by Observer R for the Saker Blog
My previous articles (A Poisoned Chalice? – Part 2) and (A Poisoned Chalice) offered an opinion that the winner of the US presidential election in 2020 would inherit such a mess that in some sense it would be better to lose the election. So far, events have tended to validate that opinion. The projections are that the Republicans will gain control of the House of Representatives and could also gain control of the Senate in the 2022 election. If this happens, it will sink the Democrats’ chances to enact their major policy proposals, since they are already having serious problems in getting anything through the current Congress. The situation will likely be even worse for the Democrats a year from now unless they can find ways to improve their polling numbers.
President Biden’s poll numbers have been going down and there is more criticism of both his actions and lack of action. He does not seem to be able to give very good speeches, or to interact with the press in a satisfactory manner. Some commentators have gone so far as to opine that Biden will not even finish out his term of office. The Biden administration is entangled in numerous difficulties, including the immigration issue along the Texas border, the COVID-19 virus and vaccine controversy, the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools, and accelerating inflation in the economy. None of these will be easy to solve in the next year. There is also the potential fallout from the investigation by Special Counsel John H. Durham into the origins of Russiagate. The 27-page indictment of Michael Sussman this month for lying to the FBI contains references to quite a few other people who also might face indictments. So things are going poorly for the Democrats in domestic policy, and unfortunately for them, things are not going any better in foreign policy.
For one thing, the Biden Administration is alienating some its own supporters by continuing a number of the Trump Administration policies. These include the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the agreement to remove combat troops from Iraq, the continuation of sanctions on many countries all over the world, anti-Russia and anti-China bombast, and continuing the rejection of the nuclear agreement with Iran. Biden has retained many of the pro-Israel initiatives begun by Trump and Biden has been unable to end the war in Yemen. The US foreign policy establishment was upset at the cavalier way that Trump treated the NATO allies, yet Biden has done the same thing by not including them in the plans for the midnight exit from Afghanistan, or in the planning for the sale of nuclear submarines to Australia. France, especially, was not treated as a real ally. France has important island territory in both the Indian and Pacific oceans and a large Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) in the South Pacific region and had every right to feel unfairly snubbed by the Anglo-Saxons. The US realized that it had made a major error, and in a September 22, 2021 phone call with French President Macron, Biden apologized and went on record approving the French initiatives in the Indo-Pacific and in Africa. The US also approved of a European Army that would be complementary to NATO. Despite these concessions by the US, France went ahead with a defense agreement with Greece, including a provision whereby Greece will purchase three frigates from France. Greece had previously negotiated a defense agreement with the US, following disagreements with Turkey.
For a second setback, the US is losing its hegemonic standing in the world as more countries go their own way, and the numerous attempts at regime change to bring them back in line seem to have reached the point of diminishing returns. The countries under US sanctions can develop substitutes for the goods no longer available, and other ways can be found over time to work around the sanctions. In any event, Russia used the time to become the largest grain exporter in the world and is proceeding to build its new MC-21 passenger plane with parts produced domestically. It is widely noted that China, Russia, Iran and others have developed alternative methods for financial transactions that do not depend on methods controlled by the US.
For example, the US placed sanctions on various parties in Lebanon in order to promote a more US-oriented regime taking office. This led to severe hardship as fuel for the country was practically shut off. The US goal was to put the blame onto factions in Lebanon supported by Iran and put in a government based on factions friendlier to the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. This resulted in a long stalemate, but it appeared that the situation was finally turning in the direction aimed for by the US. Then, at the 11th hour, the Iranian-supported faction made a business deal with Iran to import fuel by ship using a port in Syria, then by tanker trucks overland to Lebanon. This unexpected development created a public relations problem for the US, so the American ambassador announced a plan to have Lebanon import electricity from Jordan and gas from Egypt. Both the gas and the electricity had to go through Syria. This attempt would only be effective in the longer term, as the electricity transmission lines in Syria need to be rebuilt after the damage from the war there, and the gas pipelines are also in poor shape and need considerable work. As for the Iranian fuel, the first two ships have already docked in Syria and fuel from the first ship is being distributed in Lebanon. Iran has announced that two more ships are on the way.
However, the more important side-effect was that the US essentially had to break the sanctions that it had placed on both Syria and Lebanon. Also, both Egypt and Jordan had to hold official negotiations with Syria in order to work out the details and arrangements. This effectively broke the decade-long diplomatic isolation of Syria. So far, this appears to be a winning tactic by the so-called “Resistance” groups supported by Iran. Furthermore, in Syria, the government was finally able to take control of the Dara’a province next to the Golan Heights, with the opposition fighters either turning in their weapons or taking buses to Idlib. This places Syrian government forces next to the area controlled by Israeli forces. In Yemen, the Houthi forces, supported by Iran, are slowly taking over the town of Ma’rib and driving out the forces supported by Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-controlled areas around Aden are witnessing demonstrations and unrest by the populace. As near as one can tell from the publicly available news reports, the Resistance is currently on the winning side in nearly all the contests with the US-aligned forces.
All these actions are putting serious pressure on US foreign policy and making it difficult to determine how to maneuver and which way to proceed. The nuclear agreement with Iran (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)) is still festering, with Israel apparently vacillating about whether the agreement is good or bad. One guess is that Israel has realized that the “maximum sanctions” on Iran has not worked, nor has the attempt to have missiles included in a revised agreement. Israel now threatens Iran with Plan B if the stalemate continues. It is a very dicey situation, because strategically, it would appear better for US hegemonic aspirations to be aligned with Iran, rather than Israel, if a choice had to be made. Iran sits at the crossroads of the North-South Transportation Corridor from Russia to India and the New Silk Roads (BRI) from China to Europe and Africa. While Iran is the keystone in both of these geopolitical schemes, Israel is not in such a geographically important location. In addition, Iran is awash in oil and gas. However, Israel is popular among Americans. and the Israel lobby is powerful in politics and media in the US. The conundrum is to find a way for the US to be on good terms with both Iran and Israel at the same time. A new problem for the US is that the “hardliners” won the election in Iran and will be more difficult to deal with than the previous government. In addition, the former government’s Western orientation is no longer as popular with the Iranian public, and the new government is turning more toward an Eastern orientation.
The JCPOA was a step in the direction of US attempts to deal positively with both Iran and Israel, but it did not cover Iranian support for the Resistance, support for the Palestinians, or missiles and other weapons. It also did not cover the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, or the Israeli nuclear program and international inspections in that country. The role of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in conducting inspections in various countries is controversial. The IAEA has for years carried out very intrusive inspections in Iran covering many facets of that county’s nuclear program. However, as Iran has pointed out, no such inspections are carried out in Israel or Saudi Arabia, despite various reports of nuclear projects in those countries. It is interesting that while Iran complains, it does not really force the issue by stopping all inspections on its territory until similar inspections are carried out on the territories of Israel and Saudi Arabia. It is not certain what all the ramifications would be to such an approach by Iran, but it is one more troublesome item hanging over the JCPOA negotiations.
The nuclear issue is present in the recent US & UK submarine deal with Australia. The boats are to be nuclear powered, but it is not clear that Australia has the facilities or expertise to manage such technology. Furthermore, Iran chimed in on the issue by pointing out that the nuclear submarine fuel is enriched above 90% purity, which is above Iran’s current effort of up 60%. Iran called for Australia to open up to inspections by the IAEA since the submarines would violate the nuclear-free zone and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by Australia. Iran complained about a double standard and hypocrisy of the AUKUS countries. The IAEA also noted that it would be tricky work to fit the submarine fuel into the Australian NPT.
There could be more to the story in that there is talk of an eighteen-month study to be done by Australia before any definite agreement. This puts the decision date after the next Australian election, and if the study finds that Australia cannot afford the submarines, the deal might fall through. In which case, one possibility might be that the US could pick up the tab by simply leasing a port in Australia and basing US submarines at that location.
This sort of option would be part of the US containment of China and the formation of the Quad grouping of the US, India, Japan, and Australia. However, the agreement with Australia appears to show that the Anglo-Saxons are really in a close embrace and that India and Japan are somewhat second-class members. The Anglo-Saxons are also in the Five-Eyes intelligence setup which excludes the other two Quad members. India has had a lengthy and important role in the Non-Aligned Movement, and a close relationship with France and Russia in the weapons business. India is also a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) along with China and Russia. So it is difficult for any country to seriously consider an allied effort with India, when India is basically playing both sides by joining both the SCO and the Quad.
Japan is a special case in the Quad since it was defeated and occupied by the US military in 1945. It has been occupied ever since. The Quad was set up to contain China and thus to protect other countries from the Chinese. But this does not answer the question of whether Japan really needs such protection. Does China really have any aggressive designs on Japan? In consideration of possible enemy invasion, in the last century it was Japan that invaded China and Korea, not the other way around. Japan has relatively little in the way of energy sources or other natural resources that would entice invasion by foreigners. While Japan has some squabbles with China and Russia over various islands, South Korea over the Comfort Women, and North Korea over ideology, these are weak reasons for signing up with the Quad. China and Russia settled their squabbles in order to try a “win-win” situation.
In any event, Japan is already involved in a complex set of arrangements that include China. Japan belongs to the Regional Cooperative Economic Partnership (RCEP), a fifteen-member group of Asian countries that is nominally led by China. Japan is the nominal head of another group of twelve Pacific countries (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which China has applied to join. The US does not belong to either group, as the Trump Administration left the original TPP. The newest member of the CPTPP is the United Kingdom—the only non-Pacific country. In fact, the US might seek to rejoin the CPTPP in a Biden reversal of a Trump policy. With all this organizing going on, it would not be too surprising if Japan applied to enter the SCO, joining up with India and China.
The Biden Administration has hit a very rough patch of domestic and international politics during its first eight months in office. It was supposed to be the Anti-Trump Administration, but has in a number of ways turned into the Second Trump Administration. This has annoyed the folks who voted for Biden. However, the Biden Administration has at the same time instituted a number of policies that greatly annoy the Trump voters. One almost needs an electronic scoreboard to keep track of the latest developments. The Biden Administration’s flip-flops and the exceedingly lame explanations for the changes in policy have made it something of a laughing-stock as far as serious strategy is concerned.
Perhaps a reason for the flip-flops and confusion can be found in a lack of agreement among the members of the Establishment on exactly what to do as the “wheels come off” the American Empire. In this view, there are many different factions behind the curtain pulling Biden in many different directions. This possible explanation has gone mainstream with the publication of a significant article in the magazine Foreign Affairs (“Strategies of Restraint,” Emma Ashford, September/October 2021). Ashford claims that the long-time bipartisan consensus on foreign policy has collapsed and that there is wide agreement that a new approach is required. However, the author notes that the foreign policy community is split into three camps on what to do next: Modified liberal internationalists who call for wiser and more careful intervention abroad, belligerent unilateralists supporting military primacy, and restrainers who feel past policy had too much overreach and too much militarism. The article supports the restraint approach and provides a lengthy discussion and advice on how to achieve results. Although not specifically mentioned in the article, the author’s thesis lends support to the view that a tug-of-war among the different camps is partly to blame for the flip-flops observed in recent US foreign policy.
Probably the most important message, however, is that disillusionment with past and present US foreign policy has reached a critical mass. Otherwise the Council on Foreign Relations would seem unlikely to have countenanced the publication of such a theoretically “heretical” article in its magazine. Its publication widens the window of polite debate on foreign policy and allows for the public discussion of new options and strategies.