Interview on U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 9 Nov 2020
2 Nov 2020 – A short interview on Election Day in the United States, a momentous test of whether the Trump challenge to constitutional democracy will be decisively repudiated by the American people and whether Republicans will mount a perverse challenge via the judicial system to deny the majority of the people their choice of leadership. The system is structurally rigged against democratic values by enabling Trump to be reelected via the anachronistic Electoral College even if he loses the popular vote by 5,000,000 or more. Beyond this, a Biden presidency will not address the deeper flaws associated with U.S. global militarism and predatory neoliberalism but it will respond responsibly and empathetically to a country gravely wounded by the pandemic and it will moderate the toxic political atmosphere that Trump and Trumpists have so stridently championed. For the first time ever in American political history, the aftermath of the election is likely to be more consequential than the election itself! The full meaning of this electoral experience is more likely to be disclosed on November 4th and the following weeks than on November 3rd when voting comes to an end. This interview was conducted by a journalist representing the Mehr News Agency in Iran.
Q: Will US foreign policy towards the Middle East change with the possible change of US president? What about US policy toward Iran?
A: While it appears as if Biden will be elected, dark clouds of uncertainty hover over the American elections as never before in the country’s history. The possibilities of a paralyzing constitutional crisis and serious civil strife cannot be excluded. At the same time, if Biden enters the White House, U.S. foreign policy will not change dramatically, at least in the beginning. For one thing, the domestic challenges are too great. The COVID health crisis and the troubled US economy are likely to dominate presidential politics during Biden’s first year of so. The emphasis would be placed on strictly American issues including imposing strict regulation of health guidelines, stimulus initiatives to help ease economic hardships especially among the jobless, minorities, and the poor, while calming racial tensions and lessening political polarization.
Against this background, if as expected, Biden is elected, and a proper transfer of political leadership by Trump, then it is likely that in the short run US foreign policy toward the Middle East will be moderated, but not fundamentally changed. It is likely that Biden’s approach to Israel/Palestine will remain highly partisan in Israel’s favor but with somewhat less disregard of the UN and the EU on issues such as annexation and settlement-building, but will allow the US Embassy to remain in Jerusalem, will endorse the recent normalization agreements with UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan, and will not challenge the Israeli incorporation of the Golan Heights into its territory.
The Biden approach will likely be instructively revealed by its approach to Syria, which in turn will reflect the willingness of Russia, and Iran, to help manage a transition to peace and stability, including elections and arrangements for the removal of foreign armed forces, an autonomous region set aside for the Kurdish minority, and reconstruction assistance. More than Trump, if geopolitical frictions arise with Russia and China, the Biden center/right approach to foreign policy is highly likely to intensify geopolitical tensions with Russia and China with risks of dangerous incidents and an overall slide into a second cold war.
Similarly, with respect to Iran, I would expect Biden to pursue a somewhat less confrontational policy, exhibiting a greater concern about avoiding policies that might provoke war in the region. A test will be whether the Biden presidency take steps to revive American participation in the 2015 JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Program of Action), the International Agreement on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, a step Israeli supporters in the US opposed in the past and would oppose in the future, but some Democratic advisors and officials are likely to favor. Of course, Iran’s diplomacy in this period will be an important factor, especially if it signals its willingness to seek accommodation within the region and beyond, and expresses hope for a new approach to its relations with the West. How Israel behaves directly and through its levers of influence in Washington will also be highly relevant, especially, the intelligence consensus on the nature of Iran’s intentions with respect to nuclear weaponry.
A Biden presidency might push Saudi Arabia and Iran to work toward a compromise in Yemen, motivated by humanitarian as well as political considerations, which include an end to military intervention and encouragement of a negotiated end of the civil war. If something along these lines occurs, it would be a sign that significant changes in US foreign policy in the Middle East might be forthcoming. At present, the most responsible analysis of the future of US foreign policy in this critical region would emphasize continuity with some attentions to marginal variations. This expectation of continuity also reflects ‘a bipartisan consensus’ that had its origins in the anti-fascist consensus during World War II, the anti-Communist consensus during the Cold War, and the anti-Islamic consensus during the ‘War on Terror.’ Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Middle East has been the region, more than any other, where the playing out of this consensus has been most evident. It has had particularly adverse consequences in relation to the Palestinian struggle for basic rights and for Iran’s defense of its sovereignty.
Q: Some experts warn that the US is on the edge of political unrest and riots. What is your taking on it?
A: There is no doubt that the internal realities in the US are quite frightening at this stage, and that a contested election might be the spark that sets the country aflame. It is difficult to predict what forms this violence would take, and whether Trump would incite unrest in the aftermath of his defeat, or at least fan its flames, as part of mounting an ill-conceived challenge to electoral results that voted him out of power. If this were to happen, widespread right-wing violence could occur with very mixed efforts to exert control over lawless behavior verging on domestic terror, and undoubtedly accompanied by massive responses from the left side of the political ledger, involving both peaceful protests and more radical actions of resistance throughout the entire country. The future of US constitutional democracy could be at risk as never before, or at least not since the American Civil War of the early 1860s. And not far in the background is a judicial system, presided over by the U.S. Supreme Court that is inclined toward Trumpism, and reactionary modes of legal reasoning and constitutional interpretation.
Q: How will the US political and security structure react to any possible unrest (if happens)?
A: Many expert observers believe that the responses of governmental authorities and police forces will depend on whether the presidential election is being seriously contested by Trump, and conceivably also by Biden. The prospect of serious unrest seems also less likely if the results are one-sided in Biden’s favor, a so-called landslide victory, which would weaken, if not undermine, arguments that the election was ‘rigged’ or ‘stolen,’ and make the losers less motivated, except some extremists, to cause civil strife and property damage. Much depends on how Trump handles defeat, and whether he can gain support for an electoral challenge from the military leadership of the country and from the US Senate, which will still be under Republican control from November 4th until inauguration of the president on January 20, 2021 even if control of the Senate is lost, as the outcome of the election is not given immediate effect.
It should also be remembered that the US is a federal country with 50 distinct jurisdictions for handling ‘law and order’ issues, and great variations in behavior regionally and depending on which party controls the machinery of government in these sub-state units. There is also a Federal layer of law enforcement that can be invoked by the national government, giving the White House a means to counteract behavior within any of the 50 states that it opposes. As there is very little past experience, there is little understanding of how the aftermath of the election will be handled in the US, and this should worry not only Americans but the world.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 60 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to two three-year terms as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and associated with the local campus of the University of California, and for several years chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is On Nuclear Weapons, Denuclearization, Demilitarization, and Disarmament (2019).
Tags: Anglo America, Elections, Geopolitics, Iran, Middle East, Politics, USA
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