New beginnings | Michael Jansen - GulfToday

New beginnings

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Joe Biden speaks during a press conference. File

Security arrangements for President Joe Biden’s inauguration mirrored the swearing in ceremonies of President Abraham Lincoln in 1861, when the US was on the brink of civil war, and 1865, after the North had won and freed the slaves. On both occasions Lincoln was under threat of assassination by sympathisers of Southern slave-owning separatists. Forty-one days after his second inauguration, he was murdered by actor John Wilkes Booth while attending a performance at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. Lincoln is regarded as the Unites States’ greatest president; outgoing Donald Trump as its worst.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took the oath of office on the steps of the Capitol with few in attendance due to the coronavirus and threats of violence by Trump’s mob which assaulted the building on Jan.6 with the aim of preventing Congress from confirming the Biden-Harris victory in the election Trump lost.

Biden’s most urgent task is to launch his programme for tackling the pandemic which has killed 400,000 fellow citizens and infected 23 million. He has promised to vaccinate 100 million during his first 100 days in office, ensure the provision of essential medications and gear to hospitals, and extend financial aid to struggling families, the unemployed, and small businesses risking bankruptcy. He and Harris will have to navigate the $1.9 trillion (Dhs7t) package through the House of Representatives where the Democrats are in a majority and the Senate which is split 50-50 but where Harris’ vote breaks ties.

Biden and Harris do not have time to waste. They will also have to secure the quick confirmation of cabinet members.  This could be difficult at this time because of the toxic atmosphere in the US created by Trump and his supporters. A former senator with years of experience, Biden has vowed to reach out “across the aisle” and court Republican legislators. He may, however, have to rely solely or almost entirely on Democrats to accomplish this Herculean feat.

To make matters all the more difficult, cabinet confirmations may have to share Senate time with Trump’s impeachment trial if it goes ahead promptly after Biden’s inauguration. It will be a blessing if the trial — involving the presentation of evidence — is short and Democrats can muster the 67 votes, including 16 from Republicans, needed to convict him.

Unfortunately for Biden, the trial will keep the public focused on Trump rather than the new president’s efforts to right the wrongs Trump wrought. He and his bully boys will do their utmost to compel Republicans to vote against Biden’s policies. If Republican leaders and members want to free their party from the Trump albatross they will have to back conviction. This will ban him for standing again for any public office.

Fortunately for Biden, Trump’s approval rating has sunk to an all-time low of 29 per cent following the attack on the Capitol by his supporters. At present a majority of citizens supports banning him for office. Sixty-eight per cent told pollsters that they do not want him to be a major political player from now on. However, his standing with Republican voters remains a high 70 per cent and 56 per cent does not blame him for the Capitol riot. Democrats hope that evidence on his incitement to violence brought out in the trial could change this picture although his backers will continue to access information through right-wing media which bend the news to suit Trump.

During his final weeks in office, Trump executed a flurry of executive orders with the aim of pre-empting and creating obstacles for Biden to address climate change and reverse a host of Trump’s disrupting and destructive orders on domestic and foreign issues. Biden plans to reverse dozens during this first days in office.

On the regional front, on his first day in office Biden issued an executive order to lift Trump’s ban on the entry to the US of citizens of Muslim countries. He can also use executive orders to re-enter the 2015 agreement providing for lifting sanctions on Iran in exchange for dismantling its nuclear programme. Tehran has given Biden until Feb.21 to end sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and international financial transfers.

If he delays, Iran has threatened to bar International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors access to nuclear sites. In response to Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the deal and reimposition of sanctions Iran has breached the deal by raising the level of uranium enrichment from 3.67 to 20 per cent and building up a stockpile of enriched material in excess of that agreed in the deal. Iran can easily return to compliance within weeks by reversing these violations; once he has re-joined the deal Biden will have to untangle the mass of sanctions invented by Trump and his team with the aim of forcing Tehran to capitulate to their demands.

Among the sanctions requiring urgent removal are those which inflict suffering on Iranians as well as Iran-connected Lebanese, Syrians and Iraqis by denying them food, medicine, and other essentials.

Biden will also have to deal with threats posed by Trump’s withdrawal of 2,000 troops from Afghanistan. This will leave 2,500 in that country, hardly enough to help counter and contain the resurgent Taliban which controls two-thirds of Afghan territory. Trump’s pull-out is in line with a bilateral deal reached with the Taliban to withdraw all US troops by May if the Taliban halts attacks on them and ceases co-operation with al-Qaeda and Daesh elements operating in areas the Taliban holds.

While Taliban strikes against US troops have ceased, operations against the Afghan army continue and the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Daesh mount attacks on Afghan forces and civilian targets in government-ruled areas. The murder last Sunday of two female judges in Kabul is an instance of Taliban bad faith. Little wonder talks on a peace agreement between the Taliban and the government have not prospered. The two sides are far apart. The government seeks to retain human rights gains made under US protection while the Taliban insists that Afghanistan should revert to repressive governance under the movement’s narrow version of Sharia law.

Trump’s separate deal has strengthened the Taliban and weakened the government. After nearly 20 years of “training” by the US military, the Afghan army is unlikely to prevail over highly motivated, well-armed and well-financed Taliban forces. Consequently, Biden may have to dispatch fresh US forces to Afghanistan as Trump did during his first months in office. Biden may find this more difficult than Trump did four years ago because the US public is weary of “never-ending foreign wars.”

While Biden is expected to press for a negotiated end to the war in Yemen, he will also have to ensure humanitarian supplies reach needy Yemenis. To achieve this objective he will have to remove Trump’s “terrorist” designation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels. This excludes them from negotiations and bars UN and aid agencies from dealing with them although they reign over the majority of Yemenis, 80 per cent of whom depend on foreign food and medical supplies.

Biden has promised to resume funding to the UN agency caring for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), reopen the Palestinian mission in Washington and the US consulate in East Jerusalem, remove other Trumpian initiatives harming Palestinians, and restart talks on the “two state solution” involving the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

These items on Biden’s regional agenda will have to be addressed along with urgent domestic demands and repairing the damage Trump has done to US relations with Europe, China, Cuba, and the wider world.

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