By the time the 46th US president entered the fourth quarter of his first year in power, the White House had already gone through two stages, a sweet then a bitter one. It is now trying to turn back the clock to the first. That had opened with everything in favour of the new president, who had beaten his predecessor with a comfortable electoral majority. Everything was simultaneously against Trump, whose leadership epitomised the country’s growing socio-political fragmentation and polarisation, the increasing gulf between the two main parties and other cumulative ailments of the US political system.
When Joe Biden entered the White House, he seemed the saviour who would rescue the country from those ills that reared their head in a particularly ugly way on 6 January, only a couple of weeks before the official handover of power. “Anything but Trump” was the byword for America’s mood at the time. The country seemed on the verge of a second civil war, a major racial clash or even a coup against the established order, if not a war with the world. Trump’s persistent campaign to challenge the integrity of the electoral process could have been taken from the Third World where no elections are held without the legitimacy and the results being questioned. Biden, by contrast, stood for returning to the good old days: stability, equilibrium, institutions and seasoned elites who understood how democracy worked.
Biden was not a new face on the American scene. He had a long career of service in American legislature, both as congressman and as head of congressional committees. At 67, he became president Barrack Obama’s vice president, bringing with him his many years of expertise and the sagacity of age. His inauguration as president earlier this year was hailed by a democratic liberal press rejoicing at the approaching return to normal. For his part, Biden spared no effort to show that he would be true to this promise. He would lead the US back to world leadership and the US would lead by reform at home, setting an example the world could emulate. This was Biden-I, whose popularity soared.
Just the handling of Covid-19 was enough to damn Trump and hand Biden the chance to score the first success, the reinstatement of a sound and informed policy, and relief from the confusion that reigned after the previous administration’s break with science and knowledge. Biden drew up a clear recovery programme that would lift the country from crisis by July. It included economic stimulus programmes, a massive campaign to combat Covid-19 and a nationwide infrastructure development programme. Abroad, the Biden administration moved to reposition the US in the fold of industrialised, technologically advanced nations with Western, liberal and democratic culture and outlooks. Biden-1 features included visits to the UK, a G-7 summit, a mending of NATO fences and a stab at some remote handling of the Middle East, especially after the outbreak of war between Israelis and Palestinians.
As they say, every phase of an era is born of the one before. The roots of Biden-II began while Biden-I was still in progress, when he announced plans to withdraw, first, from Afghanistan; secondly, from Iraq; and thirdly, from everything else when the time came. It is unclear why he felt he had to make this announcement. US presence in the Middle East had already shrunk greatly, so the announcement could only signify a declaration of further US abandonment of many allies. It was hard to see how this differed from what Trump began. Problems then began to surface for the Biden administration. The first concerned the less than spectacular results of the attempt contain the spread of the virus and its variants. The Biden administration has not yet managed to inoculate 70 per cent of the people and it had to threaten to introduce vaccine by mandate. This, in turn, has become an electoral campaign issue along with the resurfacing debate over electoral tampering. Trump’s popularity began to rebound – and not just in the Republican Party.
Then came the catastrophic US evacuation from Afghanistan and the enormous damage this did to Washington’s reputation, not least for having turned its back on the friends and allies who had worked with the US in Afghanistan. The charges of betrayal did not stop there. Paris has accused the US of stabbing France in the back in collusion with Britain and Australia when the US scrapped a deal to purchase conventionally powered submarines from Paris in order to purchase nuclear powered subs from Canberra. As a result of all this, recent opinion polls show a sharp decline in Biden’s popularity.
Enter Biden-III. This edition, arriving at the outset of September and in the aftermath of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, was to press reset. Several opportunities lay ahead, facilitated by a super rapid news cycle that puts recent events behind us no sooner than new ones crop up. One opportunity was to be found in the commemoration of a memory of a 20-year-old event that left a lasting scar in the US psyche. Another was the annual speech the US president gives at the inauguration of the UN General Assembly. Then there were speeches at a host of other international meetings the president was scheduled to attend, some virtually via Zoom. In order to rehabilitate the image of the first edition, Biden-III has refocussed on the pandemic, re-firing the campaign to end it domestically and adopting it as the “new normal” and a basis for taking international cooperation on the issue to new horizons. He has also grabbed global warming by the horns again, citing the Californian forest fires, the hurricane that swept up the eastern seaboard from Louisiana, and a host of other meteorological phenomena as alarms compelling closer international coordination on the environment as well.
Unfortunately for Biden-III, such foreign policy issues are complicated by domestic divisions over them. There are the questions of the $3.5 trillion stimulus package, a national debt of an inconceivable magnitude, and volatile controversies over abortion and racism. At the same time, the Biden-III foreign policy strategy is contradictory and inconsistent. He seeks broader international cooperation but wants to exclude China, which he has cast as the new “enemy” replacing the Soviet Union of the Cold War era and the war against terrorism. How can a broad-based international coalition succeed when it excludes a fifth of the world’s population?
Turning from global strategic matters to more tactical ones, such as the French anger Washington provoked with its nuclear sub deal with Australia, there remains a question as to what Washington should do to make amends to Paris, which has been a close ally of the US ever since the war of independence. Keeping Israel happy while pushing for further Arab-Israeli normalisation will also create challenges at home.
It looks like Biden-III will need the help of friends.
* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly