Despite President Joe Biden having claimed earlier this year that “diplomacy is back” and that he would end the war in Yemen, revive the Iran Nuclear Deal and settle several other issues, in reality his Middle East foreign policy has been just as detrimental to the region as was that of his predecessor.
“This war has to end…we’re ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales,” Biden said in early February during his first address to the U.S. public on his administration’s foreign policy approach. It was a speech that saw him showered with the praise of his supporters, yet we are now in late December and the war has only intensified, with UN experts estimating that the total death toll by the end of the year will be 377,000.
To make things even worse, as Saudi Arabia’s bombs target urban centers in Yemen’s capital Sana’a, including the country’s primary airport and a maternity hospital, the U.S. just approved another $650 million weapons sale to Riyadh. Instead of withdrawing their support for the Saudis’ “offensive actions” and ending weapons sales, the Biden administration has done the exact opposite – and took no action when the war escalated just weeks after the president’s statements, igniting an ongoing bloody battle for control of oil-rich Marib province.
Yemen is far from an isolated case of the Biden administration saying one thing and doing the opposite, but is perhaps the most urgent of all Middle East matters to resolve, given the sheer number of civilian casualties that await perpetuation of the status quo.
Afghanistan withdrawal and end of Iraq combat mission
Next on the list of this year’s Middle East catastrophes is Afghanistan, where Biden fulfilled his promise of withdrawal. But with the sudden collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government the country soon fell to the Taliban. In August, infamous scenes of Afghan’s falling to their deaths after holding on to departing U.S. planes, coupled with a helicopter lift spotted aiding U.S. Embassy workers, saw comparisons made with Washington’s infamous withdrawal from Saigon in 1975.
Violence by American troops was meted out against civilians during the early stages of the Taliban takeover and did not end until every last American soldier left. The most notoriously bloody incident was a drone strike that targeted and killed 10 Afghan civilians, seven of whom were children. Zemaray Ahmadi, a 36-year-old who worked for the California-based aid organization Nutrition & Education International (NEI), was killed in that drone strike, along with six of his nieces and nephews, symbolizing the lack of protection Afghans got even when working with the United States.
So how did the U.S. decide to close the chapter of the failed $2.26 trillion Afghanistan war? Did we punish those responsible for the murder of an aid worker and his family? You guessed it. Not only did our government defend its actions, it refused to hold anyone to account for one of the last war crimes it committed on Afghan soil in 2021. What then to make of U.S. attempts to righteously blame the Taliban for their human rights abuses when Washington itself refuses to hold its own forces to the high standards they expect of others?
Washington is also currently freezing approximately $9.5 billion in assets and loans, leaving the newly established government in Kabul unable to feed a starving population suffering under an economic crisis. This does not mean that the Taliban deserve a free pass here for the human rights abuses they are accused of committing, but neither is this a simple morality play of good and evil, black and white. What the Biden administration’s actions attest to is an environment of impunity that shielded coalition forces from accountability as Washington’s withdrawal proved both tactically and strategically disastrous.
Throughout his political career, Biden, whatever may have been his personal misgivings, supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, voting to launch the invasions and working under the Obama administration on a policy to continue what he now calls the “forever wars.” In Iraq, unlike Afghanistan, 2021 did not see the U.S. withdraw; instead it has pursued a policy of aggression and lawlessness, followed by an agreement with Iraq’s government that will guarantee a U.S. presence in the country for the foreseeable future, a move celebrated by many of Biden’s supporters.
The Biden administration did announce a supposed drawdown in Iraq, which was to be done under the guise of ending the U.S. “combat mission” inside the country. Despite claims that the combat mission has ended and that relevant troops were withdrawn, 2,500 U.S. troops are still in Iraq and are likely there to stay. The reality is that the U.S. has never stated it had ground troops in Iraq to begin with; it claimed to use only special-forces units, describing other troops as trainers and advisors to Iraq’s security forces. Therefore, the connotations ascribed to the phrase “ending the U.S. combat mission” are incorrect, for there hasn’t been a “combat mission” in the country for years.
In July, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and President Biden reached an agreement, which received some positive attention from Biden supporters on social media. But the truth was that Al-Kadhimi was under immense pressure from Iraqis to do something about the American presence in his country, especially from the Iran-aligned Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and their supporters. The agreement to end the combat mission was simply political theater, geared towards quelling the unrest. This way, Al-Kadhimi could claim a diplomatic win with regard to addressing the highly unpopular presence of U.S. troops in Iraq; Washington could claim it was de-escalating tensions; and the PMU would have something to show for its campaign of political pressure.
Airstrikes against at least five different countries
But what of the deadly predator drone program, which became infamous under former President Barack Obama? Biden has, since taking office, refused to comment on the practice of so-called “targeted killings and assassinations,” which overwhelmingly kill civilians and not combatants. It is also difficult to tell exactly how many were killed in drone strikes this year, owing to a Trump-era ruling that scrapped the need to report drone-strike deaths. Despite this, we do know that the Biden administration has used the “targeted killing” program in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.
In Syria and Iraq, at least two separate airstrike campaigns were undertaken by the U.S. president, without congressional approval. The U.S. is still also illegally occupying a third of Syria’s territory, sitting on over 90% of the country’s oil resources, as well as its most fertile agricultural lands, going so far as to send poisoned seeds for Syrians to cultivate. When the Syrian government announced that it could not use the seeds because they would potentially destroy fertile soil, the U.S. insisted the seeds were good and refused to apologize. In the case of airstrikes in Somalia, a dangerous escalation occurred when the U.S. military ordered strikes against militants without even notifying the U.S. president, a move that Biden failed to condemn.
In Iraq, where Biden has claimed one of his few ostensible foreign policy wins, the U.S. repeatedly accused Iraq’s PMU – which, by Iraqi law, is an official part of the country’s military establishment – of firing drones and projectiles at American troops. In February, a previously unknown Iraqi armed group, calling itself Saraya Awliya Al-Dam, claimed responsibility for an attack on U.S. forces in Erbil. The Biden administration used this as an excuse to launch airstrikes against the PMU, which is in no way affiliated with Awliya Al-Dam. The U.S. military carried out these strikes before its official inquiry into the incident had even finished. The attacks were then pegged as retaliatory strikes on “Iranian-backed” groups, likely a tactic to pressure Iran during the latest round of the nuclear talks.
Working with Israel and weighing war with Iran
On the issue of Palestine, Biden has acted as expected; after all, he openly describes himself as a Zionist. When Palestinians were being ethnically cleansed from their homes in East Jerusalem so that illegal settlers could steal their properties, and racist lynch mobs attacked Palestinians around Jerusalem’s Old City, Biden remained completely uncritical of Israel’s policy of protecting the settlers and attacking Palestinian protesters.
In May, when the violence escalated into a war between Gaza and Israel’s military, during which Israel killed 270 Palestinians, the president repeated the age-old “Israel has the right to defend itself” line, a trope repeatedly used by Washington when Tel Aviv carries out what have become routine civilian killing sprees. Israel’s current prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is openly opposed to a two-state solution and has rebuffed American demands to halt settlement expansion. Yet Biden has yet to muster a word of criticism of his Israeli counterpart. Instead of reining in its ally, the U.S. approved a billion dollars of additional funding for Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ air defense system, to pay for what amounts to the inconvenience caused when killing Palestinians with U.S. taxpayer-funded bombs causes a reaction from the besieged Gaza Strip’s armed groups.
On Iran, Biden claimed he was going to differ from his predecessor Donald Trump, stating during his 2020 campaign that “we’ve lost our standing in the region” and vowing a change of tone and policy from Trump’s openly hostile stance. Since he took office though, Biden’s promises to force his way back into the Obama-era Iran Nuclear Deal were soon forgotten, and instead he has charged forward with Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign.” Instead of attempting to make peace, Biden has added even more sanctions to those levied by Trump, which were previously criticized by the International Court of Justice as a violation of international law.
Now that seven rounds of negotiations in Vienna to salvage the Iran Nuclear Deal have failed to produce any positive outcome, the U.S. is openly working with Israel, threatening strikes against Iran that could ignite a regional Middle East War. In late November, the head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), General Kenneth McKenzie, revealed that the U.S. has prepared military options to be used in the event that diplomacy fails to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Biden has also carried on the conspiracy theories peddled by Trump that Iran currently operates a secret nuclear weapons program and is producing a weapon of mass destruction. In August, as he stood next to Israel’s prime minister, Biden said at a public press conference that if diplomacy fails to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, he “is prepared to turn to other options.” Of course the top cheerleaders for war against Iran have been the Israelis, who have claimed for 30 years that Iran is on the cusp of acquiring a nuclear weapon. In January, Israel’s top general, Aviv Kochavi, claimed that Iran was “months, maybe even weeks” away from getting nuclear weapons, a claim that has since been revised to be “5 years, tops.” Despite the evident falsehoods espoused about Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons, Israel’s sway over the Biden administration’s hardline stance on Iran has been unchallenged.
The Biden administration’s first year of “diplomacy first” policy in the Middle East has closed as many veterans of U.S. elections predicted. By no means has voting blue meant a change for the better; in fact, the only real difference between Biden and Trump in terms of foreign policy is that instead of mean tweets, more respectful language is used to give the new president the veneer of respectability, while carrying on an all-too-familiar violent and imperialistic Middle East foreign policy.
Feature photo | President Joe Biden shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as they meet in the Oval Office of the White House, Aug. 27, 2021. Evan Vucci | AP
Robert Inlakesh is a political analyst, journalist and documentary filmmaker currently based in London, UK. He has reported from and lived in the occupied Palestinian territories and hosts the show ‘Palestine Files’. Director of ‘Steal of the Century: Trump’s Palestine-Israel Catastrophe’. Follow him on Twitter @falasteen47