American News

How Tough Is Biden Prepared to Look?

Can Joe Biden change a US policy that has always been more about appearance than facts?
Joe Biden, Joe Biden news, Biden administration, China, US China relations, origins coronavirus Wuhan, World Health Organization, Mike Pompeo, COVID-19, Peter Isackson

Wuhan, China on 1/23/2020 © Keitma / Shutterstock

February 11, 2021 08:10 EDT

A week after taking office, US President Joe Biden made a point of breaking with the position of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who famously blamed China for deliberately spreading the coronavirus. Trump insisted on calling it the Wuhan flu, Kung flu or any other xenophobic alternative. Coming to the defense of the entire Asian community in the United States, Biden issued a memorandum stating the following: “Inflammatory and xenophobic rhetoric has put Asian-American and Pacific Islander persons, families, communities and businesses at risk.”

The Iran Deal vs. the Logic of History


The World Health Organization (WHO) team conducting an investigation in Wuhan released its preliminary findings this week on the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It maintained, as Reuters reports, “that the virus likely came from bats and not a laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan.” On February 10, an official of the US State Department announced what appeared to be a retreat to the Trump administration’s position: “The United States will not accept World Health Organization … findings coming out of its coronavirus investigation in Wuhan, China without independently verifying the findings using its own intelligence and conferring with allies.”

One of the WHO inspectors, British zoologist and expert on disease ecology Peter Daszak, reacting to the State Department’s note, addressed this advice to Biden in a tweet: “Well now this👇. @JoeBiden has to look tough on China. Please don’t rely too much on US intel: increasingly disengaged under Trump & frankly wrong on many aspects. Happy to help.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Look tough:

1. The principal action required to maintain the status of a bully, a person whose demeanor counts more than their substance

2. The principal action required to maintain the image of the leader of a hegemon, called upon to make a show of being hyper-aggressive toward nations elected by politicians and the media as an existential threat  

Contextual Note

While the WHO team offered no definitive explanation of the origin, it focused on different possibilities of animal transmission requiring further investigation. When asked at a press conference on February 10 whether he had “any interest in punishing China for not being truthful about COVID last year,” President Biden cagily replied, “I’m interested in getting all the facts.” That answer leaves him free to look tough on China or, alternatively, to look tough at the intelligence that for the past four years has done what intelligence always does, responded obsequiously to the political solicitations of the administration in place.

One American who, for the past four years, has made a point of looking tough and has been regularly featured in the media is Mike Pompeo, the final secretary of state under the Trump administration. In a desperate effort to keep the Trump mystique going to maintain its flagging ratings, Fox News brought Pompeo back to defend the Wuhan flu theme Trump consistently exploited for electoral advantage during last year’s presidential election campaign. In the interview, “Pompeo said ‘significant evidence’ remained that the coronavirus originated in a Chinese laboratory, casting doubt Tuesday on the World Health Organization‘s assessment that it likely spread from animals to humans.”

Pompeo, a former CIA director, admitted in 2019 that his job at the Central Intelligence Agency consisted of lying, cheating and stealing. He implied that he was now telling the truth, a fact ironically borne out by his honest admission of duplicity while at the CIA. And yet, there may be reason even today to believe that Pompeo has retained something of his talent for lying, which he will be willing to use for what he deems virtuous purposes. 

The language people like Pompeo use often reveals how they manage to bend the truth when they aren’t simply betraying it. In the Fox interview, Pompeo explains, “I continue to know that there was significant evidence that this may well have come from that laboratory.” What can Pompeo possibly mean when he says, “I continue to know”? Is knowledge for Pompeo something that can appear and disappear? Knowledge is a state of awareness of truth, not an act of will, something one can decide according to the circumstances. 

And because what someone knows must be a fact, what is the solid fact he says he continues to know? He tells us that it is the idea that the coronavirus “may have come from” the Wuhan laboratory. But something that “may” be true is at best a reasonable hypothesis and at worst a fabricated lie. Something that “may” be true cannot be called knowledge. Any honest speaker would use the verb “suspect.” But, in this age of conspiracy theories, people tend to suspect anything that is merely suspected. And Fox News has always preferred assertions to suspicions.

In the same interview, Pompeo describes his recommendations for the US policy on China. He says the nation must “continue to make sure that the next century remains one dominated by rule of law, sovereignty and the things that the America first foreign policy put in place.” 

Besides the fact that Pompeo offers another example of his favorite verb, “continue,” his odd assertion that “the next century” (the 22nd?) must be “dominated by rule of law” offers a curious yoking of two theoretically antinomic ideas: dominance and rule of law. The very idea of “rule of law” posits a relationship of equality between all concerned parties. It opposes the effect of domination. Rule of law is about level playing fields and fair play. Pompeo’s formulation reveals that he thinks of the rule of law as a specific tool of American domination. This is of course consistent with the facts, whatever the administration. The US still steadfastly refuses the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and Trump’s “America First” policy refused any law other than its own.

For those wondering why Fox News has taken the trouble to interview the former secretary of state of a president now being tried for sedition, the journalists reveal the interest at the end of the interview. Fox sees Pompeo as a worthy contender for the 2024 presidential campaign. He’s a cleaner version of Trump, but one who will always talk and look tough.

Historical Note

After the most contentious presidential election in its history, the US has been preparing to experience the transition from one radical style of hyperreality to another — from Donald Trump’s outlandish display of petulant rhetoric committed to reshaping the world in his image to Joe Biden’s reserved and fundamentally uncommitted avuncular manner. Just as in 2008, when they voted in Barack Obama after eight years of George W. Bush’s chaotic wars and a Wall Street crash, Americans are expecting a change of style and focus from the never-ending drama of the Trump years. 

But just as the self-proclaimed change candidate Obama, once in office, showed more respect for continuity than commitment to renewal, on the theme of foreign policy, President Biden appears to be following Trump’s lead while simply reducing the tone. This phenomenon reflects a more fundamental reality at the core of today’s pseudo-democratic oligarchy. It is regularly masked by the transition from Republican to Democrat and vice versa. The reigning political hyperreality, despite the contrasting personal styles of successive presidents, will always prevail. Continuity trumps change.

Embed from Getty Images

Biden’s future policy on both China and Iran provides two cases in point. The clock is ticking on the need to recalibrate both of these relationships, more particularly on Iran, which has an election coming in just a few months. As the world anxiously awaits the new orientations of the Biden administration, the kind of continuity Pompeo appreciates may prove more dominant than the reversal people have come to expect. After all, Trump set about reversing everything Obama did, so why shouldn’t Biden do the same? The answer may simply be that that’s not what Democrats do.

The average American has never been seriously interested in foreign policy. That very fact has consistently led to the kind of Manichaean thinking that dominated during the Cold War. In his 2000 election campaign, the inimitable George W. Bush summed up how that Manichaean system works: “When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were. It was us versus them, and it was clear who them was. Today, we are not so sure who the they are, but we know they’re there.” As John Keats once wrote, “That is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” 

*[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.

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