Saturday 21 November 2020

Biden-Harris on course to prove critics wrong (The Sunday Guardian)


Given the tantrums of the outgoing administration, the challenges Biden will face on entering the White House will be unprecedented.

President-elect Joseph Robinette Biden Jr has spent 34 years preparing for the four years ahead beginning 20 January 2021. Although there may be those who use the mechanical metric of age rather than the chemistry of experience to gauge competence, it is clear from the steps that the former Senior Senator from Delaware has taken since 3 November that his earlier years have been well spent. Given the tantrums of the outgoing administration, the challenges he will immediately face on entering the White House for the first time as the lawful occupant will be unique. President Donald J. Trump has had more than a few successes during his term, and Benjamin Netanyahu behaved with gratitude and courtesy in thanking him for some of them, which included the welcome escape of Israel from the diplomatic quarantine of so many Arab states. In the case of that often ignored democracy, Taiwan, Trump has done more to secure that country from a PLA takeover than any of his predecessors since Jimmy Carter initiated the pro-PRC tilt. The problem with Trump is that he has had a lifelong obsession with the dollar, which the 45th US President clearly values above all else, save perhaps Ivanka, Melania and Barron. This has been in evidence during trade talks with allies, who in this matter get treated as mortal foes. The Trump USTR has made numerous efforts to derail the low-cost pharma industry in India, or try and subject our country to East India Company-modelled policies in data storage and IPR. India has the brainpower needed to create tech titans in the same way as these have developed in China and the US. Modi 2.0 needs to take down the layer upon layer of burdensome regulations and laws that stunt honest enterprises and smother individual initiative. Whatever one does in India, there is a regulation or a law which can get used by unscrupulous competitors to take away viability, property and liberty. Especially in the matter of personal liberty, much work needs to get done during the second term of Prime Minister Modi. Just being in the vicinity of a few grams of drugs that are in common recreational use across the world (and which have been legalised in many countries) has been sufficient cause for the Narcotics Control Bureau to treat several Bollywood notables as dangerous criminals. The effect of such zeal on the part of an agency that has long had outsize powers and discretion on an important component of India’s soft power will be visible in the period ahead. Incoming Vice-President Kamala Harris would serve her boss well were she to oversee substantive reforms of the criminal justice system in the US. The Biden administration needs to do away with the Nixon-Clinton measures that have swollen the jail population of the US to greater levels than that in the People’s Republic of China, the country that is challenging US primacy across Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific.

Joe Biden is known to be a warm and decent human being, which is a welcome qualification in any individual. However, this will not help much in reaching across the Republican-Democrat divide to revive a presently moribund bipartisanship. As Vice-President, this was a task that he had little success in. Six of the eight years of President Barack Obama were spent in enduring the legislative blockade created by a Republican-controlled US Congress. It is unlikely that President Biden will have any greater luck than Veep Biden, which is why the Democratic Party needs to win the two Senate seats in Georgia being contested in January, so that the party takes control of the Senate from that master of obstruction, Mitch McConnell. The Senate Majority Leader has been the saviour of Ankara because of his rescue of President Erdogan from CAATSA sanctions that ought by law to have been applied after Turkey’s S-400 purchase. This unpunished defiance by Erdogan has reduced to caricature the assumption of solidarity within NATO to the level of farce. It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will show more courage than its predecessor in the matter of S-400 sanctions. Trump has further smudged his legacy, but not by trying to reduce US troop commitments to 2,500 each in Iraq and Afghanistan. If those left behind are carefully chosen, and this gets followed up with adequate rather than insufficient transfers of intelligence and essential weapons platforms to the Afghan and Iraqi armed forces, this is all that is needed, not US troops. What has damaged US credibility as a security partner is not the Afghanistan troop reduction but the pell-mell nature of the rush to the door, and the dangerous message that Zalmay Khalilzad’s kowtow to the Taliban contains for terror groups across the world. It is that of a power too scared to fight and which is ready to sacrifice an ally to its worst enemies. This was in evidence elsewhere as well, including the manner in which Trump sought to ingratiate himself with Erdogan by sacrificing the Kurds. An allegation has been made that the Kurds in Syria went the Czechoslovakia way because of President Trump’s eagerness to ensure that present and future Trump properties in Turkey generate money that may be needed by the group to repay loans it has taken in the past. This seems just another of the smears that have so befouled politics in too many democracies. After the fiasco of the Nancy Pelosi-led effort to impeach the 45th US President, President-elect Biden has said that he does not want his term to be defined by criminal processes against his predecessor at the federal level. It was the lengthy and doomed to fail impeachment process that gave oxygen to the multiple conspiracy theories that are occupying much of media and mindscape in the US. The Democratic Party has been punished in polls to the House of Representatives for the impeachment soap opera that was conducted, especially when it was clear from the start that the US Senate would toss out any impeachment resolution. Just as when he fell victim to Covid-19 during the campaign and showed grit in coming back to fight, efforts at impeachment converted Trump into a victim, thereby assisting him in the 2020 polls, which would otherwise have been a landslide for the Democrats.

While North Korea is and will remain a nuclear weapons power, Iran is unlikely to ever be coerced or persuaded to abandon its own program, given the about turn it has experienced from Washington in the matter of the JCPOA. Returning to the Obama outreach to Cuba will within the Biden term deliver benefits for Cubans on both sides of the present divide. This will wipe out the temporary fall in votes caused by misinformation about the Havana initiative. As for the Indo-Pacific, this has replaced the Atlantic as the centre of gravity, and it is unlikely that the Biden administration would follow the example of Canute and seek to roll the waves of change back. Washington, London and Paris may even team up to demand a UNSC vote on India’s admission as a permanent member, albeit without a veto. Judging by the measured tone and actions of the putative Biden administration, there are grounds for optimism.


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