When any new US president is inaugurated, especially when there is a change of party, the world expects some kind of serious change. Despite the fact that since 1992 every change of president has seen a change of the party in power, continuity has been the most consistent feature of those moments of transition. Every president has to embody change without betraying a system that insists on remaining permanent.
Over the next few months, observers will be wondering how President Joe Biden intends to play the game of balancing change and continuity, especially after Donald Trump’s radical attempt to rewrite the rules of the game. One of the key issues on which Trump carried out his fanatical zeal was the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known as the Iran deal.
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Biden’s team has affirmed its intention to rejoin the nuclear deal, breaking with Trump and returning to Barack Obama’s status quo. But voices in the Biden administration have indicated that it will only happen if there is a significant change in the terms, which was also Trump’s position. As speculation mounts concerning Biden’s intentions, Al Jazeera offers the following subtitle to an article on the JCPOA: “Iranian foreign ministry says deal ‘unchangeable’ after French President Macron calls for talks to include Saudi Arabia.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Not subject to the normal practice of politicians, which consists of exploiting every absurd pretext available to them in a political game to move the goalposts before restarting a game that they have themselves interrupted
Trump, the former US president, promised change and to a certain extent delivered it. The most significant change in US foreign policy he managed to accomplish was sowing confusion across the globe by practicing an incomprehensible policy labeled “America First.” When applied to the Middle East and led by his viceroy and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, it could have been called “Israel first.” This included some serious initiatives such as moving the US Embassy to Tel Aviv, endorsing the colonization of the Golan Heights, consolidating a kind of triumvirate of interests between the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and positioning Israel as an indefectible ally and trading partner of the Sunni oil states in the Gulf, thereby undermining the traditional obligation of Arab states to show solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
Withdrawing from the JCPOA in 2018 was an important component of Trump’s Israel first policy. For Trump, withdrawing from the deal was the ultimate symbol of his break with the politics of the Obama administration. Many assume that it will be the emblematic symbol of the Biden administration’s rupture with the Trump era. But it turns out to be far more complicated than just returning to the status quo ante Trump. Whether it’s the consequence of President Biden’s timidity or the success of Trump’s nationalistic propaganda, the Biden team appears to feel bound to imposing new conditions, perhaps to prove that Biden is not just a duplicate of Obama. Israeli interests play a role in that repositioning.
The easiest route for a Democratic president would be to apologize for Trump’s hubris, call the whole thing a mistake and proclaim the USA’s good faith by quietly returning to the deal on the same terms after that inadvertent interruption. But to be credible, American presidents must show they are tough. True tough guys don’t bend to the other party’s terms even when they are the one that betrayed all the other partners’ trust. Tough guys require compensation for their willingness to make a friendly gesture.
Curiously, French President Emmanuel Macron has stepped in to play a secondary tough guy role by casually insisting that Saudi Arabia should now be associated with the deal, a proposition that makes no sense at all. Macron has several good reasons to appear as a tough guy. He has an election coming up next year where he is pitted against the xenophobic Marine Le Pen. Part of his strategy in recent months has been to demonstrate that with Arabs and Muslims he’s capable of being a tough guy. He helpfully instructed the Muslim world in November 2020 that Islam was in crisis, just in case Muslims themselves hadn’t noticed.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, struck back with this cutting response: “If the French authorities are worried about selling their huge cargoes of arms to the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, it is better to reconsider their policies.” The Iranians cannot have missed the fact that Macron offered his remarks not to the signatories of the agreement or even to his own French media, but to the Saudi TV channel, Al Arabiya. Khatibzadeh was spot on about Macron’s real motive.
Since 1992, the departure of every sitting US president has always been followed by the arrival of a president from the opposing party. In 2001, Republican George W. Bush promised to reign as a “compassionate conservative,” a strategy designed to reassure the nation and create a sense of continuity with the Democrat, Bill Clinton. Bush subsequently demonstrated the full extent of his compassion by offering massive tax breaks to the rich and then going to war with a major portion of humanity.
Democrat Barack Obama owed his election to the enthusiasm of voters who rallied behind his theme of “hope and change” and his opposition to Bush’s wars in the Middle East. The Nobel committee was so impressed it immediately awarded Obama the Nobel Peace Prize. Once in action, “hope and change” oddly morphed into “pretty much the same thing,” but with better PR than the Bush-Cheney team. That consolidated a different kind of change, within the Democratic Party itself, which now felt totally comfortable embracing the traditional free market ideology of the Republicans. It fulfilled the trend that Clinton had launched in the 1990s.
Obama, the peace candidate of 2008 who defeated the hawkish wife of Bill Clinton in the Democratic primaries, became the US president who dropped the most bombs on foreign countries. Under the Espionage Act, he arrested more of the whistleblowers he had promised to protect than all other presidents combined. He installed and defended a profoundly military conception of US democracy, which extended to the militarizing of urban law enforcement, to the extreme detriment of the black community. His practical understanding of change was to shift as far away from his campaign promises as possible.
Donald Trump presented himself in the 2016 election as the ultimate outlier. To win over the voters disappointed by Obama’s policies, he promised to change everything. He definitely changed the idea of presidential style and its methods of communication. Trump promised much more, such as draining the swamp and bringing home US troops after ending the wars. He did neither. Instead, the institutions of the US found themselves more deeply ensconced in an immobile status quo imposed by an oligarchy that had been in place for decades. What did change, however, was the image of the US across the globe. US prestige reached an all-time low.
All this highlights the weird relationship US politics now has with the very idea of change. What was once framed as the nation’s historic mission to ameliorate the conditions of humanity by spreading democracy and modernizing the economy (the ideology some call neoliberalism) now could be seen as a cynical tactic for promoting any number of vested interests, all in the name of positive change. When Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and the 2015 Paris climate accord — two agreements that most of humanity considered vital to the future — the idea of change would always come from the whim of an executive suddenly achieved a legitimacy that no previous president had dared to affirm.
Trumpism appears to have left a serious trace on all forms of political discourse in the US. It has validated cynicism and opportunism in a way that was previously unthinkable. It has modified the expectations of political actors and of the public itself. Although the accumulation of power by the executive has been in the works for some time, Joe Biden’s signing a mountain of executive orders in his first days in office validates the legitimacy of Trump’s innovation.
Americans once believed that a signed contract was law and could not be changed even in changing circumstances. That assumption in US culture appears to have changed.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.