Same as the old boss? President Biden, revolving doors and foreign policy continuity

In the area of foreign policy the new boss in Washington doesn’t look much different from any of the old ones.

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With a pandemic raging and promises including a $15 minimum wage and student debt relief seeming to acknowledge the growing power of the progressive wing of his party, the troubling aspects of Joe Biden’s picks to run his foreign policy were not seen as very newsworthy during the transition period prior to his inauguration.

While campaigning for his current office, the new president did make some important commitments on this front, including a promise to rejoin the crowning diplomatic achievement of the administration he served in as vice-president: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal. He also vowed to end the logistical support that makes the ongoing carnage in Yemen, which has resulted in at least 250.000 deaths, possible.

Although it’s unrelated to the horrors being visited on the country’s already poverty stricken neighbor, President Biden also made it clear on numerous occasions that he would hold Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) to account for the brutal murder of U.S. resident and Washington Post opinion writer, Jamal Khashoggi.

The tough language, which at one point included a promise to treat MBS and his cronies like the “pariahs they are” may have been an improvement from the fawning attitude the last president took to the kingdom’s rulers, the quick about face on the part of the new president once in office offered a reminder of the continuity of the country’s incoherent foreign policy in the greater Middle East. 

Cementing this impression of continuity with small cosmetic changes, on February 26th, an airstrike on what we are told were Iraqi militia members believed to be proxies of Iran in Syria, killed 22. Leaving aside the reason given, that the attack was a response to missile attacks mainly targeting private military contractors across the border in Iraq, the use of Syria as a kind of free fire zone for not only the United States but Turkey, Israel and some European nations sets another bad precedent in terms of adherence to international law by more powerful countries in a century already full of them.

It’s not often remarked upon in the press, but the bipartisan resiliency to change among America’s militarist foreign policy class might have something to do with the fact that so many of those who have called themselves its ‘architects’, Republican or Democrat, have lobbied or consulted for defense contractors, foreign governments and other interest groups when outside of government.

For further proof of this, we need to look no further than the national security team President Biden put together, a collection of Obama and Clinton era intelligence and military officials who might give the impression of having conflicts of interest due to their work outside of government.

The country’s new top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spent most of his career as a close aide to the new president, so we might see his elevation as a show of loyalty on Biden’s part, but what he did between administrations should have been better scrutinized. During the Trump years, Blinken and Michelle Flournoy, the latter seen as a potential Biden Defense Secretary pick before he took office, formed WestExec Advisors.

The name refers to West Executive Avenue, a street close to the White House, obviously meant to imply a closeness to power.

The group’s own advertising makes this clear, “It is, quite literally, the road to the Situation Room, and it is the road everyone associated with WestExec Advisors has crossed many times en route to meetings of the highest national security consequences.”

The firm, which is poised to continue its business without Blinken, avoids the kind of scrutiny it might receive by calling itself a ‘consultancy’ rather than a lobbying organization, protecting its clients and principals through the use of non-disclosure agreements. The company hasn’t registered as an agent of any foreign government but, due to its secretive nature and Blinken and others disclosed ties to multinationals like defense contractor Boeing and global firms like Mckinsey and Company, such connections might be obscured.

While the focus will obviously be on high level officials like Blinken, as reported by the American Prospect, other advisors seem to have similar conflicts, including, “…Nicholas Burns (The Cohen Group), Kurt Campbell (The Asia Group), Tom Donilon (BlackRock Investment Institute), Wendy Sherman (Albright Stonebridge Group), Julianne Smith (WestExec Advisors), and Jake Sullivan (Macro Advisory Partners). They rarely discuss their connections to corporate power, defense contractors, private equity, and hedge funds, let alone disclose them.”

A more worrying pick made by Biden in terms of the intelligence community is another well known former WestExec employee, Avril Haines. Haines was confirmed the same day the new president took office as his Director of National Intelligence. Her work at the CIA during the Obama years included a major role in creating the rules around the use of weaponized drones and redacting most of the report on the use of torture during the George W. Bush administration, helping the agency avoid any accountability for serious breaches of international law.

Take from it what you will but almost every news item and article about Haines I found in my research mentions that she has a brown belt in judo, a uniquely irrelevant qualification that seems to be used to establish her as some kind of political outsider, a disingenuous claim at best considering her history.

In his first major speech on March 3rd“A Foreign Policy for the American People”, Blinken does do a lot to differentiate himself from his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, who came into the U.S. Congress as a part of the Tea Party wave in 2010 and took an aggressive approach to a number of countries while serving as the country’s top diplomat, aggravating tensions not just in the Middle East but in Asia and Latin America as well.

Much of Blinken’s speech was the kind of boilerplate we might expect from any moderate Democratic secretary of state, but there were a couple of differences worth noting. One positive takeaway is the prominence given to climate change as an issue that must be dealt with through global diplomacy, a process that might be helped along by taking a serious look at how powerful countries around the world decided to go it alone during a global health crisis not nearly as serious as temperature rise in the longer term.

Missing from the speech were the usual Democratic talking points about human rights, which seem to have been replaced with the concept of ‘democracy promotion’ by the new secretary of state. This obscure concept was previously a calling card of the ‘Never Trump’ Republicans who gave Biden their support in the last election.

This rhetorical change must have been a disappointment to at least one person of influence from the Obama years tapped for a prominent role in Biden’s administration.

While she was often portrayed in a similar way to Haines as representing the kind of ‘cool’ policymakers associated by liberals with then President Obama, after the debacle in Libya the ideas around the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) doctrine she championed, made the former UN ambassador Samantha Power one the last people most progressives would want to see in charge of USAID, an outfit known as much for fomenting ‘regime change’ in nations viewed as adversarial to the United States and its allies as it is for bringing help to those in need.

While the liberal interventionist doctrine that Power pushed in her book “A Problem from Hell” offers a vision of the U.S. military righting the wrongs of the world, in practice it has been as disastrous for those nations it’s been used to target as neo-conservative efforts at regime change in Iraq, Afghanistan, Venezuela and elsewhere.

On foreign policy, the left doesn’t need to worry that the right will hold the new administration hostage in terms of passing legislation or fighting unilateral actions like the recent airstrike in Syria. As it has been for decades, American militarism is a bipartisan affair.

In light of this, we shouldn’t forget that the two previous presidents, one from each party, promised to bring an end to adventures abroad but only took them off the books (or in the case of the last one, attempted to avoid all responsibility for them by pushing decision making down the chain of command).

After the bombing run in Syria, seeming support for a failed electoral coup in Ecuador and the failure to follow through on the promise of consequences for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, in the area of foreign policy the new boss in Washington doesn’t look much different from any of the old ones.

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