The Biden Problem

I’m going to try to make this entire edition of the newsletter Trump-free.

Let’s talk instead about the potential tragedy of a Biden presidency. OK, that’s a bit melodramatic. How about: Something potentially frustrating and dispiriting about a Biden presidency.

But before I do: We’re holding a Zoom call this coming Friday at Noon EST. It’s only for paid subscribers though. So please consider becoming one.

OK, back to Biden. Here’s the irony. On domestic policy, he’s become dramatically more progressive since launching his presidential run. He’s now promising “revolutionary institutional changes” like a Green New Deal (minus the name), a dramatic democratization of America’s electoral system and a major effort to make college affordable. His problem is Mitch McConnell. Democrats probably won’t control the Senate. (And, sorry to be a downer, but history suggests they will likely lose congressional seats in 2022). So while Biden has the will for bold progressive change. He may not have the way.

On foreign policy, it’s the opposite. Biden will have more free-reign. What he and his advisors may lack is the will. Neither the pandemic nor the surge in Trump-era progressive activism has transformed Biden’s foreign policy agenda in the way they have transformed his domestic one. And that’s a problem.

Read Biden’s advisors on China and the message is: “Trump was right to get tough. But we need our allies on board.” There’s little reckoning with the ways in which ratcheting up conflict with Beijing could imperil cooperation against pandemics and climate change.

Read the Biden folks on Iran and the message is: “We should reenter the nuclear deal while punishing Tehran for its bad behavior.” There’s little discussion about the human consequences of US sanctions (Biden wants to maintain—if not escalate—the non-nuclear ones) and about way America’s cold war with Tehran makes it harder to negotiate an end to the gruesome conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

Biden hasn’t committed to significantly cutting military spending (even though he needs the money for his domestic agenda). Although he’s pledged to end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, he hasn’t pledged to curtail US arms sales more generally. To the contrary, US arms suppliers expect sales to rise.

Finally, as I wrote earlier this year, Biden adamantly opposes conditioning military aid to Israel. As Vice President, he advocated vetoing the UN resolution criticizing Israeli settlement expansion that Obama abstained from vetoing in his final month in office. 

After Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated Biden on winning the election, former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk tweeted, “It’s true that @netanyahu has known @JoeBiden for nearly 40 years. But it’s also true that @JoeBiden has known @netanyahu for nearly forty years.” That’s a cute way of saying that Biden doesn’t like Netanyahu very much. Of course, he doesn’t. Very few American policymakers ever have. When George H.W. Bush was president, James Baker banned Netanyahu from the State Department. Bill Clinton’s press secretary Joe Lockhart called Bibi, “one of the most obnoxious individuals you’re going to come into -- just a liar and a cheat.” But personal feelings notwithstanding, Biden has never shown any willingness to genuinely pressure Netanyahu to change course. And there’s no reason to believe that will change now.

One reason it won’t change is that American progressives haven’t mobilized to change foreign policy in the way they have on domestic policy. After the primaries, Biden created joint task forces with Bernie Sanders on six issues. Foreign policy wasn’t one of them.

The problem is structural. Except when American troops are dying in large numbers, Americans tend to leave foreign policy to elites. As Stephen Walt has written, those elites have professional incentives to support an interventionist and militaristic US foreign policy. (Many also hail from think tanks that take money from defense contractors).

In 2008, candidate Obama said “we have to change the mindset” that guides US foreign policy. Biden hasn’t shown much inclination to even try.

Not very uplifting, I know. But at least I haven’t mentioned you-know-who.

For more on this:

Read this smart and critical take on Biden’s most influential foreign policy aide, Tony Blinken, by my old New Republic colleague Bob Wright, and subscribe to his excellent newsletter. (Here’s Blinken’s clever response: Say whatever you want about the guy’s policies, he’s diplomatic).  

For a sense of how different US foreign policy might be were Bernie Sanders entering the White House, read this scorching essay by Sanders’ foreign policy advisor, Matt Duss.   

Now a few random things:

Ever since the United Arab Emirates normalized diplomatic relations with Israel, I’ve wondered about the role of Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian rival to Mahmoud Abbas who now advises the UAE’s crown prince. This feature by Neri Zelber has lots of cloak-and-dagger material about Dahlan, who may be everyone’s choice to be the next Palestinian leader except the Palestinians.

Alabama will soon have a new senator, Tommy Tuberville. The good news: Unlike some other candidates, he hasn’t been banned from local malls for harassing teenage girls. The bad news: He thinks the US fought World War II to “free Europe from socialism.” (I guess Ike forgot to invade Denmark).

One of the leaders of the white nationalist “Proud Boys” thinks the organization isn’t white nationalist enough. So he’s forming a breakaway: Proud Goys.

If you have a better name for a Proud Boys spinoff, come tell me at Noon EST on Friday, when we’ll be doing a conversation over Zoom. (It’s only for paid subscribers, sorry. You’ll be emailed a link).

Not sure if Trump will have conceded by then (darn! Almost made it). But at least I should be done with that other oppressive force in my life, Masechet Eruvin.