In case anyone was under the impression that Biden’s Middle East policies would be fundamentally different from Donald Trump’s, the events of recent weeks have proven otherwise. What we have is a shift from blatant disrespect towards human rights back to performative support for them but functional disregard of them. Three cases stand out: Yemen, Iran and Afghanistan.
Trump’s record in Afghanistan was characterized by untold violence. In April 2017, the “Mother of All Bombs,” the United States’ largest non-nuclear weapon was dropped on Afghanistan. American and U.S.-allied Afghan forces refused to let journalists investigate the wreckage while news agencies such as CNN and FOX reported uncritically the government claim that zero civilians were killed. One member of Parliament in Afghanistan, however, has alleged that he knew of at least two civilians killed in the blast. Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai called the bombing a “brutal act,” and demanded that Trump stop using Afghanistan as a “testing ground” for American military technology.
The MOAB was the most extreme manifestation of violence carried out in Afghanistan; however, the more common airstrikes became increasingly deadly for the Afghan civilian population once Trump came into office. In 2017, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, at the behest of Trump, changed the rules of engagement, expanding the capabilities of American forces in foreign territories. Between 2016 and 2020, civilian casualties due to American air strikes in Afghanistan increased by 330%. On average, more than 1,100 civilians were killed each year from American strikes in Afghanistan during Trump’s time in office according to one Brown University study.
Toward the end of his administration, Trump leaned back into his fake, populist, anti-endless-war rhetoric. In early 2020, the United States reached an agreement with the Afghan Taliban triggering the beginning of troop withdrawals. By the end of Trump’s tenure, the United States had 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, the lowest since the start of the war. According to the agreement, by May 1, 2021, American troops were set to have entirely left Afghanistan.
On Feb. 3, the Afghanistan Study Group, a “congressionally mandated” team intent on making “policy recommendations that consider the implications of a peace settlement, or the failure to reach a peace settlement,” issued their report. It recommended that Biden keep troops in Afghanistan past the May 1 deadline.
“It’s very hard to see a specific way forward for the negotiated settlement,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said, just six days before.
Conor Finnegan and James Meek reported on the issue for ABC News.
“President Joe Biden has talked about keeping U.S. forces for counter terrorism or to defend the U.S.-backed Afghan government against a rise in Taliban attacks,” they said.
According to a 2018 Charles Koch Foundation survey, more than half of Americans want troops out of Afghanistan. It seems clear, however, that Biden is aiming to keep troops past the May 1 deadline, continuing the U.S.’ longest occupation of a foreign country indefinitely and rolling back maybe the only good thing Trump set in motion in the Middle East. Biden is set to be the fourth president to continue the American tradition of torturing Afghanistan with this bloody and brutal occupation.
By all metrics, the Saudi air campaign and blockade against Yemen constitutes war criminality and genocide. Since 2015, 233,000 people have been killed in the conflict. The United Nations has called the situation the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The Saudi effort has been entirely funded and armed by the United States since the Obama administration began its support in 2015.
The U.S. has a long-standing history of selling arms to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia despite the country’s lack of democracy or civil rights for women and minorities. This has spanned Democratic and Republican administrations alike. For example, in Obama’s second term, the U.S. signed a 5.5 billion-dollar arms deal with the Kingdom while in Trump’s first year a 110-billion-dollar arms deal was signed.
But American support for the genocide in Yemen has been more hands-on than merely supplying weaponry. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. began refueling Saudi airplanes mid-air so as to allow for a greater number of strikes to be conducted between launches. Those strikes have included the targeting of schools and hospitals. One notably horrendous incident in October of 2016 killed 140 people who were attending a funeral.
While mid-air refueling of Saudi planes stopped during the Trump administration, support for the onslaught continued. American military advisors have continued to help pinpoint targets for strikes. Also, in April of 2019, Trump vetoed a bipartisan resolution that would have completely halted American involvement in the war.
For many, Biden’s announcement that the U.S. would end support for the Saudi war against Yemeni rebels seemed like a win for human rights.
“Joe Biden promised… to withdraw the ‘blank check’ then-President Donald Trump offered to dictators such as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” The Washington Post editorial board wrote. “The benefits of restoring that principle to U.S. foreign policy are already manifest.” They may be deeply underestimating the performability of the Biden administration’s announcement.
On Feb. 4, Biden laid out to the Department of State the administration’s new policy regarding Saudi Arabia and the war.
“We are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales,” He said in the speech.
This is the one line that received media attention. Much less talked about is the following remark.
“At the same time, Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV strikes, and other threats from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries [i.e. Yemen],” Biden said. “We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.”
Alleged infringements on Saudi Arabia’s “territorial integrity” were the impetus for Saudi interference in Yemen in the first place. Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Yemeni-American professor at Michigan State, told NPR’s “All Things Considered” that this language made him remain skeptical.
“This reminded me of the reasons that President Obama said he was getting into this war in the first place back in 2015 when they said that they were interested in protecting Saudi borders from Houthi rebels,” Al-Adeimi said.
Considering Biden was part of the administration that played a role in creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, there is little reason to suspect much of a change in policy despite the change in rhetoric. Saudi Arabia has always defined their war in Yemen as defensive, a definition which, if accepted by the Biden administration, would allow for further arms sales. U.S. support for Saudi Arabia against “Iranian-supplied forces” leaves room for a complete continuation of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Listed amongst the worst foreign policy decisions made by the Trump administration is the decision to pull out of the Iran Nuclear Deal. Biden’s Iran policy suggests little will change.
Iran was never building a nuclear weapon. In fact, they were never accused of building a nuclear weapon.
“Is Iran trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in a Jan. 2012 interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that’s what concerns us.”
The Iran Nuclear Deal, which was struck between the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members, placed limits on Iranian nuclear activity while lifting sanctions that had been placed by the United States and others.
It should be noted that Iran is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Agreement. Israel, on the other hand, the strongest ally of the United States and one of Iran’s fiercest adversaries in the region, is thought to have as many as 200 nuclear weapons. They are not a signatory to the agreement.
Since Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal and slapped sanctions back on, Iran began changing its behavior regarding nuclear materials. In an interview that aired during the Super Bowl, Biden told CBS Evening News that sanctions will not be lifted on Iran until they stop enriching uranium.
“We still see the same policies from the newly elected administration as we did from the Trump team: not lifting the oppressive sanctions against Iranian people, continuing to block Iran oil revenue in foreign banks while we need the money to fight against the coronavirus pandemic,” Hossein Dehghan, Iran’s only presidential candidate, said to The Guardian.
During his campaign, Biden often attacked Trump on foreign policy from the right, using dog whistles like “isolationist” and “unilateral” to mean “not imperial enough.” It is no wonder then his policies will continue in the tradition of American Empire. We should expect similar stances on issues concerning Israel/Palestine, drone and air strikes, and regime change. The people in the Middle East are experiencing the return to “normalcy,” which we’ve heard so much, in a drastically different manner than we are.