A good start | Michael Jansen - GulfToday

A good start

Michael Jansen

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


Joe Biden. File

During his first days in office, US President Joe Biden has signed dozens of executive orders cancelling his predecessor’s most damaging decrees, including the ban on the entry of Muslims to the country and withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord and the World Health Organisation.

Biden has also decreed protections for employees of the vast US bureaucracy and a $15 (Dhs55) an hour minimum wage for federal workers and expanded free food for families struggling from the economic contraction caused by the covid pandemic.  

Biden faces a major battle over securing Congressional approval of a $1.9 billion (Dhs7b) bill to provide masks, medicines, protection equipment for doctors and nurses tending covid patients, boost vaccines to a million persons daily, and secure financial aid for states to contain covid and rescue small businesses which are on the brink of bankruptcy.

Having granted fat tax cuts for big business and billionaires/millionaires and squandered federal billions on building Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexican border, most Republicans have flatly rejected the bill as too expensive. Biden does enjoy some support from a handful of dissident Republicans who, along with Democrat colleagues, have formed a bipartisan committee to steer relief legislation through Congress. But, he needs the votes of 10 for normal passage of legislation in the Senate which is divided 50-50 between the two main parties. These are not normal times. Along with the rest of the world, the US is battling both covid and economic crises.  

Biden has two options. He can call on moderate Republicans to support the rescue bill and may be prepared to concede some of their demands in exchange for votes. Without them, Biden can,  under an emergency measure, play hardball. He can press all Democrats to vote in favour and rely on Vice President Kamala Harris, who temporarily chairs the Senate, to break the tie in order to adopt the bill by a majority of one. Opting for either alternative could, however, deepen the deep rift in the divided country although Biden has vowed to heal divisions.  

He has already tried to court Republicans by agreeing to the proposal of former majority Senate leader Mitch McConnell to begin Donald Trump’s impeachment trial on Feb.9 rather than this week in order to give the Trump team time to prepare his case. This concession also benefits Democrats who have more time to gather evidence of his incitement of the Jan.6 riot at the Capitol during which five died and scores were wounded and the building sustained considerable damage.  

Biden also has won time for the Senate to confirm his cabinet nominations which have been delayed by McConnell’s decision not to call the chamber into session ahead of the inauguration to do this job. Biden cannot afford to allow the Republicans to stall either the covid and economic relief legislation or confirmations of his cabinet chiefs if he wants to create momentum for his administration to move forward with its challenging agenda during his first 100 days in office.

Biden has no time to waste. Certainly not on dickering with Republicans who seek to undermine him and torpedo his agenda. At least 4,000 fellow citizens are dying from covid daily, the toll is expected to rise to 500,000 in coming weeks, last month 900,000 lost their jobs and businesses, schools, and manufacturing plants are locked down. People cannot wait for relief from infection and want.

Biden has at most 15 months to contain covid and initiate economic recovery. The US goes to the polls again in 2022 to vote for all members of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate. Biden could lose his narrow majority in the House and Senate seats if he fails.  

Determined Democrats and, perhaps, a few moderate Republicans are likely to back Biden, but diehard Republicans are ready to sacrifice the wellbeing and welfare of their constituents to defeat Biden in order to regain control of the Senate and win the House. Biden has also to contend with Donald Trump who speaks of forming a new party if Republicans do not carry out his orders. He has millions of deluded followers who still believe Biden stole the election and tens of millions of dollars to carry out his threat.

Faced with Herculean multiple challenges on the domestic front, Biden must also deal with urgent issues in foreign affairs. Re-engaging with Iran is a priority if regional tensions are to subside. He has pledged to re-enter the 2015 agreement for lifting sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran’s dismantling its nuclear programme. If he is serious about honouring this pledge, he will have to act within weeks because Iran threatens to deny UN inspectors access to its nuclear sites.

Iran has said it will return to full compliance as soon as the US does. For Iran this means exporting a stockpile of enriched uranium exceeding the amount permitted by the deal and warehousing barred advanced centrifuges. Biden can re-enter the agreement by simply signing an executive order but could face opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. Therefore, he will have to persuade Iran to negotiate on other issues such as its arsenal of ballistic missiles and regional interventions.

Eager to remove US sanctions preventing oil exports and international financial transactions, Iran could, reluctantly, agree, providing Biden with a major foreign policy success after Trump’s disasters.

In this region, Biden also has to restore funding to the UN agency caring for Palestinian refugees as well as Palestinian hospitals and development projects while pushing for resumption of negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis on the basis of the “two state solution.” Biden has also called for talks to end the Yemen war. He will also have to tackle the rise of Daesh in this region, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North and Sub-Saharan Africa.  

After four years of Trump’s bullying and bluster which alienated Nato and the European Union. Biden has to mend relations with them. He has to confront Russia and China over human rights abuses while remaining on good terms with their leaders and he must reset US-China trade relations.

Finally, Biden has to deal with the climate crisis both domestically and internationally by reducing greenhouse gases, cutting pollution from other sources, and promoting the development, manufacture and deployment of “green” energy equipment, plant, and vehicles. Trump’s denial of climate change put this existential effort on hold, risking future generations by warming the world.

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