Sunday, November 15, 2020

Now what?

Despite the efforts of roughly 47% of the U.S. voters to ensure four more years of nonstop lies, the Plague, and the New Gilded Age Project it now appears that the executive branch, at least, will revert to the more typical sort of internal and external Great Power politics that has been the bog-standard operational mode for the United States since at least 1945. 

Can we project what this might mean, at least in general terms? 

Keeping in mind the Pathogen in the Room that is the COVID-19 pandemic, where is a Biden Administration likely to go geopolitically? 

Away from Trumpian transactionalism, one suspects. It seems likely that the old ties to NATO and the Asian democracies will be tightened and tightened bonds to autocrats such as Erdogan and Mohammad Bin Salman will be loosened, and in particular the pay-for-play demands of Trumpian foreign policy will be discarded. As Bromwich notes;

"Biden has surrounded himself with the conventional advisers of the Clinton-Obama circle – Jake Sullivan, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Thomas Donilon, Ash Carter, Michèle Flournoy. It is hard to imagine any of them straying far from the Cold War groove of shepherding Nato (sic) against Russia and finding a field for occasional military exercise in a humanitarian war."

The bit about "humanitarian war" elides that Biden himself - and to be fair Bromwich does note this - was against the Libyan misadventure from the start.

I've always been skeptical of the "conservative" insistence on the political influence of the "Responsibility to Protect" crowd on the Left. For a brief moment during the Clinton Nineties the notion that the U.S. could use Bullets for Good was kicked around in public, but the actual effects seem to have been very minimal. 

Despite the UN resolutions of the Oughts Libya remains the only salient example; for all the talk about R2P nothing has been done in Syria or Yemen other than the usual Great Power politics by either the Obama or Trump Administrations. Given that, and Biden's antipathy about the Libya intervention, I don't see any real return to "humanitarian war" in the next four years.

What about the "War on Terror"?

In 2009 Biden advised Obama to cut and run from Afghanistan. I suspect that a Trump-directed wrapup that might have begun this autumn has gone the way of everything else not golf-, television-, and Twitter-related now that the Grifter-in-Chief has no more fucks to give. 

But will 2021 begin with a final shuttering of the neverending saga of "Operation Enduring Freedom"? And what will happen when the inevitable collapse of the Tajik/Uzbek government in Kabul occurs? Will this become a "who lost China" controversy?

The situation in the remainder of the Middle East seems like a perfect opportunity for American disengagement. There is no real reason to take sides in the Sunni-Shia civil war, or to favor the Saudi congeries against the Iranian-led Shia axis. Given its size and demographics Iran is going to be the regional power in Southwest Asia; the U.S. insistence on trying to hold back that tide looks increasingly foolish given the persistent bad-actorism of the Saudis.

And, given the need to reduce the consumption of petroleum if we are to avoid a repetition of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, the need for U.S. involvement in hoarding oilfields and the despotisms that surround them seems increasingly louche. Why not take the opportunity of a Biden foreign policy to wave goodbye and wish a pox on both their houses? 

The real open question is can a Biden Administration DO this? Engagement in the Middle East has become engrained in U.S. policy since 1945. It seems to me that it would take a seismic shift to change that, and I don't see Biden as a "seismic" kind of guy. Unfortunately, I see the next four years as a continuation of the preceding 60-odd, with the U.S. unwilling to quit fussing around in the damned region but unable to devise an actual "coherent-with-national-interest" set of goals there, either.

The other potential engagement point is the west Pacific rim.

There the North Koreans have quietly resumed their usual fuckery with atomic weapons and the means to deliver them. I cannot imagine how a Biden Adminstration will change that; the examples of Saddam and Gaddafi are too powerful for the Kims to ignore. There will be no "denuclearization" in Korea.

Can there be some sort of demarche that takes the ceasefire further towards a genuine peace treaty? seems difficult to imagine a way to get around the deep well of paranoia and defensiveness that Kimism has dug north of the 38th Parallel. Perhaps the status quo is the best we can hope for.

Collision with the People's Republic of China, however, seems both more threatening and more solvable, depending on how badly the PRC wants to be the regional power in the South China Sea and how badly the U.S. wants to prevent that and how badly both sides want some sort of liveable solution.

War between the PRC and the US would be...bad. But in a sense the two powers are already in an economic and political cold war, and the Trumpian attempt to combat PRC mercantilist war with its own version stumbled on Tariff Man's misunderstanding of how tariffs actually work. The other option that might have done some good - revising U.S. tax and fiscal policies to punish global corporations for capital flight and offshoring - seem to have been a nonstarter in the New Gilded Age. Unfortunately, I can't see enthusiasm for such policies in the former Senator from Citibank. 

That said, given the habits and mores of the Beijing regime, increased global power for the PRC seems undesirable for anyone outside Beijing. The U.S., however, can't really position itself as the Good Guy here unless it can develop a policy other than "Fuck you, China" and the other regional actors can be motivated to respond in concert with it. 

But the actors themselves are such a disparate and rag-tag bunch, ranging from the relative stability of Australia and Japan to the whatever-the-hell-is-happening in the Philippines and Indonesia, that it seems difficult to imagine some sort of subtly-led-by-the-US alliance gently but firmly resisting PRC imperialism along the Pacific rim, and that's without the weird intraparty scuffling going on between the ROK and Japan.

In short, the west Pacific is a potential tarbaby for the U.S. and the incoming administration that I'm not sure how they either solve or disengage themselves from. To step away and let the PRC bully everyone along the Pacific rim seems fraught. But to confront the PRC seems equally, or more, fraught; I can see many ways it could go wrong, and going right will require a hell of a deft touch that the U.S. has been lacking since well before Trump.

Ending the rule of Know-Nothingism and incipient fascism - not to mention the even nuttier political nonsense like "QAnon" - is an unqualified Good Thing.

But what comes next seems, as always, full of questions and doubts...and the recent election results suggest that the United States is, still...

How that will play out over the next four years I dread to think.


  1. "Why not take the opportunity of a Biden foreign policy to wave goodbye and wish a pox on both their houses?"

    Because Israel?
    The Obama/Biden administration created a multi-year plan for huge military subsidies to Israel for no good reason whatsoever, despite the Israeli government wasn't helpful and even quite antagonistic.
    I see no reason why Biden/Harris would begin to ignore Israel.

    1. Unfortunately I suspect you're right; the damn Bslfour Declaration - the poison gift that keeps on giving...

      I don't expect Biden to actually DO that, just suggesting that given the 90-degree turn his foreign policy will have to make to unfuck the mess-o-potamia that this might give the U.S. a chance to break that cycle.

      The one wildcard is the way Netanyahu has gone all in on the GOP. Suddenly Israel isn't nearly as "bipartisan" as it was. Still not completely a "conservative" project...but less of a third rail than it was, surely.

  2. The Chinese just signed the RCEP trade deal with everyone who matters in Asia (except India). Biden is starting from way behind if he wants to mess around in East Asia.

    Will Biden close Gitmo? Probably not. Can he get out of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq? Probably not. Will he be able to do a deal with Iran? Probably not. (The hardliners in Iran are likely to take power in the early summer and there is no way he could get the Iranians back in the nuclear deal before then.

    Will he start a war with Iran? I don't think so. But I think that the Saudis are heading towards a period of instability and that will seriously mess with the gulf. So, who knows.

  3. We have been "behind" at least since the signing of the CPTPP in 2018.

    The current agreement seems to do more to formalize rather than remake trade relations; it eliminates tariffs already eliminated as "duty-free treatment" under existing free trade agreements and allows tariffs for sectors the signatories regard as especially important or sensitive. I'm not sure that the hill any steeper for Biden that it already is; after two out of the past three US administrations have been characterized by massive lies and idiotic political moves (and idiotic wars, in the case of Bush 2) I suspect that much of the rest of the world doesn't trust the US much anymore.

    The exclusion of India - which I understand wanted into this badly - is odd, and it sounds like it was largely because of Chinese pressure on Japan, who wanted India in.

    The other thing is to distinguish between "will" and "can".

    "Will" Biden stop the idiot "war on terror" and shut down the Middle Eastern deployments? If he's smart he will. But you know as well as I do if he does the GOP will demagogue him as "soft on terror". "Can" he stand up to that? I hope so. I'm not optimistic, but I hope he can.

    Gitmo? Oh, you mean the In'shallh Retirement Community? That's still a thing? Wow. Who knew.

    The mess in the gulf region seems like a better reason to get out than not, and a smart Biden Administration will, as I said, accept that Iran is going to be a regional power in the Gulf region, regardless of who's running the joint, and that the Saudis are just trouble. Will they? Hard to say.

  4. Trade treaties are overrated nowadays.

    GATT and other legacy treaties have reduced obstacles to trade so much that trade economis scholars don't expect any major impact on GDP from new trade treaties.

    The last couple "trade treaties" were little about trade, and much about extending privileges (especially copyrights and trademarks) beyond national borders as well as empowering big business against governments. They were and are unnecessary big business lobbyism-driven crap.

    1. Apparently when the US left the TPP and it morphed into the "CPTPP" all the IP, patent, copyright, and trademark stuff that the US corporations were all crazy about got dumped most quick smart, so you seem to have a point.

  5. Apparently the Trumpkins ARE going to try and grab an Afghanistan hat: "The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins offers some corroboration: “Trump is determined to bring home all forty-five hundred U.S. troops that remain in Afghanistan — or at least as many as possible before he leaves office. ‘He wants to put us on an irreversible course to a total withdrawal,’ the official said.”

    As usual, it's a total Trumpian clusterfuck. But if the guy can yank the guys out of the Grave of Empires I'll kiss his orange ass for it.

  6. Biden is going to have too much trouble at home from the Trumper kool-aid drinkers to mess much with power politics elsewhere. And he'll get incoming fire from the orange bozo himself; and stalled legislation from Moscow Mitch McConnell. But he does need to put steady hands in at State and Defense. For State I'm leaning towards a career Diplomat, Burns or Blinken or McGurk. For Defense why not go deep? Cecil Haney? Deborah James? Clint Watts? Or even Phil Carter? But the smart money is on Michele Flournoy. If she gets in there Uncle Joe needs to keep a leash on her, as she has a rep for R2P ops.

    Here at home in addition to Trump screaming election fraud, now his mafia buddies are trying to claim South Philly mob boss Skinny Joey Merlino delivered hundreds of thousands of votes for Biden. It's bogus and won't hold up in court. But it will become "street fact" for the next two or three decades. In reality, Skinny Joey has little clout in Philly, but he was a major mafiosi at Atlantic City in South Jersey. He was born in South Philly but raised in South Jersey in Ventnor which abuts and is part of greater Atlantic City. There was buzz on the street there that Skinny Joey was a silent partner in Trump's Taj Mahal and had the valet parking contract for the Trump Plaza & Casino there. Probably taught Trumpo how to skim, which is why the casinos went tits up.

    In other news - Fantasy Island Adult Bookstore and Sex Shop in Philly is now doing a landslide business after Giuliani, the Orange Bozo's personal lawyer, held a press fiasco next door a week ago:



    FDChief - If I were you I'd wait a bit before putting your lips on the Bozo's heinie. It ain't orange in any case, just the face.

    1. A bit of further analysis I read suggests that the "withdrawal" from Iraq, for example, consists of a whopping 500 guys out of about 3-4K. So maybe whatever the color, His Royal Butt may remain unkissed...

    2. Cole has a take on this here (; he thinks it's a "poison pill" for Biden:

      "Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but we know that Trump and his aides are doing whatever they can to sabotage the incoming Biden administration and to prepare for a 2024 Trump run for the presidency.

      Maybe Trump wants to be able to tell his 70 million acolytes in 2024 that he got the US out of Afghanistan and Iraq almost entirely, but then Biden came in and screwed things up.

      If Biden is the one who withdraws completely from Afghanistan and then Kabul falls, it will be the Democrats who have egg on their faces. If Biden puts the number of troops back up to 5,000, then Trump can say that Biden dragged us back in to fruitless Middle East wars."

    3. Cole got it right. But Trump's too dumb to figure out something that complex.

      There is a Jim Henson type behind the curtain pulling the strings for the Bozo.

  8. I note that the story slides between Trump "asking for options" and Trump wanting to bomb Nantaz and getting talked out of it. Given the current chaos in both the Whitehouse and Defense Department, I would assume that any anonymous embarrassing leak to the press is really a bid to the incoming Biden administration for ongoing job employment.

  9. AEL - Or perhaps leaker's motive was to put some sunshine on the Bozo-in-Chief's effort to keep Biden from ever reinstating JCPOA. In any case the Bozo's motive is crystal clear.

  10. Some more context here:

    tl:dr - a lot of the places "we" (i.e. U.S. foreign policy) have been ignoring since the end of the Cold War are breaking out in war; the Caucasus, Ethiopia/Eritrea, and North Africa, offering new opportunities for global nonsense. Whether the incoming administration can resist? Not entirely sanguine about that.

  11. Any Ethiopian war will have been incited by the Orange Bumbler-in-Chief.

    Hopefully Biden can calm things down there.

    1. No, that exaggerates the relevance of the U.S..

  12. Perhaps it is exaggerating US relevance to think that Biden can calm things down.

    But the Lying-Moron's ability to uncage violence in some is not limited domestically to the to the Boogaloo Boys and the many other American fascisti militias. His poisonous words provoke venom and virulence internationally as well as at home. Trumpo has an uncanny ability to bring out dissension, hatred, and the salt of malediction regardless of borders.

    1. The U.S. may have some influence in places like Kosovo as long as it's being considered a rich bribe-giver. It's outranked by Russia as external friend to have in Azerbaijan. Everybody saw how useless it was for Georgia to try having American goodwill.

      The U.S. is not even one per cent of the whole conflict story in places like Ethiopia.

    2. You seem to continue talking of goodwill. I had already conceded that point.

      The Lying-Moron does NOT promote goodwill overseas. Instead he promotes dissension and hatred and slyly alludes to violence.

    3. My point isn't about the lying moron. Back in 2008, South Ossetia War, the Georgian history of providing imperial auxiliaries to the U.S: and allowing the U.S. to infiltrate and corrupt its officer corps with training missions and having American "trainers" on its soil counted for NOTHING when Russia decided to counter the Georgian attempt to establish control in its separatist South Ossetia region.

      Nothing. The USCG sent some OPV into the Black Sea as a show of impotence (I wonder why a USCG ship would be that far from American EEZ in the first place), and that was it. No cruise missile strike closing the critical mountain tunnel, for example.

      Building up American goodwill was useless for a long time. Americans pretend to be relevant and powerful globally, but they're not.

      Furthermore, ask the British about how they felt when every time the Argentinians question British sovereignty over the Falklands the Americans say nothing against it, much less do anything. And the British have the most "special relationship" with the U.S..

      U.S. global influence is in large part an emperor's new clothes story.