US President Joe Biden’s foreign policy team seem increasingly unsure of the ground beneath their feet. They can see that the edifice that their 78-year-old chief is erecting stands on shaky ground. But they lack the presence of mind to object.
Biden has the supreme advantage that even if one were to add up the entire experience of his top officials in international diplomacy, he still towers over them. And that includes even veteran diplomat William Burns, whom Biden plucked from retired life to head the Central Intelligence Agency, an organization that even illustrious presidents such as Dwight D Eisenhower and John F Kennedy could not control.
Burns admitted tactfully to National Public Radio (NPR) in his first interview as the CIA boss last week that his priority task will be to rein in the agency: “I hope very much that I’ll be a better director of CIA because my experience as a policymaker, as a diplomat, should help me better connect intelligence work to what matters most to policymakers. At least that’s what I’ll try very hard to do …
“As a diplomat over those three and a half decades, I helped shape policy. And my job, our job, at CIA is to support and inform policymakers so they make the best possible choices; it’s not to become policymakers.
“And so what that means, I think, is that our obligation is to deliver, in an unvarnished way without any political or policy agenda, the best and most well-grounded intelligence that we can collect to help the president and all of my colleagues in this government make smart choices.
“I’ve known and worked with and admired the president for a quarter-century, and he made very clear to me when he asked me to take on this job that that’s what he expects, even when the intelligence we provide is not convenient; and I know that feeling, as a policymaker before …”
Burns accounts for not less than 90% of the entire Biden team’s experience in the diplomatic arena – which includes Antony Blinken, secretary of state, Lloyd Austin III, defense secretary, Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, and Avril Haines, director of national intelligence.
Foreign policy failures
Unsurprisingly, Burns’ remarks are confusing. To comprehend their hopelessness, read that fine book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, by Tim Weiner, who wrote on American intelligence for The New York Times for two decades and was a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Weiner uncovered why nearly every CIA director left the agency in worse shape than when he found it, and why its covert actions led to profound failures in the United States’ foreign policies.
Biden is indeed a very experienced leader who spent more than 36 years in the dog-eat-dog racetracks of American politics – the Senate. Thereafter, for the next eight years, he served as Barack Obama’s indispensable vice president, where he played the improbable role of consensus-maker on the Hill and sorting out the United States’ recalcitrant allies and partners abroad, including Turkey and Russia.
Biden handled turfs where Obama temperamentally lacked the skill to operate or a sense of engrossment – such as Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. If Obama was completely at ease with Angela Merkel, Biden delighted in pow-vowing with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki or Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.
By the way, Biden has his own game plan on Saudi Arabia, which he once called a “pariah state.” Madawi al-Rasheed, visiting professor at the Middle East Institute of the London School of Economics, wrote recently: “So far, Biden has a better record on pushing the [present] crown prince to temper his adventurist foreign policies. It is easier for Biden to force him to seek reconciliation with Qatar, offer a peace treaty to Yemen’s Houthis, flirt with Iran via Iraq, and endear himself to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“But when it comes to political reforms, a muted US is neither willing nor able to see the merits of promoting a process that will eventually lead the kingdom on a path to democracy. At the moment, US national interests are allied with those of an authoritarian crown prince, so why rock the boat.”
That’s Biden for you: His foreign policy team is like babes in the woods.
Blinken couldn’t have anticipated that his boss would call Russian President Vladimir Putin a “killer” and then in just three weeks veer around to propose a meeting. Blinken therefore increasingly sticks to safe ground – occasionally badmouth China, or, when there’s nothing else to do, reaffirm America’s trans-Atlantic nuptial vows.
He prefers to handle India and Kuwait, which don’t terribly interest Biden.
Plan B for Afghanistan
Take Afghanistan. Blinken thought that the Doha process was the real thing. But in reality, that wasn’t Biden’s track. Only Austin and Burns knew. Actually, Biden even had a Plan B in reserve, which is unfolding now, aimed at transforming that hybrid war into an algorithm war.
It necessitates recasting the Taliban in the mold of the “enemy,” and thereafter from the safety of the skies rain missiles on them, testing new weapons systems, frustrating China’s Belt and Road, keep Russia on tenterhooks and Iran in a high state of alert.
Of course, Biden first made sure that no body bags would return home to embarrass him. His Plan B was drawn up by the so-called “Deep State” and it takes care of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s exit, which is always a possibility.
Therefore, a Quadrilateral Diplomatic Platform (Quad-2) has been put in place. But Biden is yet to have a word with Pakistani leader Imran Khan, America’s newest Quad partner on the horizon.
The Afghan pantomime is now repeating in Iraq, Biden’s old haunt. On Monday, Biden announced that the US combat mission in Iraq would end by December 31. Biden is ending another “forever war.”
The announcement followed a White House meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. For the benefit of the uninitiated, Kadhami’s real mission, when the US manipulated his ascendance in Baghdad, was that he’d push back Iran’s shadows and retrieve Iraq from the Tehran-led “Shia Crescent” – to borrow an explosive expression credited to the late Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
To be sure, the termination of Iraq’s “forever war” is a mere illusion. Biden added the caveat that US cooperation with the Iraqi government against “terrorism” would continue in a new stage that is now being discussed.
Desperate for US help
Kadhimi is in exactly the same predicament as Afghanistan’s Ghani – he too is America’s creation; lacks a political base; is under pressure to announce a firm schedule for transition in Baghdad; and is under pressure from Shiite militias and Tehran. Kadhimi, like Ghani, is also desperate for US help.
Biden is repeating his black magic. His predecessor Donald Trump’s impetuous decision to murder Iranian General Qasem Soleimani haunts the Pentagon and CIA. Biden hopes to exorcise Soleimani’s ghost with his Iraq troop withdrawal decision, whose optics will also reboot his sagging political ratings at home.
The bottom line is, Biden is once again making sure that the great game the Pentagon and the CIA have been working on will continue: Keep Iran, China and Russia at bay in Iraq. It is only a matter of time before Biden announces yet another Quad comprising the US, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
On July 20, just before hosting Kadhimi, Biden welcomed King Abdullah II of Jordan to the White House, someone with whom he has been “hanging out together for a long time.”
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.