Talk about great timing! Just two days ago, I analyzed New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman’s new offering warning Joe Biden not to rush back into the Iran nuclear deal because this step could undo lots of the progress made by President Trump’s America First foreign policy approach in greatly improving the prospects for advancing and protecting U.S. interests in the region.
And just this morning, Friedman has published a piece based on lengthy interview with the apparent President-elect making clear that he has no interest in learning these valuable lessons of the recent past. In addition, Biden confirmed that his China policy plans are just as dominated by cynical doubletalk these days as during the 2020 election campaign.
As Friedman argued on November 29, Mr. Trump’s message that Israel and the Arab world’s Sunni Muslim monarchies (mainly Saudi Arabia) should no longer count on the United States to fight their battles accomplished this critical objective: It
“forced Israel and the key Sunni Arab states to become less reliant on the United States and to think about how they must cooperate among themselves over new threats — like Iran — rather than fighting over old causes — like Palestine. This may enable America to secure its interests in the region with much less blood and treasure of its own. It could be Trump’s most significant foreign policy achievement.”
But as Biden made clear in his conversation with Friedman, he either can’t or refuses to understand the key development that validates the Trump approach – the U.S. fossil fuel production revolution that has eliminated America’s overriding reason for treating the Middle East as a vital national security interest, and enabled Washington to adopt a Trump-ian take-it-or-leave-it approach safely.
Not that domestic energy independence means that completely ignoring Middle East affairs is always the best response. But it certainly does mean much greater scope for Washington to advance objectives with varying degrees of importance (notably, preventing a nuclear-armed Iran from dominating the region) in ways far less risky and costly than the lengthy wars and immense military commitments that have dominated globalist strategy.
And as Friedman has indicated, the President has started lifting the United States off its dangerous hook by leaving its Middle East allies no choice but to stop quarreling over trifles (like the fate of the Palestinians) and work together to take responsibility for their own genuinely critical and shared interests.
Biden, however, still believes that America remains so dependent on “getting some stability” in this long-unstable region that deep entanglement in Middle East affairs is unavoidable. Just as worrisome: He’s laid out a genuinely Rube Goldberg-esque rationale for treating the Iran nuclear deal as his strategy’s linchpin. As Friedman describes his blueprint (based on this interview and other conversations with top Biden aides):
“[O]nce the [nuclear] deal is restored by both sides, there will have to be, in very short order, a round of negotiations to seek to lengthen the duration of the restrictions on Iran’s production of fissile material that could be used to make a bomb — originally 15 years — as well as to address Iran’s malign regional activities, through its proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
“Ideally, the Biden team would like to see that follow-on negotiation include not only the original signatories to the deal — Iran, the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union — but also Iran’s Arab neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.”
To which the only reasonable response is “Good luck with that” – especially given the lack of consensus on Middle East goals among this highly diverse group of countries, and, equally important, the wildly varying stakes in success between governments inside and outside of the Middle East,
On China, the big and encouraging news is that Biden has decided not to remove the steep, sweeping Trump tariffs “immediately.” That position of course makes at best little sense given how disastrous he called these levies’ impact.
Otherwise, the former Vice President showed that his China policy statements could be even more thoroughly dominated by doubletalk and cluelessness than they were during the campaign.
Most troubling was how Biden contended (correctly) that “leverage” is the make-or-break factor in negotiating with China, and then quickly added “in my view, we don’t have it yet.” Even leaving aside Beijing’s at-least-suggestive decision to sign a Phase One trade deal whoppingly one-sided in favor of a country whose markets it needs desperately to secure adequate levels of prosperity, why did the apparent President-elect go out of his way to advertise supposed American weakness? Indeed, this perverse practice looks like an emerging habit of the Biden foreign policy camp.
As Biden told Friedman, he continues insisting that this leverage can be created in large measure by creating a “coherent strategy” behind which the United States and its European and Asian allies can unite. But as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, many of these countries (notably, Germany, Japan, and South Korea) have made too much money trading with China at the U.S.’ expense to support any position but a complete return to the pre-Trump era of actively coddling and enabling the People’s Republic. (See, e.g., this analysis.)
At the same time, the apparent President-elect deserves credit for recognizing that gaining sufficient leverage to deal with China successfully requires (in Friedman’s words) “developing a bipartisan consensus at home for some good old American industrial policy — massive, government-led investments in American research and development, infrastructure and education to better compete with China.”
Finally, however, Biden still accepts the completely unjustified pre-Trump view that, without the kind of one-sided, pro-U.S. enforcement mechanism at the heart of the Phase One agreement, Washington can negotiate away most of China’s wide-ranging trade predation with precisely enough worded paper agreements. As I’ve explained, the only genuine hope for progress along these lines is the kind of dispute-resolution system set up in Phase One – in which Washington serves as judge, jury, and court of appeals.
A few days before he spoke with Friedman, Biden told another journalist that he knows the nation and world are “totally different” from his Vice Presidential days and that therefore his administration would not be “a third Obama term.” His conversation with Friedman, though, strongly indicated that he meant “except for the Middle East and China.”