Is Biden a peacenik?

President Joe Biden is more peacenik than war-monger. Compared with all recent previous presidents, apart from Jimmy Carter, he has been a dove. But be warned. When Barack Obama became president he forswore “more dumb wars” yet he got involved in more than any of them did. We had mistakenly believed him because of his vote in the Senate against the Second Iraq War.   

Nevertheless, Obama, with Biden’s support, did resist a big push by Congress, the military and most of the media to send troops into Syria and he did try hard to get troops pulled out of Iraq. Biden supported Obama in his decision to negotiate with Iran a deal to put into cold storage its plan to enrich uranium to the point where it could be used to make a nuclear bomb. But Biden opposed Obama when he decided the US should work with France and the UK to take out Libya’s President Muamar Gaddafi. He argued it would turn a peaceful country into one consumed by a wretched civil war, which is what happened.

Biden, much older than Obama, and not surprisingly wiser when it comes to the issues of war and peace, has a much better record than Obama. His anti-war stance goes back to Vietnam which he thought a “stupidity”.

Biden did back the US invasions of supposedly Marxist Grenada, a small insignificant Caribbean island and Panama where an anti-American dictator held sway, threatening, or so the American government said, passage through the Panama Canal. But, more importantly, he opposed US support for the right-wing “Contras” who with American guns were fighting to overthrow a leftist government. The US fed turmoil right through Central America. He voted against the First Gulf War in 1990- an unpopular decision among many of his constituents. He argued that Saddam Hussein didn’t pose an immediate threat to US national interests. Just as Washington was ignorant about Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, he argued, it didn’t understand the Middle East. The goal of stabilizing the region was “a pipe dream which has never in 5000 years been accomplished for very long.” Surprisingly, he voted in favour of the Second Iraq War in 2002, a much less justifiable war- the CIA said it did not have irrefutable evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, as President George W. Bush charged. But he came to regret his vote. His fears about the aftermath of “regime change” proved prescient as the war became more costly and the damage inflicted on Iraqi society became huge.

When the wars in ex-Yugoslavia erupted in the 1990s he voted for intervention but later said he’d regretted it. 

After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre he agreed that the US should go into Afghanistan to attack Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.

But in the 21st century he has grown increasingly skeptical about the use of force. He opposed the surge of troops in both Iraq in 2006 and in Afghanistan in 2009. He opposed drawing a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons by the government of Syria.  

He criticized the American assassination last year of the important Iranian general, Qasm Soleimani. Recently he has pushed for an end of American military support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Republic’s war in Yemen.

In his biography Barack Obama describes him as the lone senior member of the president’s inner core of advisors who invariably opposed arguments for military intervention.

As vice-president he had a relationship with Obama that matured into a close friendship. When a difficult decision was being made, he had the president’s agreement to have the last word among those giving advice. He consistently opposed what everyone else, including Obama, thought was the best course in a foreign policy decision.

A surprise for many of us, reading the biography, was that Biden’s most articulate opponent in the inner circle was Samantha Power, ambassador to the UN, who often leant the other way and argued that when standing up for human rights sometimes the only way to enforce their observance was to send in US troops and planes. She and national security advisor Susan Rice were the two who persuaded Obama to make the counterproductive attack on Libya. There are precious few human rights, if any, left in Libya after that intervention. Later, Obama said this was his worst mistake.  

Obama valued Biden’s stance. “Having at least one contrarian in the room made us all think harder about the issues…….I appreciated Joe’s willingness to buck the prevailing mood and ask tough questions, often in the interest of giving me the space I needed for my own internal deliberations”. Biden opposed Obama’s decision to increase by a large number the American troop presence in Afghanistan. The generals had cleverly boxed in Obama, leading an expletive-shy Biden to explode, “It’s f***’g outrageous”.

When Osama bin Laden was tracked down to a house in Pakistan, Obama needed little persuading that they had to capture or kill him. On this issue Biden had no compunction about voting for the go-ahead.

Unsurprisingly, Biden has long been a firm supporter of Israel. That is right in principle, although he has been too firm. His job should be to lean on Israel. No more aid if Israel persists on expanding settlements or refusing to negotiate at speed a two-state solution. No more tolerance for attacks on Gaza. No hints that the US will support Israel if it attacks Iran or Lebanon. No more blanket support for Israel at the UN.

So what now will Biden decide on the issues of war, intervention and nuclear armaments that he will confront over the next four years? At his side will be his vice-president Kamala Harris who has no experience in foreign affairs, apart from knowing something about India where her mother grew up and her grandparents lived. He will depend on the team that he has appointed, including secretary of state Anthony Blinken, national security advisor Jake Sullivan, CIA director William Burns and secretary of defence general Lloyd Austin. They are all interventionists, apart from perhaps Burns, although paradoxically, given their more hard-line opinions, the first two have worked for Biden for a long time.  

What are the issues on Biden’s plate? For starters, Biden should show he has regrets about calling Putin a “thug”. When he talks to Putin he should apologise. Ending US arms support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen is a move he can make immediately. Continuing the withdrawal from Afghanistan is another. Ending CIA’s low-level support for the factions that are trying to topple the government of Assad in Syria is a third.

Despite their cause being a good one, there would be no value in helping the Kurds gain autonomy if not independence in Syria and Turkey. It would be counterproductive to help them with military action. Gun running should be stopped.

President Donald Trump has decided to bring troops out of Somalia. Biden should complete that move. The US presence is going nowhere. Somalia’s neighbours, the African Union and the UN must carry the burden of trying to pacify the country. Anything else gives charge to the engines of the affiliates of ISIS. 

In the rest of Africa, apart from in the little populated Sahel and in Latin America and Asia military activity is almost quiescent. There is the on-going tension between India and Pakistan, India with divided Kashmir and some minor clashes with China about their common border high in the Himalayas.  None of these want or expect outside intervention. The US could make a useful contribution by cutting arms supplies to India and Pakistan. 

At the UN Biden should continue the Obama policy of beefing up its resources, in particular the funding of peace-keeping, the work of the World Health Organisation, the World Food Program, the UN Refugee Agency, the International Labour Organisation, UNICEF and UNESCO. Also the Food and Agricultural Organisation and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. There is also USAID (to be run by Samantha Power). The US should join the International Criminal Court which judges war crimes and re-join the Paris Climate Change Accords.

The biggest issues are the relationships with China and Russia. Trump handled China like a pit bull when it came to trade. There are important economic and financial issues at stake but before Trump they were dealt with without confrontation. Neither need there be confrontation over China’s off-shore islands. What would Washington feel if China were making a fuss over America’s dominance over the foreign policy of Bermuda, Bahamas and the Caribbean islands or sailed its nuclear submarines to near the US coastline? 

Russia appears to be the difficult one. Now there seems to be a new Cold War erupting. The fundamental question is why they should be hostile to each other? There is no border dispute. From the time of  the American War of Independence, when Russia gave a helping hand to the anti-royalists, Russia has always in wartime been on the same side as the US. The bitterness factor is accordingly low.  Since communism ended in 1991 the two continental countries have no longer any ideological differences. However, Russia’s democracy is circumscribed by Putin’s autocracy. Human rights are too often infringed, as is happening right now with the arrest of the opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. But no longer can the US be on its high horse- the treatment of Black Lives Matter, the guns of white vigilantes on the street, the violence of the police, the way the US election has been conducted, the anti-democratic performance of President Trump and, not least, the storming of Congress by white gangs make the US sound sanctimonious and hypocritical when it criticizes Russia. There are today more troops on the ground in Washington than there are in Afghanistan.

If Japan and Russia can run a harmonious relationship why can’t the US, the EU, the UK and Russia? In theory they should have the same frictions. In practice they don’t- which shows that difficult issues can be worked out. 

The Americans and Europeans should withdraw their troops from Russia’s borders, Ukraine should be given to the UN to arbitrate and police with peace-keepers. Maybe a tunnel should be constructed beneath the Bering Strait to link Russia with Alaska which would increase trade by many multiples.

Vast numbers of nuclear weapons on both sides make no sense at all. What are they for exactly? When would they be used?  Do the US and Europe need them when Japan, which also faces Russia, doesn’t? Could Biden, a practicing Christian, give the order for nuclear retaliation if the US were attacked and thus destroy tens of millions upon tens of millions of innocent women and children, and men too? (Moscow alone has a population of 12.7 million. C.f. Hiroshima which at the time of the nuclear bombing had 345,000.) I very much doubt that a man who believes when he dies he will confront God’s judgment could press the button and blow up Moscow. I‘m pretty sure that Putin, also a self-confessed Christian, is overwhelmed when he thinks of the same moral dilemma.

President Joe Biden, the peacemaker? On balance he’s well along the road to earning that title. I hope he makes it to the end.

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Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power has been an international foreign affairs columnist for over 40 years and has interviewed over 70 of of the world's most famous and influential presidents, prime ministers, and political and literary icons including Ignacio Lula Da Silva, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Willy Brandt, Julius Nyerere, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Paul McCartney, Mario Vargas Llosa, Eldridge Cleaver, Jimmy Carter, Olusegan Obasanjo, Georgio Arbatov, Dilma Rousseff, Olof Palme, Helmut Schmidt, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Jose Saramago, Ben Okri, Manmohan Singh, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Barbara Ward, Valeria Rezende, Pranab Mukherjee, Ben Mkapa, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Pervez Musharraf, Imran Khan, George Weah and Angela Davis. Many of these were full-page broadsheet interviews. For 17 years Jonathan Power wrote a weekly column on foreign affairs for the International Herald Tribune. He has also been a frequent guest columnist for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. He has written eight books on foreign affairs and, in his early days as a journalist, made films for the BBC, one of which won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival. Previous to his journalistic career, he worked on the staff of Martin Luther King. Jonathan has probably been printed more times in American newspapers than any other European. He is also listed in Who's Who.

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