it over to Barack Obama.
I bring this example up because in many ways it is symbolic of the oppositional nature of the “Liberal” consensus regarding American foreign policy. As a student in late 2000s, I saw firsthand the deep and abiding faith virtually every instructor and veteran of the Clinton years had in America and the Establishment. When things went wrong, it was not because the CIA or FBI or policy-making bodies screwed up. It was because unqualified politicians or conspirators with an agenda overrode them. The peak of this obsession may have lain with the legalistic obsession over whether Iraq had possessed “weapons of mass destruction.” Rather than seriously debating the merits of the concept of regime change, the ideal balance of power for the United States in the region between Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and Israel, or wider cost benefit analysis, the entire political class became bogged down in whether Iraq had nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. The absurdity was the likely meaninglessness of any Iraqi possession of chemical weapons except for domestic rebels.
Equally, the elite convinced themselves that American abrasiveness under the Bush Administration was responsible for poor relations with Russia and China, as well as the wider world. While some truth may have existed with regards to certain European governments, the reality was that the Bush Administration’s personal rapporteur with Vladimir Putin was far superior to anything Obama ever achieved, not least because it was based upon a relationship with Putin, as opposed to trying to build up alternative power centers such as Medvedev.
The simple truth is that the Obama team entered office with a conviction that there was no problem in the world that had not been caused by George W. Bush, and therefore no issue which could not be solved merely by removing George W. Bush and his team from the scene. To their credit, by the middle of their second term in 2014, Obama’s National Security team had learned better. It is perhaps worth noting that this happened after Hillary Clinton departed, which may also say something about her own awareness. But the fact remained that they had entered office with a set of illusions, namely that the problems America faced were the result of active policies rather than merely failures to deal with already existing challenges.
The Obama experience is relevant today for two reasons. First, because Joe Biden’s incoming National Security Team is full of Obama veterans, with Jake Sullivan as National Security Adviser, Tony Blinken as Secretary of State, and Averill Haines, a former CIA Director, to be Director of National Intelligence. Second, because if the belief among many Democrats was that the challenges facing America in 2009 were the results of Bush Administration malpractice, the conviction today that Trump malpractice has eroded America’s relationships around the world is an article of faith.
As in 2009, it is not entirely without basis. Some decisions, such as the withdrawal of the United States from the World Health Organization, turned into diplomatic fiascos, isolating the US rather than China, and reducing American officials to figures of mockery. The clumsy effort to “game” the legal mechanisms of a deal the US withdraw from with great fanfare to coerce European states to reimpose sanctions on Iran seemed almost designed to backfire. As is usual with GOP administrations, the need to appease domestic audiences on abortion led to embarrassing joint statements between the United States and regimes of dubious propriety.
All of these policies can be reversed on or near day one of new Administration. In fact, odds were that they would have been reversed in a second Trump term in any case. It was evident internally even to their strongest advocates that they were failing, and there was widely expected to be a major shakeup of the National Security team if President Trump had won reelection.
Abandoning failing policies is one thing. Developing responses to problems with no clear-cut solutions is another. Contrary to worries in December of 2016 among the outgoing Obama Administration, Donald Trump’s ascension did not lead to a Russo-American entente. On the contrary, the domestic repercussions of the obsession with alleged Russian interference in the 2016 elections so poisoned Russia policy that not only did Russia face increased sanctions, but Russian citizens faced an environment of unprecedented toxicity in the United States for investment. Anyone with a Russian partner or Russian investors suddenly became a potential target of a Rachel Maddow monologue on MSNBC. While the travails of Russian businesspersons are not of particular concern to incoming Biden officials the total lack of a Russia policy is. Furthermore, the climate of anti-Russian hysteria in left-leaning circles is a major obstacle in the way of a creation of one. With many Democrats salivating for vengeance against Moscow, the Biden Administration will find itself in a bind. Not least because America’s anti-Putin policy, followed more or less continuously since 2012, has proven a dead end. Putin is more entrenched than ever, the Russian opposition is more fragmented, while the major winners of the conflict have been China, Turkey, and Iran which have benefited from a situation in which they can count on Russo-American hostility as a matter of course.
Resetting Russo-American relations, not based on dreams of actual amity as motivated the Obama Administration’s 2009 “Reset”, but rather on a resigned recognition of the inevitability of coexistence and the need to cooperate to pursue common interests, will be a prerequisite to any serious effort to tackle the real challenge facing American policy-makers. Namely the rise of China. Xi’s China has been on the march. Since the election, Hong Kong’s political opposition has been all but eliminated, the culmination of a campaign which began with the passage of this summer’s national security law. Leaving aside conspiratorial accusations, China has been the major winner of Covid-19, emerging as an arbiter of the global response and the wider order as the virus has laid low the United States and Europe. Hong Kong is almost certainly lost, but Biden’s team is likely to face a serious crisis when Filipino voters go to the polls to pass judgement on Rodrigo Duterte’s pro-Chinese government. The elections will almost certainly be disputed and involve violence. A victory for Duterte’s followers will all but transform the Philippines into a de-facto one-party state in China’s orbit. Stabilizing the political situation in Malaysia will also be key to preventing total Chinese domination of South East Asia.
Reaching at the very least a modus-vivendi with Moscow is vital to any successful efforts in this regard. Absent such an arrangement, China can distract the United States by encouraging Moscow to promote crisis in Eastern Europe, the Caucuses or Iran, all of which for domestic and sentimental regions will be seen as priorities by US policy-makers. This is not a new outlook. Ironically, it was one advocated by many of the original members of Donald Trump’s National Security team. The need for a genuine “reset” of Russo-American relations has been swallowed in partisan politics and personal hostility for six years. Reviving it will force Biden’s team to confront the left.
Regarding the Middle East, Biden’s team will also face a changed world. . Restoring the Iranian nuclear deal will be hard, but as with Obama’s Russian reset, the entire Iran engagement policy was based on a mistaken belief that Iran’s leaders were driven into domestic repression by external insecurity. As such, it was assumed that removing causes of external insecurity would enable domestic liberalization. The reality is the opposite. As with Putin’s inner circle, Khamenei’s clique is functionally a mafia, one whose interests are economic rather than ideological, and whose wealth is tied to political control. A free media which exposes their economic activities and an independent court system which might call them to account are far greater threats than American sanctions or even bombs. Iran’s recent Majlis(parliamentary) elections saw the effective banning of opposition, and it is widely expected the same will occur with June’s presidential election. Iran is headed the same way as Hong Kong. Biden’s team can try to revive the nuclear deal, but it is not a policy for Iran. The only options are containment or regime change, and functionally those amount to containment until regime change.
Other regional powers recognize this. There is a reason there has been such a rush to normalize relations with Israel by Gulf States which have accepted the permanence of the Iranian and Turkish threats. Or why this extended even after the election to meetings between Netanyahu and the Saudi Crown Prince. The Biden Administration should recognize the achievement these efforts have made and build upon them.
In terms of relations with Israel two, the Trump administration has done Biden’s team a favor, nowhere more so than in the decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. While controversial and unpopular among the left-wing of the Democratic party, the decision was supported in theory by both parties for decades. Furthermore, it was a fait accompli. Having moved the Embassy, it will be next to impossible for any Administration to move the Embassy back. As Israel would never have agreed to any peace agreement that did not recognize Jerusalem as its capital in any case, the presence of the US embassy in Tel Aviv only served to obstruct peace by creating delusions among Palestinians and their supporters abroad that the issue was more up in the air than it actually was, and raising the costs of recognition of the reality of the situation by governments. Biden could never have moved the Embassy, but he never could have pursued any agreement which didn’t move it. Now he can claim it was out of his hands.
The final piece in the region is Turkey. Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump were arguably charmed by the suave Erdogan, and both seem to have recognized, all but too late that this allowed him to run rampant. If there is one thing that can be expected by veterans of Obama’s second term, it is skepticism of the Turkish leader, who is a source of instability in the region.
Continuity or Change?
For all the talk of a “restoration” it seems likely that there will be much greater continuity between the Biden Administration and its predecessor than anyone expects. The challenges America faces are the same, and they involve a world which no longer orbits around the sun of Washington. In 2009, a new administration made the mistake of assuming that all the problems in the world were caused by incorrect policies. In 2021 they cannot afford to repeat that error.