Biden’s Middle East stumble
The president’s tour was an embarrassment for the US establishment from start to finish, writes Daniel Lazare
Two months after Joe Biden took office, this writer published an article describing him as “America’s Chernenko”.1 The personification of late Soviet decrepitude Konstantin Chernenko succeeded Yuri Andropov as Communist Party general secretary in early 1984, only to keel over 13 months later from a combination of emphysema, heart disease and cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 73.
Admittedly, the comparison was a bit of a stretch. After all, Chernenko was so out of it that he could barely read a speech, whereas Biden was capable of making it through entire paragraphs (maybe entire sentences) without stumbling. Where Chernenko spent much of his time in a hospital room, Biden began his first 100 days with a bang by issuing a slew of executive orders about rejoining the World Health Organization, re-entering the Paris climate accords, and ending the Keystone XL pipeline. A few weeks later, he shepherded a $1.9-trillion Covid-19 economic-stimulus bill through Congress. In contrast to doddering old bureaucrats like Chernenko, he still seemed to have the right stuff.
A year and a half later, the comparison no longer seems so hyperbolic. As Biden mangles sentences, falls off his bike and appears distracted and lost, his advanced age has become the talk of the town. When Barack Obama dropped by the White House for a visit a few months ago, Biden looked dazed and confused, as vice-president Kamala Harris and others mobbed the glamorous ex-president and turned their back on his successor.2
Programmatically, the picture is worse. Biden’s legislative agenda is in ruins. A second stimulus bill - a $2-trillion jobs programme unveiled in March 2021 - ended up being sliced to ribbons. A $3.5-trillion infrastructure bill known as the Build Back Better Act died aborning. A bid to pare back the filibuster (a monstrously undemocratic procedure that allows 41 senators representing as little as 11% of the population to veto any bill) died when two senators from Biden’s own party - Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona - voted against it. A voting-rights bill dubbed the For the People Act went down in flames, along with a major legislative initiative aimed at combating climate change.3 An ultra-right Supreme Court has meanwhile thrown the White House for a loop by rolling back gun control, allowing states to ban abortion and blocking administrative measures aimed at limiting carbon-dioxide emissions. “Democrats are staring at a political abyss whose bottom cannot be seen,” summed up a mildly liberal journalist named Jonathan Chait.4
But it is Biden’s recent Middle East tour that really showed him in full Chernenkoesque splendour. The four-day trip, which ended on July 16, was an embarrassment from start to finish. The trouble began when Biden arrived at Ben Gurion airport and launched into a cringe-worthy celebration of US-Israeli relations. “You need not be a Jew to be a Zionist,” he gushed. “Every chance to return to this great country, where the ancient roots of the Jewish people date back to biblical times, is a blessing.” At Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, he wrote in the visitor’s book: “We must never, ever forget, because hate is never defeated; it only hides” - ignoring his administration’s role in hiding anti-Semitic atrocities committed by pro-Nazi nationalists, whose ideological successors are now running things in Ukraine.
Then it was on to Saudi Arabia where Biden fist-bumped Mohammed bin Salman - the same man he had vowed to turn into a pariah for his role in the gruesome 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. He was then apparently caught short when MBS demanded to know why, after pillorying the kingdom, the US was not holding Israel to account for the murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.5 It did not help that Biden mangled Abu Akleh’s name in another appearance, referring to her as “Shireen Abu … al-al-al-Kayli ...”6 His discomfort with the entire issue was all too apparent.
The Saudis piled it on. They emphasised how smartly MBS had talked back. “The Crown Prince was quite clear with president Biden [that] we have our own values and those are not going to align 100% with US values,” Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said. After Biden called a Saudi decision to open its airspace to Israel “a big deal … the first tangible step on the path of what I hope will eventually be a broader normalisation of relations”, bin Farhan stressed that the move “has nothing to do with diplomatic ties with Israel”.
By organising meetings with the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and with leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Iraq as well, MBS not only showed how thoroughly he has been rehabilitated post-Khashoggi, but demonstrated that he still packs plenty of regional punch. According to commentator Moran Zaga, Saudi Arabia has demonstrated “once again” that “she is the country that hosts, that takes initiative - the leader, the driver”.7
Even worse, after predicting that the Saudis would step up oil production in “another couple of weeks”, Biden failed to get Saudi approval for any increase at all.8 Crude oil prices jumped 3.6% to $102 per barrel on the news that Biden had come away empty-handed.
End of rope
All in all, it was the most stunning display of presidential incompetence in memory. If Chernenko personified the Soviet bureaucracy in rapid decline, Biden personifies an empire at the end of its rope.
After all, Biden went to the Middle East only because it is now clear that the US has gotten itself in serious trouble in Ukraine. The reasons are simple. The military advantage has shifted to Moscow, while Kyiv seems to be coming apart at the seams, as president Volodymyr Zelensky launches a purge of the national intelligence agency on the grounds that it is riddled with ‘pro-Russian elements’. The economic sanctions that were supposed to bring Vladimir Putin to his knees are backfiring so badly that even The New York Times has taken notice.9 Grain shortages are spreading in the global south, Germany is facing an industrial meltdown as Russia threatens to cut off natural-gas supplies, while, back home in the US, rising fuel prices are spelling disaster for Democrats in November’s all-important midterm elections.
This is why Biden went “begging and bowing down to the Saudis and asking them to bump up their supply”, to quote Republican senator Paul Rand, the libertarian isolationist from Kentucky.10 Even though Biden promises to reduce fossil fuels later to reduce global warming, he needs more fossil fuels now, so that voters will not blame him when they pay more at the pump. Even though the war in Ukraine is all about ‘defending democracy against evil Russian autocrats’, he somehow needs the help of an even greater autocracy to see it through.
But Ukraine is merely the culmination of long-term trends that Biden himself helped set in motion as a voluble young senator from the mini-state of Delaware (population: just under a million).
The process began in early 1991, when Biden, still under the sway of post-Vietnam anti-militarism, voted with a majority of Democrats to oppose the upcoming Persian Gulf War. When the effort to drive out Saddam Hussein’s forces and “liberate” Kuwait turned into a one-sided romp, Biden vowed never to be out-hawked again and promptly reinvented himself as a lectern-thumping militarist.
By 1993, he claimed to be among the first calling for large-scale military intervention in the Balkans:
I was suggesting we bomb Belgrade. I was suggesting that we send American pilots in and blow up all of the bridges on the Drina. I was suggesting we take out [Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic’s] oil supplies. I was suggesting very specific action.11
By 1999, he was calling for “total victory”. In a joint TV appearance with super-hawk John McCain, he said that halfway measures are “not the victory I want; that’s not the victory John wants:
I’ve been saying we should go in on the ground, we should announce there’s going to be American casualties. We should go to Belgrade and we should have a Japanese-German-style occupation of that country, and we should have public trials in order to strike away this mask of Serbian victimisation.
Three years later, he said the US should remain in the Balkans until Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania “are on the road … to Nato membership and they are on the road to becoming part of the European Union, because until that moment arrives there will be no real security”.12
Nato’s Drang nach Osten (drive to the east) was barrelling forward and would not stop until it reached Ukraine following the US-backed Euromaidan uprising in February 2014.
Meanwhile, Biden cheered on the invasion of Afghanistan and, as chairman of the Senate foreign-relations committee, played a leading role in winning congressional approval for the invasion of Iraq. As a newly-minted neocon, he was second to none in advocating the ability of the “indispensable nation” to bomb anyone into submission, to expand endlessly and to lecture “rogue nations” about their moral shortcomings with no concern for its own.
The upshot decades later is a deepening Ukrainian quagmire (not unlike Afghanistan - except that it is infinitely more serious in terms of its implications for US hegemony, Nato and the global economy.) Hence last week’s desperate search in the Middle East for a bail-out.
Biden recycled all the usual lies and clichés along the way. In Jerusalem, he vowed to “continue to work with Israel to counter other threats from Iran throughout the region, including its support for terrorism”.13 Yet the biggest supporter of al Qa’eda and Islamic State are Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states, as Biden himself admitted in a rare moment of candour in 2014. He told an audience at Harvard:
The Turks … the Saudis, the emirates, etc … were so determined to take down [Syrian president Bashar al-] Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war … [that] they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad - except the people who were being supplied were al Nusra, al Qa’eda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.14
Yes, that is what the then-vice president said - the gulf monarchies were using their oil riches to fund the same people who destroyed the World Trade Center on 9/11. But, since that is not what the Saudis and their Israeli allies want to hear, the US has spent years trying to pin the ‘terrorism’ label on Iran instead.
The White House also said that Biden “emphasized the pivotal role this historic [US-Saudi] partnership has played in promoting regional stability and prosperity”15 - a laugh, considering that Saudi efforts at drumming up proxy Sunni-Shia warfare have led to ceaseless conflict with Syria, Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis, all deemed overly friendly with Iran.
The trouble with such lies is not only that they are an affront to decency and good sense, but that they tangle up the teller in their own contradictions. This is why the US is floundering over Ukraine: the empire is over-extended not only economically and militarily, but intellectually. It is lapsing into incoherence - a tendency that a simple-minded Biden sums up as neatly as a near-comatose Chernenko summed up late Soviet senility.
D Lazare, ‘America’s Chernenko’ Weekly Worker March 24 2021: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1340/americas-chernenko.↩︎
Transcript, Subcommittee on European Affairs, May 6 1998: www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-105shrg49265/html/CHRG-105shrg49265.htm.↩︎
Quote begins at 53:00 at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcKVCtg5dxM.↩︎
Jeddah communique, July 15 2022: www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/07/15/the-jeddah-communique-a-joint-statement-between-the-united-states-of-america-and-the-kingdom-of-saudi-arabia.↩︎