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What Will Biden Do?

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo. Ozan Kose—AFP

In op-eds written prior to the U.S. presidential elections, the president-elect has shed light on his administration’s preferred policies

Many states in the world heaved a sigh of relief when President Donald Trump failed to win a second term in office in the United States. The president-elect, Joe Biden, will set about changing the questionable Trump legacy of four years to bring the world back to “normal”; but in cases where Trump helped bring about big regional changes he will be forced to “adjust.” Not all of what he does will meet with approval at home, given a “polarized America”; and he will undoubtedly face difficulties in achieving his lofty goals for unity.

The Chinese factor

Some of the “changes” Biden might bring about were spelled out in an article he penned for Foreign Affairs (March/April 2020). He will stop challenging China the way Trump did and slow down the Southeast Asian anti-China front put together by Trump. He wrote: “China represents a special challenge. I have spent many hours with its leaders, and I understand what we are up against. China is playing the long game by extending its global reach, promoting its own political model, and investing in the technologies of the future.” Additionally, instead of challenging the E.U., he plans to join Brussels in asking Beijing for equal access for its firms in the Chinese market and limits on subsidies given to Chinese state-run companies.

He will also soften the hard pro-India policy in South Asia that overlooked and “forgave” the annexation of the disputed Indian-occupied Kashmir. While maintaining the traditional “Democratic” leaning in favor of India, he will be critical of the violation of human rights by the government of Narendra Modi and will not favor India’s new attitude toward its own Muslims and its neighboring Muslim states. He is already on record in criticizing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which discriminates against Muslim Indians.

Getting out of Afghanistan

Biden will quicken the process of American exit from Afghanistan, which means he will be less enthusiastic about the policy followed there by Trump in association with India. He wrote: “As I have long argued, we should bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and narrowly define our mission as defeating Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (or ISIS).”

Withdrawing from Afghanistan will not, therefore, mean that Afghanistan’s neighbors will be helped in the process of destabilizing one another. India will not find America looking the other way as “nuclear” Pakistan is destabilized through acts of terrorism across the Durand Line, taking advantage of the coming political disorder in Afghanistan. Trump would have blinked this Indo-Pak quarrel but Biden will not tolerate it.

The Iran factor

Relations with Iran will not become “normal” but Iran’s “nuclear deal,” reached in 2015 between Iran and P5+1 (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China—plus Germany and the European Union) will be renewed, after rejoining the summit on climate change. This will be a part of the “restitution” of links with NATO. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has already urged the U.S. to return to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) on the nuclear deal. Biden wrote: “The historic Iran nuclear deal that the Obama-Biden administration negotiated blocked Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Yet Trump rashly cast the deal aside, prompting Iran to restart its nuclear program and become more provocative, raising the risk of another disastrous war in the region.” However, the anticipated thaw with Iran has been questioned by Trump’s envoy to Iran saying that “the United States may not easily return to the Iran deal under Joe Biden.”

“If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations,” Biden wrote in an op-ed in September 2020.

Goodbye Middle East

The “withdrawal” of forces from the Middle East, is complicated by the new strategic challenge emerging in the region. (One factor favoring “withdrawal” is of course America’s “energy independence”.) The Arab states of the Gulf, including Egypt and Sudan beyond the Red Sea, have “bonded” with Israel after feeling threatened by Iran and Turkey, both in turn obsessive about Israel. While Iran confronts challenges it can’t face down easily, Turkey is seen as the “rising power” led by a man who is even more reckless than the ayatollahs of Iran. As President Recep Tayyip Erdogan challenges America and Israel in the region, he also threatens Iranian interests in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen in a “sectarian” split within the anti-U.S. elements in the region. Yet, Biden may go ahead with reduction of U.S. presence given the new power map in the region.

The “new” Middle East will present new challenges after such organizations as Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have wilted on the bough. As Egypt, together with the Saudi-led group of the states of the Middle East, take on Turkey, President Biden will side with NATO—heretofore dismissed by Trump—to roadblock Turkey’s challenge in the region. This will increase the prestige of America in the region and lessen tensions internationally. India, excited by Trump’s anti-Iran challenge, got out of Iran, thus allowing China to walk in and increase its footprint there. Yet India will return to its strength in the Arab Gulf and challenge Pakistan once more.

The Erdogan problem

After rashly clinging to the coat-tails of President Erdogan against the Arabs, Pakistan has lost its standing with the Gulf States now freshly aligned with Israel. Even if it had not been led by the nose by Erdogan, Pakistan was faced with the challenges of change that its Foreign Office was tardy in analyzing. Yet, it showed some prescience in planning to wire-fence its western border with Afghanistan and Iran, which means it might be able to face up to the new wave of terrorism from its western border to some extent. But by allowing Balochistan to stay outside the normal writ of the state it has made itself vulnerable to India for the foreseeable future.

President Biden should find it relatively easy to handle withdrawal from the Middle East because of the way the states there have “readjusted” to “sectarian Islam.” At home, however, he will have to face off the aggressive rise of “rightwing reaction” that will not subside even after the defeat of its hero Donald Trump; the strong rightwing presence of Republican rightwing elements in the Senate and the Supreme Court may yet become problematic.

In Pakistan, rumors already abound about Biden’s “interference” in its internal affairs—the provenance of which has yet to be confirmed. Ash’ar Rehman, writing in daily Dawn, summed up one such claim. “A preferred piece of truth doing the rounds has Mr. Biden ringing up the right people in Pakistan to ensure that Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari was not expelled from Gilgit-Baltistan, where he is running an election campaign against giants such as Ali Amin Gandapur and Zulfi Bukhari. This was just the beginning. More fertile and more perceptive minds in the country were keen to claim for the record that BBZ and his desperate party were on course to a win in the polls scheduled for Nov. 15.”

Officially, Biden has yet to confirm any direct contacts with leaders in Pakistan. The president-elect has thus far released readouts of conversations with eight leaders, shedding some light on his nations of interest: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

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