In the first two months of his term the new US President Joe Biden put both a friend and an enemy of Washington in the Middle East on notice: A classified CIA report implicating Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman in the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was released to the press and the US Air force launched reprisal
strikes against Iranian targets in Syria.
Both decisions indicate that President Biden wants to make clear that his administration had embarked on an important departure from the Trump administration, “which acted recklessly in its actions toward Iran and enabled the worst impulses of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy”.
In fact President Biden is essentially on a different course than any of his recent predecessors as he seemed determined to adopt a bolder approach to dealing with troublesome states in the Middle East – i.e., Iran and Saudi Arabia espousing policies counter to the agenda of Liberal International Order as envisaged by the new political establishment in Washington.
Biden’s election as President of the United States clearly indicates that the narrow-minded approach of former President Trump policies of withdrawing Washington from championing democratic and human rights causes internationally has been reversed. Washington once again will assert itself on high profile cases of human rights violations and promote democratic causes around the world. Trump’s near-isolationist policies will have to give way to Washington’s penchant for espousing international causes that will uplift its image as a bastion of human rights, democracy and the international impetus towards globalization. American experts have already started announcing President Biden is good news for those espousing the causes of climatic change and environmental issues.
President Joe Biden’s career as a politician is replete with evidence of his inclinations for championing human rights and democratic causes around the world. He belongs to the part of Washington’s political establishment that believes in the exceptional nature of American political system and philosophy which in practical terms means that American political values like civil liberties, equality and freedom are universal values, which can and should be enforced in every society around the world. For this, Liberal Internationalists in Washington believe they have an inherent right to interfere in the affairs of other societies to prevent human rights violations in those societies. In American society this political idealism is often defined in religious idiom and language, although President Biden belongs to the secular and liberal faction of this idealist group.
The ideological groups in Washington which led and championed the interventionist policies like Iraq and Afghanistan apparently look like political kin of Liberal Internationalists in American politics. But strictly ideologically speaking they are not. The neoconservatives, who formed the backbone of the Bush Administration, were in favor of using military force to spread American values of civil-liberty, democracy and freedom. In contrast, the Liberal Internationalism the ideology Pres Biden espouses does not necessarily favor use of military power to enforce American political values around the world.
What, then, is to be made of the US under- taking airstrikes against Iranian-allied targets in Syria? In other words why did the Biden Administration use the military option against Iran to convey what is essentially being described as a diplomatic signal?
In the American media, Biden’s decision to launch strikes against Iran-backed militias in Syria showcases what has been described by the US political scientist Joseph Nye as “smart power”. This is when hard power is employed alongside soft power in a carefully calibrated way to affect a diplomatic outcome. In this case, the US worked collaboratively with the Iraqi government and intelligence officials to develop and execute the planned strikes in Syria. “The strikes themselves, which hit militia logistical and staging targets in Syria, were designed to signal the US resolve to stand up to Tehran’s provocations. At the same time, they were calibrated in a way that would de-escalate tensions, avoiding a
more direct attack on Iran that could provoke its leadership further. Washington clearly telegraphed its actions as a direct response to attacks by Iranian-backed militias against US targets in Iraq in mid-February”
“Within the context of the wider negotiations around Iran’s nuclear program, Biden is clearly communicating that certain behaviors will not be tolerated and Iran cannot affect the negotiations through destabilizing behavior”.
American media is suggesting that on the one hand Biden wanted to punish Iran for its unruly behavior while on the other hand his administration wanted to keep open the option of bringing Iran to the negotiating table for talks on nuclear issues.
It could be easily assumed that the Liberal Internationalists and Neoconservatives the first simply espousing political values without the use of military option and second advocating the military option for the spread of American values are not very different when it comes to dealing with issues in the Middle East or Iran to be precise. In practice, both approaches boil down to the use of military power to assert American hegemony at the international stage. Only time will tell how different the liberal internationalist agenda of President Biden will be from the neocon agenda of President Bush.
However, when it comes to Washington’s traditional friends, Biden has also diverged sharply from Trump in his handling so far of Saudi Arabia. Biden has indicated that while he remains committed to Saudi national defense, he expects the kingdom to wind down its ruinous six-year war in Yemen and embrace a more progressive position on universal human rights.
Biden’s commitment to these ideals, combined with the increasingly anti-Saudi sentiment across the other branches of the US government, indicates that President Biden would be under pressure from within his administration and traditional lobbies in Washington to deal more strictly with Saudi’s violations of human rights and their antidemocratic impulses.
In such a situation, it should not be hard to surmise how far MBS would be allowed to continue his genocidal military campaign in Yemen. Will Biden Administration champion human rights and democracy in other Muslim societies in the Middle East, Western Asia and South Asia? It is too early to predict.
The leaders of the hybrid regime in Pakistan have already started to throw around the word democracy in their public assertions much more frequently than before. Much will depend on whether the opposition parties succeed in international portraying the PTI government as a civil-military combine and as a violator of human rights.