Trump is gone. After four long years and a particularly tumultuous last two weeks, former President Donald Trump has left office and President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have been sworn in. While it’s natural to want to take some time to celebrate the inauguration of an at least slightly less terrible administration, it is important to discuss what the new Biden administration plans to do with its mandate and narrow congressional majority. While writers for The Daily have already discussed what policies the new administration should and should not pursue, it is important to consider what foreign policies they are actually pursuing. To quote Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., “personnel is policy,” so it’s worth asking who Biden’s foreign policy personnel are.
The answers are not inspiring. Biden’s principal foreign policy staffers highlight his adherence to the bipartisan foreign policy status quo: one of endless war, devastating sanctions and pursuance of defense industry profits over rational decision-making.
One of Biden’s picks that best exemplifies these issues is Avril Haines, the Director of National Intelligence, who is in charge of coordinating intelligence relating to national security issues and briefing the president on it. Over the summer, Haines’s addition to the Biden campaign’s foreign policy team generated a great deal of controversy, both from generally left-wing detractors and those who were flabbergasted that those detractors existed. The latter category, consisting largely of former Obama administration officials, pointed to her creation in 2013 of guidelines for when drone strikes should be used.
The most important of these guidelines was a standard of certainty that a drone strike target is actually the lawful target that it is aimed for. The ex-Obama officials in question cited these guidelines as a reason that anti-war progressives should support Haines’s addition. Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was quoted as saying, “(Haines) sought to put a lethal instrument of U.S. power into a legal framework, to minimize the risk of civilian casualties, and to give a program shrouded in secrecy far more transparency.”
While it is impossible to tell how many civilian lives this policy saved, there are also plenty of problems. A 2016 report on civilian casualties between 2009 and 2015, which Haines, then-deputy national security advisor, was almost certainly involved in publishing, was considered by news outlets such as The Guardian to be a massive undercount of actual casualties. Additionally, years after the guidance was issued, the Obama administration bombed Doctors Without Borders hospitals in Afghanistan and funerals in Yemen, a violation of international law. Essentially, at best, the guidance report debatably decreased civilian casualties and certainly did little to increase transparency.
Haines’s issues don’t stop with the drone program. As Deputy Director of the CIA, she presided over the release of the Senate report on the CIA’s torture program. Her particular role was to classify as much of the report as possible, keeping valuable information about the crimes committed in the program away from the public’s eyes. Haines’s consistent stance against accountability for torturers and perpetrators continued with her support for the selection of Trump’s CIA Director Gina Haspel, who oversaw waterboarding at a CIA black site in Thailand.
Beyond the obvious abhorrence of doing this in the first place, this shows an unwillingness on Haines’s part to hold U.S. government officials accountable for crimes they commit during her tenure, an important issue should anything like the CIA torture program ever occur again.
Haines is not the only problematic figure on Biden’s foreign policy team. While Biden’s Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has spent most of his career in the military, and thus does not have a political policy-making record to analyze, he was, until his confirmation as Defense Secretary, a member of the Board of Directors at military contractor Raytheon Technologies. While he has pledged to recuse himself from decisions regarding his former employer, this still leaves an opening for Austin to support military actions that would help Raytheon’s bottom line, just as long as he does not have a hand in negotiating the contract.
Perhaps most importantly, Antony Blinken, Biden’s pick for Secretary of State, has been behind just about every bad foreign policy decision during his two decades in government. As then-Sen. Biden’s chief foreign policy advisor, he supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a particularly consequential view given Biden’s position as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As then-Vice President Biden’s National Security Advisor, he supported the 2011 invasion of Libya, which plunged the country into civil war. Additionally, as then-President Obama’s Deputy Secretary of State, he supported the Saudi invasion of Yemen, which has created what UNICEF has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Even now, during his confirmation hearings for Secretary of State, he declared his support for sanctions on Iran, which have, among other things, crippled its ability to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Defenders of Biden will likely respond to all of this with something to the effect of “well, at least Biden’s better than Trump.” On issues such as climate change and immigration, that is true. However, with the exception of the war in Yemen, which Biden has recently spoken against, every issue mentioned here is a continuation of Trump-era policies.
Trump took the Obama administration’s already opaque, murderous drone program and made it worse. As mentioned before, Trump’s Haines-endorsed pick for Director of the CIA oversaw torture personally and Trump’s last confirmed Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, was also a weapons contractor lobbyist, like Austin. Every single war and sanctions program that Blinken supported was either started by Trump or continued under him.
A real break from the Trump era requires an adjustment in its foreign policy, and with his initial picks for key foreign policy positions, President Biden seems unwilling to make the necessary changes.
Brandon Cowit can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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