Just as we predicted
It is clear from Biden’s cabinet appointments that he will preside over totally incoherent policies, writes Daniel Lazare
Last August, I described Joe Biden as a candidate who “seems mainly concerned with turning back the clock to an ancien régime that grows more and more tarnished, the more distant it grows”.1 So far, the president-elect’s cabinet picks fully reflect those restorationist goals.
Although Biden has unveiled only a half-dozen or so of his major choices so far, they consist almost entirely of Barack Obama retreads, who were knee-deep in some of the Democrats’ worst blunders. Antony Blinken, Biden’s choice for secretary of state, for instance, enjoys a near-perfect batting record when it comes to courting disaster. He supported the war in Afghanistan and, as an up-and-coming Senate staffer, worked closely with Biden, then chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, to drum up support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Moving on to become the vice-president’s national security advisor, he backed intervention in Libya in 2011 and then took control of US policy in Syria, beginning in January 2013. He cheered on the fascist-spearheaded Euromaidan coup in Ukraine a year later and, in April 2015, travelled to Saudi Arabia to assure Mohammed bin Salman that he had the United States’ backing when it came to the kingdom’s air war against Yemen.
“Saudi Arabia is sending a strong message to the Houthis and their allies that they cannot overrun Yemen by force,” Blinken told reporters in Riyadh. “As part of that effort, we have expedited weapons deliveries, we have increased our intelligence sharing, and we have established a joint coordination planning cell in the Saudi operation centre.”2
Each venture proved worse than the last. Afghanistan is a classic quagmire, Iraq will go down in history as perhaps US imperialism’s worst mistake of the entire post-war period, while the US-backed jihadis in Syria wreaked such havoc that a middle-income country was soon reduced to the ranks of the world’s very poorest. Ukraine is also in bad shape, with per-capita income 10% below pre-coup levels and rightwing extremists running wild.3 As for Yemen, the country is quite simply in “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” after nearly six years of US and British-backed warfare, according to the UN.
Six catastrophes in a decade and a half is hard to beat, yet Blinken’s reward is to be booted upstairs into America’s loftiest foreign-policy post.
Jake Sullivan, the Yale Law School grad whom Biden has named as his national security advisor, is no better. A top aide to Hillary Clinton in her days as secretary of state, he played key policy roles in Libya and Syria, and was the author of a notorious August 2011 memo congratulating his boss on her “leadership/ownership/stewardship of this country’s Libya policy from start to finish”. The memo - a classic of Washington group-think - listed 15 steps Clinton had taken to ensure that Nato intervention would be a success. One that was dated March 18-30 2011 read: “HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] engages with [the United Arab Emirates], Qatar and Jordan to seek their participation in coalition operations. Over the course of several days, all three devote aircraft to the mission.”4
Rarely have two sentences been more misleading. Clinton was desperate to bring the three monarchies on board, because the last thing liberal interventionists wanted was an assault on a Muslim country that western powers carried out on their own. They needed at least a token Arab presence, and so Clinton devoted two weeks to bargaining and beseeching. But what she and Sullivan did not realise is that Qatar - notorious for funding Islamist causes throughout the Middle East - would not just contribute a few warplanes, but would seize the opportunity to pour as much as $400 million into Libyan rebel forces, most of them jihadis, in the form of machineguns, automatic rifles and other weapons.
The result was chaos, as Qatari-armed mujahedin killed, kidnapped and looted. “HRC has been a critical voice on Libya in administration deliberations, at Nato and in contact group meetings - as well as the public face of the US effort in Libya,” Sullivan bragged. Yet the result was to reduce Libya to a barren stretch of north Africa that today mainly serves as a breeding ground for Islamic State and al Qa’eda, a jumping-off point for Europe-bound refugees and a proving ground for regional powers like Turkey, Russia and Egypt to try out new weapons and develop new battlefield tactics.
The list of Biden’s retrograde appointees goes on. There are also:
- Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s choice as secretary of homeland security, who, as deputy secretary under Obama, was responsible for the chain-link fences used to house Central American refugees, who by 2014 were flooding across the Rio Grande at a rate of 4,000 per day. Migrants referred to the fenced-in compounds as las perreras or dog kennels, while Trump called them “cages” in one of the presidential debates - a term that was certainly hypocritical, given that Trump’s policies were even worse, but not otherwise inaccurate.5 Decades of US-backed ultra-violence had produced a stampede to safety that US border forces could barely control.
- Avril Haines, Biden’s pick as director of national intelligence, who helped select “targeted killings” by drones as deputy director under Obama. Haines chose not to discipline CIA personnel who had hacked Senate intelligence-committee computers while the committee was investigating CIA torture. Evidently, spying on Congress does not even warrant a slap on the wrist. After leaving public office, Haines emerged as a leading supporter of Gina Haspel, Trump’s choice for CIA director, even though Haspel oversaw CIA “black site” torture facilities in 2002-03 and helped destroy videotaped records of torture sessions in 2005.6
- Neera Tanden, Biden’s choice for director of management and budget. A fierce Clinton loyalist, she delights in sparring with Bernie Sanders supporters on Twitter and has been an outspoken proponent of cutting the once-untouchable US insurance programme known as social security - something that Biden, despite repeated denials, has repeatedly pushed for as well.7 Tanden is a classic neoliberal hawk. After Trump suggested seizing Libya’s oil in return for overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, she emailed a colleague to say that was not a bad idea at all:
We have a giant deficit. They have a lot of oil. Most Americans would choose not to engage in the world because of that deficit. If we want to continue to engage in the world, gestures like having oil-rich countries partially pay us back don’t seem crazy to me.
After ‘democratising’ third-world countries, the US should therefore feel free to help itself to their resources. Or so Biden’s appointee seems to think. Tanden is also famous for punching a journalist - she says it was only a push - for daring to question Clinton about her support for the Iraq war.
- Janet Yellen, the president-elect’s nominee for treasury secretary, who, as a member of the Federal Reserve, said of America’s growing mortgage bubble in 2005 that “we don’t think widespread problems are likely”, because “industry conditions in many respects are stronger now than they’ve ever been”. While conceding a few months later that “there might well be a bubble”, she added: “the arguments against trying to deflate a bubble outweigh those in favour of it”.
Three years later, of course, the bubble burst, resulting in the greatest financial meltdown since 1929. Undaunted, Yellen said in June 2017 that another financial crisis was unlikely due to post-2008 reforms: “Would I say there will never, ever be another financial crisis?” she mused. “You know probably that would be going too far. But I do think we’re much safer, and I hope that it will not be in our lifetimes, and I don’t believe it will be.”8 Less than three years after that statement, ten million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in the wake of Covid-19, and economic production around the world collapsed. “[E]very component of aggregate demand - consumption, capital spending, exports - is in unprecedented freefall,” declared the economist, Nouriel Roubini.9
- Finally, there is Lloyd Austin, the retired four-star general who, as of early this week, was reportedly Biden’s choice for secretary of defence. The best thing one can say about Austin is that he is not Michèle Flournoy, the previous front-runner and a hawk’s hawk, who recently called for the building up of military capabilities in the far east to the point that the US can “credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours”.10
The 67-year-old Austin, a veteran of 41 years in uniform, does not seem quite so rash. But he was also deeply involved in the misadventures of the pre-Trump era. He participated in the invasion of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan and, in mid-2014, took charge of the anti-IS campaigns in Iraq and Syria - which were only necessary because the US had allowed IS to grow in the hope that it would prove useful in overthrowing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, as then secretary of state John Kerry would later admit.11 In a particularly embarrassing moment, Austin told the Senate armed services committee in 2015 that a programme aimed at creating an anti-IS force that was free of jihadi influence had run through $500 million with negligible results. Asked how many fighters the programme had produced, he replied: “It’s a small number … we’re talking four or five.”12
In other words, $100 million per soldier in a part of the world where a holy warrior reportedly earns around $200 a month.13 One could go on, but the point is clear. Turning the clock back to the Obama years means returning to the ridiculous thinking that paved the way for Trump in the first place. It means bringing back officials responsible for such absurd miscalculations, patting them on the back and telling them they’re doing a fine job, and then handing them even more power in the hope they will do better.
But there is no reason to think they will. In fact, given the anti-Russian and anti-Chinese bellicosity on the part of so many Biden appointees - “I think a Biden administration would, first of all, confront Putin for his egregious actions, not embrace them, as this president has repeatedly done,” Blinken said this summer14 - there’s reason to fear they will make the same mistakes on a broader scale.
So Americans should brace themselves. Post-Trump, matters could get even worse, as US imperial policy grows ever more incoherent.
‘Repackaging the ancien régime’ Weekly Worker August 13 2020.↩︎
Following a debate in which Biden denied ever calling for social security cuts, Bernie Sanders issued a 90-second campaign video showing him doing just that.↩︎
Referring to Russian intervention in September 2015, Kerry said in October 2016: “Daesh was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus and so forth, and that’s why Russia came in, because they didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad. And we know this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage, that Assad might then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got … Putin in to support him. So it’s truly complicated” (youtube.com/watch?v=e4phB-_pXDM&t=1575s).↩︎