The Biden presidency is still in its early days, but it’s not too early to point to areas in the foreign policy realm where we, as progressives, have been disappointed — or even infuriated.
There are one or two positive developments, such as the renewal of Barack Obama’s New START Treaty with Russia and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s initiative for a UN-led peace process in Afghanistan, where the United States is finally turning to peace as a last resort, after 20 years lost in the graveyard of empires.
By and large, though, President Joe Biden’s foreign policy already seems stuck in the militarist quagmire of the past 20 years, a far cry from his campaign promise to reinvigorate diplomacy as the primary tool of US foreign policy. In this respect, Biden is following in the footsteps of Obama and Donald Trump, who both promised fresh approaches to foreign policy but, for the most part, delivered more endless war.
Biden’s New Culture of Brinkmanship
By the end of his second term, Obama did have two significant diplomatic achievements with the signing of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 and the normalization of relations with Cuba in 2014. So, progressive Americans who voted for Biden had some grounds to hope that his experience as Obama’s vice-president would lead him to quickly restore and build on the achievements of his former boss with Iran and Cuba as a foundation for the broader diplomacy he promised.
Instead, the Biden administration seems firmly entrenched behind the walls of hostility Trump built between America and its neighbors — from his renewed Cold War against China and Russia to his brutal sanctions against Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, Syria and dozens of countries around the world. There is also still no word on cuts to a military budget that keeps on growing.
Despite endless Democratic condemnations of Trump, President Biden’s foreign policy so far shows no substantive change from the policies of the past four years. Here are 10 of the lowlights.
1) Rejoining the Iran Nuclear Agreement
The administration’s failure to immediately rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — aka the Iran nuclear deal — as Senator Bernie Sanders promised to do if he had become president, has turned an easy win for Biden’s promised commitment to diplomacy into an entirely avoidable diplomatic crisis.
Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018 and the imposition of brutal “maximum pressure” sanctions on Iran were broadly condemned by Democrats and US allies alike. But now, Biden is making new demands on Iran to appease hawks who opposed the agreement all along, risking an outcome in which he will fail to reinstate the JCPOA. As a result, Trump’s policy will effectively become Biden’s policy. The administration should reenter the deal immediately, without preconditions.
2) Waging Bombing Campaigns
Also following in Trump’s footsteps, Biden has escalated tensions with Iran and Iraq by attacking and killing Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria who played a critical role in the war against the Islamic State (IS) group. US airstrikes have predictably failed to end rocket attacks on deeply unpopular American bases in Iraq, which the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution to close over a year ago.
US attacks in Syria have been condemned as illegal by members of Biden’s own party, reinvigorating efforts to repeal the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force that presidents have misused for 20 years. Other airstrikes the Biden administration is conducting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are shrouded in secrecy, since it has not resumed publishing the monthly airpower summaries that every administration has published since 2004 but which Trump discontinued in 2020.
3) Refusing to Hold Mohammed bin Salman Accountable
Human rights activists were grateful that President Biden released the intelligence report on the gruesome murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi that confirmed what we already knew: that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman approved the killing. Yet when it came to holding him accountable, Biden choked.
At the very least, the administration could have imposed the same sanctions on Mohammed bin Salman, including asset freezes and travel bans, that the US imposed on lower-level figures involved in the murder. Instead, like Trump, Biden is wedded to the Saudi dictatorship and its diabolical crown prince.
4) Recognizing Juan Guaido as President of Venezuela
The Biden administration missed an opportunity to establish a new approach toward Venezuela when it decided to continue to recognize Juan Guaido as “interim president,” ruled out talks with the Maduro government and appeared to be freezing out the moderate opposition that participates in elections.
The administration also said it was in “no rush” to lift the Trump sanctions. This was despite a recent study from the Government Accountability Office detailing the negative impact of sanctions on the economy and a scathing preliminary report by UN Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan, who noted their “devastating effect on the whole population of Venezuela.” The lack of dialogue with all political actors in Venezuela risks entrenching a policy of regime change and economic warfare for years to come, similar to the failed US policy toward Cuba that has lasted for 60 years.
5) Following Trump on Cuba Instead of Obama
On Cuba, the Trump administration overturned all the progress toward normal relations achieved by President Obama. This included sanctioning the Cuban tourism and energy industries, blocking coronavirus aid shipments, restricting remittances to family members, putting Cuba on a list of “state sponsors of terrorism,” and sabotaging the country’s international medical missions, which were a major source of revenue for its health system.
We expected Biden to immediately start unraveling Trump’s confrontational policies. But catering to Cuban exiles in Florida for domestic political gain apparently takes precedence over a humane and rational policy toward Cuba.
Biden should instead start working with the Cuban government to allow the return of diplomats to their respective embassies, lift all restrictions on remittances, make travel easier and work with the Cuban health system in the fight against COVID-19, among other measures.
6) Ramping Up the Cold War With China
Biden seems committed to Trump’s self-defeating Cold War and arms race with China, talking tough and ratcheting up tensions that have led to racist hate crimes against East Asian people in the United States.
But it is the US that is militarily surrounding and threatening China, not the other way round. As former President Jimmy Carter patiently explained to Trump, while the United States has been at war for 20 years, China has instead invested in 21st-century infrastructure and in its own people, lifting 800 million of them out of poverty.
The greatest danger of this moment in history, short of all-out nuclear war, is that this aggressive military posture not only justifies unlimited US military budgets, but it will gradually force China to convert its economic success into military power and follow the Americans down the tragic path of military imperialism.
7) Failing to Lift Sanctions During a Pandemic
One of the legacies of the Trump administration is the devastating use of US sanctions on countries around the world, including Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea and Syria. UN officials have condemned them as “crimes against humanity” and compared them to “medieval sieges.”
Since most of these sanctions were imposed by executive order, President Biden could easily lift them. Even before taking power, his team announced a thorough review, but months later, it has yet to make a move.
Unilateral sanctions that affect entire populations are an illegal form of coercion — like military intervention, coups and covert operations — that have no place in a legitimate foreign policy based on diplomacy, the rule of law and the peaceful resolution of disputes. They are especially cruel and deadly during a pandemic, and the Biden administration should take immediate action by lifting broad sectoral sanctions to ensure every country can adequately respond to the health crisis.
8) Doing Enough for Yemen
Biden appeared to partially fulfill his promise to stop US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen when he announced that the US would stop selling “offensive” weapons to Saudi Arabia. But he has yet to explain what that means. Which weapons sales has he canceled?
We think he should stop all weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, enforcing the Leahy Law, which prohibits military assistance to forces that commit “gross human rights violations,” and the Arms Export Control Act, under which imported US weapons may be used only for legitimate self-defense. There should be no exceptions to these US laws for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, Egypt or other allies around the world.
The US should also accept its share of responsibility for what many have called the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today, and provide Yemen with funding to feed its people, restore its health care system and rebuild its devastated country. A recent donor conference netted just $1.7 billion in pledges, less than half the $3.85 billion needed. Biden should restore and expand funding for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and American financial support to the UN, the World Health Organization and World Food Program relief operations in Yemen. He should also press the Saudis to reopen the air and seaports and throw US diplomatic weight behind the efforts of UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths to negotiate a ceasefire.
9) Backing Diplomacy With North Korea
Trump’s failure to provide sanctions relief and explicit security guarantees to North Korea doomed his diplomacy. It became an obstacle to the diplomatic process underway between Korean leaders Kim Jong-un of North Korea and Moon Jae-in of South Korea. So far, Biden has continued this policy of Draconian sanctions and threats.
The Biden administration should revive the diplomatic process with confidence-building measures. This includes opening liaison offices, easing sanctions, facilitating reunions between Korean-American and North Korean families, permitting US humanitarian organizations to resume their work when COVID-19 conditions permit, and halting US-South Korea military exercises and B-2 nuclear bomb flights.
Negotiations must involve concrete commitments to non-aggression from the US side and a commitment to negotiating a peace agreement to formally end the Korean War. This would pave the way for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and the reconciliation that so many Koreans desire and deserve.
10) Reducing Military Spending
At the end of the Cold War, former senior Pentagon officials told the Senate Budget Committee that U.S. military spending could safely be cut by half over the next 10 years. That goal was never achieved. Instead of a post-Cold War “peace dividend,” the military-industrial complex exploited the crimes of September 11, 2001, to justify an extraordinary one-sided arms race. Between 2003 and 2011, the US accounted for nearly half of global military spending, far outstripping its own peak during the Cold War.
Now, the military-industrial complex is counting on Biden to escalate a renewed Cold War with Russia and China as the only plausible pretext for further record military budgets that are setting the stage for World War III.
Biden must dial back US conflicts with China and Russia and instead begin the critical task of moving money from the Pentagon to urgent domestic needs. He should start with at least the 10% cut that 93 representatives and 23 senators already voted for in 2020. In the longer term, Biden should look for deeper cuts in Pentagon spending, as in Representative Barbara Lee’s bill to cut $350 billion per year from the US military budget, to free up resources we sorely need to invest in health care, education, clean energy and modern infrastructure.
A Progressive Way Forward
These policies, common to Democratic and Republican administrations, not only inflict pain and suffering on millions of our neighbors in other countries, but they also deliberately cause instability that can at any time escalate into war, plunge a formerly functioning state into chaos or spawn a secondary crisis whose human consequences will be even worse than the original one.
All these policies involve deliberate efforts to unilaterally impose the political will of US leaders on other people and countries, by methods that consistently only cause more pain and suffering to the people they claim — or pretend — they want to help.
President Biden should jettison the worst of Obama’s and Trump’s policies and instead pick the best of them. Trump, recognizing the unpopularity of US military interventions, began the process of bringing American troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq, which Biden should follow through on.
Obama’s diplomatic successes with Cuba, Iran and Russia demonstrated that negotiating with US enemies to make peace, improve relations and make the world a safer place is a perfectly viable alternative to trying to force them to do what the United States wants by bombing, starving and besieging their people. This is, in fact, the core principle of the United Nations Charter, and it should be the core principle of Biden’s foreign policy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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