From the get-go, US President Joe Biden’s administration has focused on reversing the worst of Donald Trump’s policy decisions. One of the very worst was the imposition of sanctions on individual officials of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Trump administration was so enamored of sanctions as a weapon of mass intimidation that it extended the policy beyond the traditional response to hostile governments to target individuals who failed to show the US sufficient respect.
This was a logical consequence of Trump’s vaunted “America First” policy. This translates as national interest first, international law last. In September 2020, Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, singled out ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda for sanctions. He “announced a freeze on assets held in the US or subject to US law by Bensouda and the court’s head of jurisdiction, Phakiso Mochochoko.” Even Rodrigo Duterte, the thuggish Filipino president who unilaterally withdrew the Philippines from membership in the Rome Treaty after the ICC received a complaint of crimes against humanity resulting from his brutal and chaotic war on drugs, never imagined imposing sanctions on the chief prosecutor.
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In other words, Trump’s initiative can only be considered extreme. Bensouda, whose job consists of carrying out investigations related to procedures of justice, complained of “unprecedented and wholly unacceptable threats, attacks and sanctions.” Appearing to sympathize, the Biden administration issued this statement: “Much as we disagree with the ICC’s actions relating to the Afghanistan and Israeli/Palestinian situations, the sanctions will be thoroughly reviewed as we determine our next steps.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Examine an abusive practice with the hope of finding a devious way to justify its continuation
The word “review” literally means “to look at again.” When politicians use the term, they imply that they will take a more critical look at the issue under consideration with a view to engaging remedial action. This is especially significant at moments in history where one party or political personality has been replaced by another with a highly contrasted worldview. Biden has already taken steps to return to the essential international treaties Trump so casually abandoned, as well as undo the former president’s complicity with the murderous Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The Biden administration needs to show that it is free not just to review but to thoroughly overturn dangerous and sometimes criminal policies.
In reality, the promise to “thoroughly review” often serves a more devious purpose. It creates an expectation that whatever policy emerges — even if it is identical with that of the past — will be legitimized. Rather than remedy a mistake, it may stand as a ploy to seek a better argument in favor of perpetuating the effects of the mistake. Former President Barack Obama campaigned on the theme of ending the war in Iraq. After thoroughly reviewing it with the help of the Pentagon, he continued it.
The question of the ICC is no ordinary political issue. It contains within it the very idea of justice and fairness that Americans like to see as the core of their “exceptional” ideology, a system of values that never tires of proclaiming its allegiance to the idea of “liberty and justice for all.” On that basis, it should be easy for the Biden administration to cancel Trump’s sanctions and apologize for his arrogance. In terms of PR, it provides a perfect pretext for a new president to demonstrate a willingness to correct the injustices of the past.
But as with so many issues Biden has inherited from Trump, there is a hidden risk and potentially a serious embarrassment. By provoking the ICC, Trump shouted from the rooftops what previous presidents accomplished by whispering in private amongst themselves. The US has never demonstrated the intention of respecting the principles it so assiduously promoted when the victorious Allies launched the Nuremberg trials. The message those trials sent was that every nation on earth must answer the accusation of crimes against humanity and war crimes. The refusal to be judged by the legal criteria it uses to judge others may provide the best definition of the meaning of “American exceptionalism.”
Because the nation that invented democracy “believes” with all its soul in everything that is good and just, it can never be held to account for being bad and unjust. At best, American individuals are sometimes guilty of a lapse of judgment, but the American nation as a whole is, as the song says, “a soul whose intentions are good.” Since “no one alive can always be an angel,” the nation feels justified pleading to the heavens, “Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”
If Biden follows through and repeals Trump’s sanctions, the consequences could be serious. It would implicitly allow the ICC to pursue the complaints against both the US in Afghanistan and Israel with regard to Palestinians within its borders. Those were the two causes that prompted Pompeo to impose sanctions, citing the principle of national sovereignty.
That the US should defend Israel’s putative sovereignty — especially if it means shielding that nation from being prosecuted for war crimes — makes no serious legal sense. But it does reveal a basic truth about US foreign policy. If anything, the immunity the US claims for Israel can be compared with the principle in US law of someone who pleads the fifth amendment in a courtroom to avoid incriminating their spouse (“the spousal testimonial privilege”). Do both Trump and Biden consider the US and Israel a married couple?
How far is Biden willing to go to undo Trump’s devilry? How much can he backtrack without exposing the US to the principle of universal justice? This is a serious quandary for a president who repeats in nearly every one of his speeches that the US must “not lead by the example of its power, but by the power of its example.”
Another issue has just emerged in the news cycle that also requires a thorough review. It concerns the production of semiconductors. The Verge offers this headline: “Biden signs executive order calling for semiconductor supply chain review.” American industry is facing a penury of chips, the essential component of nearly everything Americans buy these days (apart from fast food). From PCs and smartphones to cars, watches and refrigerators, chips rule the consumer economy. Will this be as “thoroughly reviewed” as the reconsideration of the ICC sanctions? It should be because it concerns a problem that affects the entire economy.
Not so long ago in recent history, the US was the world’s major manufacturer of semi-conductors. But because it became cheaper to outsource production to Asian nations, US manufacturers preferred to move their supply chain across the Pacific Ocean. Asia has since achieved a quasi-monopoly on semiconductor production.
The Associated Press recently reported on the “widening global shortage of semiconductors for auto parts” that has forced “major auto companies to halt or slow vehicle production just as they were recovering from pandemic-related factory shutdowns.” The penury of semi-conductors could send an economy already battered by the pandemic into a tailspin.
This would be especially true if the Asian countries that produce more than 80% of the world’s and America’s supply were unable or unwilling to deliver. The entire question has evolved into something even more dire. Business Insider summarizes the dilemma in a headline: “The global chip shortage is hurting businesses and could be a national security issue.”
It is not hard to imagine a war, even a limited war, breaking out between the US and China over navigation in the contested South China Sea or Chinese threats against Taiwan. In such an event, the US could potentially be starved of the supply of essential components required both for its military capacity and its consumer economy. The Biden administration must be aware of this and ready to review it. But once the review is completed, what can they do to remedy it? Not much, at least in the time frame that would be required to lead a military campaign.
Rather than challenge China and risk alienating nearly all of Asia, the Biden administration can only hope to solve the problem of penury through cooperation and the recognition of interdependence, in contrast with the attitude of confrontation nurtured by Donald Trump. The Biden administration may be forced to engage a particularly “thorough review” on this issue.
*[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.