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Harder times await US under Biden
Published in Ahram Online on 20 - 12 - 2020

Donald Trump will leave the White House without achieving his slogan during the 2016 presidential campaign: “Make America Great Again” (MAGA). Joe Biden will enter the White House with the slogan: Make America United Again. Biden will likely leave the White House in 2024, since he announced he will not run again after his first term, without achieving his slogan either.
Just as Trump was mistaken to think that the US's crisis and decline was caused by his Republican and Democrat predecessors — at least since George W Bush's tenure — and not because of a set of complex elements inside the US and on the global stage, Biden is also mistaken to think that division in US society is the result of Trump's short stint in power, and that reuniting the country will occur by using humanitarian slogans and symbolic inclusion of diversity in his administration. Trump did not understand that the decline in the US's standing was inevitable since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, and not because of a decline in the US's elements of power or the policies of his predecessors beginning with Bill Clinton until Barack Obama. The cause was the rising power of rivals and allies, especially China and the EU. It appears that Biden does not understand that divisions in US society, politics and culture are not the product of specific policies, but are due to the interaction of several factors the results of which cannot be reversed by any currently available means.
George W Bush thought his slogan “War on Terror” would unite Americans at home and create a world order led by the US alone to achieve this goal. But after eight years in power, Bush exited the White House and left the US and the world facing the worst economic crisis since World War II, and embroiled the US in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, which spread terrorism around the globe, especially in the Middle East.
When Obama came to power in early 2009, his was a naive vision of the US and the world. He overlooked domestic ethnic and cultural differences and focused on policies that gave minorities equal rights, including illegal immigrants and homosexuals, which angered conservatives and deepened divisions along ethnic and political lines. Overseas, Obama's position was rooted in the belief that the US will create a new world order, and will participate in leading it and would not monopolise power. His opponents, competitors and aspirants understood this differently, namely that the US has admitted its weakness and now is a good time to change the status quo that existed before Obama came to power. Also, to expand their influence and achieve their ambitions even those that increase regional and global tensions.
Accordingly, Iran was no longer worried about continuing its programme to create a nuclear bomb or hide its expansionist ambitions in the region, stretching its influence to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The once introverted Russia plucked up the courage to increase its influence in the Middle East and no longer feared direct military intervention in the Syrian crisis, annexing the Crimea without a care about US or European sanctions. China also stepped up its copyright violations of US companies, and instigated military crises in the southern China Sea and East Asia, threatening the US's traditional allies, most notably Japan.
Turkey, which Obama and the West were counting on to become a model of democracy and moderate Islam that embraces Western values and besieges Islamic fanaticism, became the greatest oppressor of its people in the last decade and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought out overt relations with the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood and its arms in the region (the Palestinian group Hamas, for example). Turkey also used terrorist groups operating in Syria as directed militias in Turkey's expansionist wars in Libya, Syria and Azerbaijan. Erdogan adopted inflammatory rhetoric towards the West, accusing it of being anti-Islamic and did not hesitate to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque, despite protests from the Christian world. He also sought to fortify his political and economic partnership with Iran and bought Russian weapons systems despite protests from Washington and the EU.
Biden comes after this string of failures due to a simplistic view of the world and US problems, but it seems he is continuing in the footsteps of his predecessors by raising slogans and setting unachievable goals. His call to reunite the domestic front in the US ignores the diversity and depth of these divisions starting with the Democratic Party itself, within which the radical wing has gained momentum and is closer to the extreme Left. This wing is demanding that Biden's administration immediately implement healthcare for all to be funded and managed by the government; raise taxes on the rich, upper middle class and businesses; grant residency and citizenship to illegal immigrants; adhere to environment-friendly policies; and confront regimes in Third World countries that receive aid or preferential trade treatment by the US about human rights violations.
It is impossible for Biden to partially or comprehensively adopt the agenda of the radical wing in the Democratic Party because it clashes with many interest groups and lobbies of major industrial and health insurance companies, as well as the mining and oil sectors, and their representatives in Congress and the Pentagon. Accordingly, the dream of uniting the party is impossible. The same applies to a society that is almost equally torn between a side calling for full liberty and equality for individuals and minorities and opening the gates to immigrants without regulation, while the other side demands protections for American values and views opposing ideas as a serious threat to the US spirit and future.
If we add to this the factor of Biden's health, which affects his ability to steer a broad administration with contradicting political and ideological views, then the aspiration of uniting the domestic front is not only difficult or almost impossible but a great delusion.
Biden might have an opportunity to distract Americans from the reality of division everywhere, which is difficult to address through policy, by succeeding in ending the Covid-19 pandemic in the country and if his inauguration goes smoothly without any violence or major protests by Trump supporters. But this depends on the successful distribution of a vaccine and its proven efficacy, and the ability of security agencies to secure his inauguration ceremony and confront any acts of violence before they expand and are difficult to bring under control.
Regarding foreign policy, it does not seem that Biden has a specific plan to address the US's declining influence around the globe, or curb the ambition of rivals. Biden said he views Russia as the primary and greatest threat to US interests, while also promising a sterner policy with regard to China. Many observers believe Biden cannot confront both China and Russia simultaneously, and he will not be able to eliminate the Russian threat without drawing closer to China if he is serious about making Russia America's public enemy number one. If Biden decides to manoeuver between the two, he will only maintain the status quo left by his predecessor Trump, which would prove the fallacy of his criticism of Trump on the one hand, and sustain Chinese and Russian threats without redress on the other.
The same applies to his policy towards Iran. Biden does not dare to return to the nuclear deal that Trump withdrew from unless Tehran commits to returning to the stipulations of the agreement and not ask for the lifting of sanctions. However, Iran clearly stated that it will give Biden until February 2021 to lift sanctions or else it will begin enriching uranium at levels seen before 2015. Biden also talked about possibly expanding the number of countries negotiating with Iran on its nuclear programme by adding Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but did not mention Israel which views Iran's nuclear programme as an existential threat more than the two Arab countries.
How will Biden resolve this dilemma, namely bringing Israel and Iran together at a multilateral negotiating table? And how will he convince Iran to include its missile tests and expansionist policies in the Middle East in proposed negotiations?
Regarding relaunching talks between Israel and the Palestinians — as an alternative to the “Deal of the Century” launched by Trump last year — Biden will present seemingly impossible conditions to Israelis and Palestinians. Resuming negotiations without consensus on their foundation means talks will merely be practice for new US diplomats in negotiations that have no chance of success, or just to save face for a US administration that is forging ahead with a foreign policy that lacks a plan or even a tentative vision of a desired goal of these policies.
On Turkey, Biden will need to convince Erdogan to distance himself from Russia and Iran and stop threatening Greece and Cyprus. In return, Washington will need to stop talking about Turkey's human rights violations and give Ankara more freedom to move on the Syrian and Libyan fronts. This could anger US allies such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE.
Overall, Biden's chances of uniting a divided America and recovering the US's prestige overseas, that has been quickly declining over the past two decades, will be a tall task, if not impossible. The best plan of action for Biden is to stem the haemorrhaging at home and abroad without imagining that he can heal already open wounds.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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