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Biden’s Foreign Policy Team Looks to Repeat a Legacy of Failure

How would the former vice president approach the Middle East as president, and on whose counsel?

Oz Katerji
July 13, 2020
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Alan Bergstein protests against the nuclear deal reached with Iran before U.S. Vice President Joe Biden meets with Jewish community leaders at the David Posnack Jewish Community Center to discuss the deal, Sept. 3, 2015Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Alan Bergstein protests against the nuclear deal reached with Iran before U.S. Vice President Joe Biden meets with Jewish community leaders at the David Posnack Jewish Community Center to discuss the deal, Sept. 3, 2015Joe Raedle/Getty Images

While Joe Biden continues to build a decisive polling lead against President Donald Trump, the policy challenges facing the former vice president should he win the U.S. presidential election in November are daunting and manifold. At home, the next president inherits a country facing rising economic inequality, widespread and systematic racial injustice, and a health care system that falls far below the standards expected of a small European liberal democracy, let alone the most powerful economy in the world. Abroad, while the beginning of the last decade was marked by the rise of movements for liberal democratic reforms, the start of this decade is marked by the ascendency of the tyrants that crushed them.

But if Biden’s team does win, how would they plan to tackle some of the biggest foreign policy issues facing the world today, and how would that approach differ from previous administrations? The evidence so far suggests more of the same. A Biden White House faces not just the prospect of an era of empowered authoritarians and an impending climate crisis, but also a world in which the office of the American presidency has been so farcically undermined and humiliated that its ability to credibly mediate on the world stage has evaporated.

But let’s be clear, it is irresponsible to blame the gradual erosion of the post-WWII liberal democratic order solely on Donald Trump’s single term as U.S. president, no matter how much his administration bears responsibility for mutilating it beyond all recognition with debacles like the Ukraine scandal and the ignominious withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords. And while George W. Bush’s fraudulent Iraq casus belli set the course for many of the problems in the decades to come, the Obama administration that Biden served in also bears significant responsibility for the collapse of Pax Americana.

It was under Obama’s watch that Bashar Assad burnt Syria to the ground and Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. The Obama administration’s policies in Syria and Ukraine were a disaster that handed victory after victory to Putin, none more so than the total abdication of responsibility following the crossing of Obama’s own chemical-weapons “red line.”

Even the much-vaunted Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Obama’s defining foreign policy legacy, while seeking to use diplomacy to prevent a future war with Iran over its imagined potential ability to build a nuclear weapon, was signed by largely ignoring its very real ability to cause untold human suffering through conventional slaughter, further fueling the fires burning in Syria and Iraq.

Speaking last week on whether Biden’s team had learned anything from the Iran deal and its impact on the region, former U.S. special envoy to Syria, Ambassador Frederic Hof said, “the Obama administration and in particular with the president, there was faith in the proposition that by signing the nuclear agreement, Iran would begin to modify its other regional policies. Many of us believed from the beginning that this was false, that it was not going to happen. And I think it’s a lesson learned.”

One of the principal architects of the Iran deal, Colin Kahl, has taken on the Iran file for Biden’s foreign policy team. Kahl’s appointment likely signals a reversal of Trump’s maximum pressure policy and, at least in policy terms, an attempt to return to the JCPOA, but is there any real evidence that lessons have been learned? While it’s important not to read too much into social media reactions, Kahl’s smug social media post following the assassination of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, stating, “In death, Soleimani accomplished one of his ultimate objectives: getting the US kicked out of Iraq,” displays a worrying naivete, not just of internal Iraqi politics, but also of his own brief. Just what did he think his own administration’s policy was towards Iraq?

A thread posted by Kahl in January laid bare the moral bankruptcy of the previous administration’s failed Middle Eastern pivot, as Kahl concedes “there is no question that Iran’s military spending went up by a few billion after the JCPOA,” before concluding that the best strategy should be “playing the long game to counter their influence in places like Iraq and Lebanon through engagement and institution building.”

Leaving aside the heartlessness of “playing the long game” in countries already devastated by war and dominated by Iran-backed militias, if they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, Kahl’s approach to curbing Iranian aggression in the Middle East is certifiable madness.

The direct role of Iran-backed militias in the brutal killings of hundreds of Iraqi protesters last year, or the wave of assassinations they are responsible for in the region, including the murder of Iraqi security expert Hisham al-Hashimi, cannot be understated. Iran is the one building institutions in the Middle East, and what Kahl fails to see is that while his camp are desperately looking for permanent ways out of the Middle East, Iran, Russia and others are looking for permanent ways in. All the good intentions in the world won’t change that, and neither will the failed diplomacy of the Obama administration’s approach to the JCPOA.

Antony Blinken, then U.S. deputy secretary of state, in Tunisia, April, 2015
Antony Blinken, then U.S. deputy secretary of state, in Tunisia, April, 2015FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images

Biden’s senior foreign policy adviser Antony Blinken also acknowledged the Obama administration’s failures in Syria in a recent interview with CBS, saying, “the last administration has to acknowledge that we failed, not for want of trying, but we failed.” But Blinken also reaffirmed Biden’s position on the JCPOA, saying, “if Iran comes back into compliance with the deal, then yes, Joe Biden said we would do the same thing.”

Leaving aside whether the JCPOA can be meaningfully returned to following Trump’s sanctions and the assassination of Soleimani, there have been no significant, publicly made foreign policy proposals from Biden’s team on how they would handle the conflicts in Syria and Iraq differently from the last two administrations.

The issues facing a Biden administration are far greater than just Iran. India’s Narendra Modi has effectively annexed parts of Indian-administered Kashmir, Israel’s Netanyahu has vowed to annex the Jordan Valley, China’s Xi Jinping is running the largest network of concentration camps since WWII for the mass internment of Uighur Muslims, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin has put bounties on the heads of American servicemen.

Biden’s strained relationship with traditional U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, particularly and justifiably with regards to their human rights records, also presents new dilemmas. It’s hard to envisage feasible humanitarian solutions to the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen without seeking major diplomatic concessions from Ankara and Riyadh. While Biden’s ability to recognize the failures of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia is a positive sign, it presents new policy challenges, particularly while Moscow and Beijing continue to court nation states with no similar qualms on human rights.

Speaking to Arab American activists last week, Middle East Eye reported that Blinken laid out some of Biden’s approach to the Middle East, including reaffirmation of support for a two-state solution, and upholding “human rights and democratic principles” in dealing with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Biden’s approach, as Blinken puts it, is to “create an environment where all people across the Middle East can aspire and actually live in dignity, prosperity and peace.” While that sounds wonderful on paper, it seems hard to understand how that is achieved by suddenly finding the “principles” many of these same officials lacked when the Obama administration continued supporting Egyptian dictator Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi after the Rabaa Square massacre. It is even harder to understand how solely rethinking relationships with traditional U.S. partners will create those conditions in a region threatened by a diverse range of state and non-state actors.

The postwar liberal consensus has been disintegrating for decades. Whether America chooses to lead from the front or collapses inwards into isolationism, the conditions that threaten liberal democratic values are becoming rapidly entrenched. The reality is that the Joe Bidens of this world are no longer running the show, and the Jair Bolsonaros and Rodrigo Dutertes of this world are the ones that have consolidated power.

Biden’s other problem on foreign policy comes not from the rise of global authoritarianism and America’s diminished credibility, but from the left flank of his own party. While Biden may have comfortably beaten Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary race, a resurgent American left looks set to continue to play a role in U.S. electoral politics and Democratic Party policy for the decades to come.

After winning the Democratic nomination, Foreign Policy reported that Biden’s campaign held policy discussions with Sanders’ foreign policy team, including his senior foreign policy adviser Matt Duss, who later spoke in positive terms about Biden’s policies toward Iran.

Duss, a vocal critic of the D.C. foreign policy establishment that his admirer, the prominent Obama national security adviser Ben Rhodes, calls “the Blob,” has stated in the past that America needs “to rethink the entire premise that U.S. global military hegemony is necessary to keep us safe and prosperous.”

Duss’ sentiments are not unique and are echoed by many Americans, and on many issues, such as the U.S. role in the war in Yemen, Duss speaks with a clear human rights-based approach. However from Duss’ writing on Syria in 2011, it is clear he misidentifies what the real problem has been with D.C. foreign policy over the years, and his own role in it.

“There is frankly little the United States can do to directly impact the situation on the ground in Syria, and so the strategy is to try and create the conditions for the most positive possible outcome, while carefully guarding against the most negative,” wrote Duss for the Center for American Progress in August 2011.

Six months into Assad’s butchering of Syria in 2011, long before the emergence of Islamist militias, long before the use of chemical weapons, long before the death toll had spiraled into the hundreds of thousands, Duss’ foreign policy instincts were that nothing could be done to stop the slaughter that followed, a resounding endorsement of what was ultimately Obama’s most damning foreign policy legacy. Duss’ supposedly new progressive foreign policy looks little different from the last.

The problem that Duss, Rhodes, Kahl, and anyone else who hopes to influence America’s approach to foreign policy challenges in a post-Trump world is that reducing “U.S. global military hegemon,” is also a stated foreign policy objective for Tehran, Beijing, and Moscow.

The failure to understand that what they might rightly call military hegemony is that American lives are not the only ones impacted by that foreign policy reality. Keeping “us” safe isn’t the issue, it’s the perspective that America should have the fundamental responsibility to protect civilians from harm that has been lost.

It’s hard not to keep coming back to Syria, because if your policy platform cannot at least begin to address the single greatest Western foreign policy failure in the 21st century, it stands no hope of addressing the problems to come. No matter how well-meaning America’s policy intentions might have been, its withdrawal from the Middle East and its failed attempts at diplomacy with Iran and Russia have had disastrous consequences for the lives of millions of people in the region.

Iranian-backed paramilitaries effectively control huge swaths of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, while Russia has become growingly entrenched in Libya, with its GRU-linked Wagner paramilitary spreading its operations from the Levant to central Africa.

The sad reality is none of these issues are even high up on the Biden team’s agenda. Biden represents an America that is tired of the wars in the Middle East, and wants them to be someone else’s problem. Unfortunately for those in the region, the world’s worst monsters are vying to fill that vacuum.

A Biden White House faces impossible odds from day one, but if his team stand any chance of confronting them, they need to start by correctly identifying the mistakes of the past. The real rot in D.C. isn’t an overabundance of liberal humanitarian interventionism, it’s the idea that you can fix the problems of the world by repeating the same failed policies. For the Democrats, their mistake under Obama was the idea that you can effectively tame a lion with nothing but carrots, and no matter how many good intentions Biden’s team has, the lions are already at the gate.

Oz Katerji is a writer, journalist, and filmmaker with a focus on the Middle East. His Twitter feed is @OzKaterji.