Biden’s new military activism

“Diplomacy is back”, President Joe Biden said recently. But then in the middle of a delicate diplomatic dance with Iran he goes and bombs a small, politically inconsequential, Iranian surrogate in Syria, in retaliation for the killing of one American soldier.

This seems to go against everything he said during his presidential campaign on moving towards fashioning a quick agreement with Iran so that the deal made by President Barack Obama that froze Iran’s nuclear activities could be resuscitated after Donald Trump’s decision to blow it up. Biden’s bombing has made the chance of simultaneous choreographed moves by both sides to get back to the deal made by Obama more difficult. Why should Iran, its politicians say, have to take the first step when it was the US who broke the china? It makes no sense. After this incident it makes even less sense, say Iran’s hard-liners. Indeed it is odd. Wendy Sherman, Obama’s former lead negotiator for the Iran deal and now deputy secretary of state said in 2009 that “she would be shocked if Iran agreed to a meeting without some sanctions relief”.

Perhaps it is an American thing. It appears no president is sure of his self-regard until he has bombed someone, somewhere. Jimmy Carter has been the only exception in post war times, although he did order the traffic of guns to the Taliban and other insurgents who were then fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. I can’t imagine Chancellor Angela Merkel or President Emanuel Macron or even Boris Johnson behaving like this. This is not the way to impress the Europeans with the Biden slogan that “America is back”.

Biden has a record of peace-making tendencies, according to Obama, writing in his memoirs, usually being the lone advocate in the inner circle who argued against military intervention. Now he is president does he think he has to win his military spurs to make his reputation somewhat more fearful? Does this explain why his senior foreign policy appointments are more hawkish than he has been in his  pre-presidential political life?

Haven’t we had enough of fighting to secure America’s “credibility” in Vietnam, Cambodia, Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan, all of which ended (apart from Afghanistan where fighting persists) with a loss of this cherished credibility?

It is not only Iran. There is Biden’s decision to halt the supply of offensive weapons for use by Saudi Arabia in its devastating, child-killing, war in Yemen. Only defensive weapons will be sold, says the White House. But who can tell the difference when weapons are used in a Saudi attack? What is the difference between an attacking and defensive bomber? When the Saudis fudge it what will Biden do?

We are still waiting to see what Biden will do about the under-reported war he has inherited in Somalia. The US has been intervening in Somalia for decades. First in the name of fighting communism and Soviet influence. Then in the early 1990s in the name of humanitarianism which led to the American forces fleeing Somalia after a savage attack on American helicopter gunships- the so-called “Black Hawk down” incident. This left behind a lone body of UN soldiers on whom President Bill Clinton heaped blame for not doing a better job. Then when it came to George W. Bush in the White House the US fought in the country in the name of the War on Terror. The US upped its funding to brutal atheistic warlord groups which fought against terrorist Islamic insurgents. In fact it merely strengthened the hand of the terrorists.  Whatever the reason du jour, the successive US’s interventions have further destabilized and devastated Somalia.

The last few years have been an unmitigated disaster for the people of Somalia. Obama and Trump continued their predecessors’ policies and now, without mention of Somalia publically, Biden appears to be doing the same. Chris Albin-Lackey, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, reports that “the conflict pits US forces and Somalia’s ineffectual, internationally backed, transitional government against a powerful but fragmented insurgency.” He adds that all sides have committed war crimes.

The result of years of upheaval are over a million displaced from their homes, thousands of civilians killed and millions teetering on the edge of famine. Aid workers are targeted and killed.

The dominant terrorist group is Al-Shababb whose tentacles spread as far as West Africa. The US uses its Special Forces, planes and drones in its attempt to roll them back. Trump, although he claims to have started no new wars, intensified this. “At current rates”, the US Military Times reported recently, “2021 is on course to surpass the number of airstrikes conducted in Somalia in previous years”.

The cumulative effect of US intervention far outnumbers and outweighs the damage done by Al-Shababb.

Last December Trump announced he was pulling US troops out. But the Pentagon spokesman made a clarification. “Forces will be repositioned in neighboring countries including Kenya in order to allow cross border operations by the US”. Presumably drone strikes will continue. (The Pentagon has a bad habit, when civilians are killed by drones, of saying the drones are owned by Al-Shababb).

When will the US learn the message of the defeat in Vietnam- that it cannot bring stability, the observance of human rights and democracy by bombing? Biden must stop this stupidity and instead concentrate resources on humanitarian aid and long-term economic development. That is the way to defeat the circumstances that reinforce Al-Shababb. Fighting is counterproductive. As Vietnam showed the two cannot be done hand in hand.

But it is not just US policy in Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Iran we should question. The last few years the US has built base upon base across Africa, two dozen in all. China has a single base, in Djibouti. Russia has none. American commandoes operate in 22 African nations. It is the largest concentration of US troops in the world, with the exception of the Middle East.

Some of the US missions in Africa are aimed at training local forces while others involve direct combat. Some of the deployments in effect prop up dictatorial governments. For their part, the European Union, China, India, Russia and Turkey (but not France), the other major Africa-interested powers, only give economic and social aid.

Africa managed reasonably well before American troops landed on its soil. When there was instability or a coup a country had to sort it out itself. (The French too have a bad habit of intervening but usually, like the Americans, they get their fingers burnt.) As president, Biden has shown no interest in winding back these fruitless deployments.

Biden needs to stop and think before he goes any further. For reasons of his own he is doing the very things he criticized during his campaign.

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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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