Monday 14 February 2022

President Biden, don’t confuse friends with foes (The Sunday Guardian)


The Atlantic is once more the primary focus of attention by the White House, no longer the Indo-Pacific.

There ought not to have been any surprise in the White House that the Heads of Government of Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar (the latest US “major non-NATO ally”) chose to ignore President Joe Biden’s call for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics and be present besides Presidents Putin and Xi at the opening ceremony. The very capable Royal Family of Qatar, risking its own safety, remains the only GCC power that still backs the Wahhabi International. Perhaps this is why those close to the White House have spared it the criticisms that have been levelled against Al Sisi in Egypt and Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia in particular. Military transfers have been blocked to Egypt and Indonesia, both countries that are seeking to hold at bay extremist groups from entering into positions of responsibility. The UAE cannot therefore be faulted for hedging its bets by joining others in the pilgrimage to Beijing to watch the Winter Olympics taking place in that sprawling city. Given the spasms of disapproval directed at long-term allies of the US, and after the US handover of Afghanistan back to the Taliban in August 2021, relying on Washington’s support in a crisis seems to be too risky a policy to follow. Biden has retrogressed to the past, seeking to return the US to the past, when Cold War 1.0 between Washington and Moscow was ongoing. The Atlantic is once more the primary focus of attention by the White House, no longer the Indo-Pacific. The threat from China? The real enemy is Russia, and remains so within the Biden administration three decades after the demise of the USSR. This when large parts of the former USSR broke off and became independent, with some even getting admitted into NATO, and more eager to. The residual power, Russia, wanted to be an integral part of Europe, despite the bulk of its territory being located within Asia. Other European powers were reluctant to admit Russia into their fold, wary that they would be eclipsed by it. France and Germany had worked out an alliance of convenience between themselves that enabled them to be the most influential force in Europe. Such a bonding was assisted by memories of the fact that during 1940-44, almost until the final months of the war, the co-existence of the German occupiers and the Vichy regime had been a pleasant enough experience, at least for the German side. Besides the Jews and Communists, the rest of French society was treated with friendly condescension by their occupiers. If the German occupation of parts of the USSR had followed the French example, the ferocious resistance by Russian “Partisans” to the barbarous occupation of their land by German forces may not have been as incandescent as it turned out to be. The most important war to the Nazis was that waged against the Jewish community. The atrocities Hitler committed failed to generate enough revulsion among the generals and colonels in Germany. It was the shock and disgrace of looming defeat and occupation by a foreign force that resulted in some of the Wehrmacht officer corps seeking in 1944 to make an end of the Nazi regime. The Japanese military remained obedient to its superior officers to the end of the 1937-45 war.
During wartime Germany, rising privation and imminent defeat failed to spark a popular revolt against Hitler. The reason in the minds of several was fear. Fear of the regime and the cruelties it was capable of inflicting on them. Elsewhere, whether it was Stalin or Saddam Hussein later, the Russian and Iraqi people did not pose an existential challenge to such a duo’s brutal rule, in large part because fear of the regime had become an inseparable companion in the lives of the population. Had it been Hafez rather than Bashar Assad who ran Syria in 2011, it is doubtful that so many citizens of that country would have joined in the NATO-GCC effort to remove him from power. Bashar did not carry with him the penumbra of fear that his father had, although to everyone’s surprise, the Syrian leader showed remarkable spine and staying power during 2013-16, years when it seemed certain that his regime would go the way Muammar Gaddafi’s had in Libya. President Bashar Assad remained in power, and with help from Tehran and Moscow recovered much of the territory that had earlier been lost to fighters backed by the GCC and NATO. In China, the CCP leadership believed that it was not accidental that the dissolution of the USSR gathered irresistible force only after Mikhail Gorbachev sought to fashion a kinder, softer CPSU and a Gandhian version of the Warsaw Pact. Non-violence was the rule in the Russian army, even when there were mass manifestations within Warsaw Pact countries geared towards regime change. Had Viktor Yanukovich been the despot he was depicted as being by the US and allies eager to drive out of office the Russia-leaning President of Ukraine, he may have retained power rather than having to flee his own country. Xi Jinping displays the same ruthlessness against his opponents as Deng Xiaoping did at Tiananmen in 1989. Vladimir Putin, who has seen several US Presidents come and go during his tenure at the Kremlin, has serially imprisoned potential challengers, whether these be in politics or business. As with Xi, Putin would like to deal with past, present and likely future foes in a manner that is devoid of ambiguity, and the opinion of self-professed defenders of democracy be damned. In such a world, friends are carefully kept separate from foes. And within the former, the most consequential get the most attention, a lesson that President Biden still has to learn. President Abdul Al Sisi has sought to keep Egypt secular in the manner intended by a predecessor who too was in the military, Anwar Sadat. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo has even shown the courage to set up a Holocaust Museum commemorating the massacre of the Jewish people by Adolf Hitler, the first Muslim-majority country to do so. And it would have been a friendly nod from Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman that encouraged some of the Middle Eastern countries to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, yet he faces negative attention both in the US Congress and the Biden administration. After Biden took office, the world has yet to see another Middle Eastern country establish formal ties with Israel. When, as seems the case with the US, a country does distinguish its friends from its foes and conciliates the latter while chastising the former, it is heading for trouble at the hands of its foes, once it has forfeited the support of its friends through clumsy diplomacy.

President Biden, don’t confuse friends with foes 

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