Could a Biden presidency end America’s ‘forever wars’?
‘America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.’ These were the triumphant words of Joe Biden when unveiling his new national security team. But what will it mean in practice?
Much of the crude, shameful and reactionary nativism of the Trump administration will be rightfully banished, but will Joe Biden’s United States play a fundamentally different role from that of his predecessor?
His choice of Secretary of State for Defence suggests it will be business as usual. General Lloyd Austin is a retired four-star general who was in senior military roles throughout the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Since leaving the army in 2016, Austin has sat on the board of United Technologies, which subsequently merged with Raytheon, one of the biggest arms companies in the world. It is estimated that he will make $1.7 million when he sells his shares to take up his new post.
The arms industry itself does not seem particularly worried about the impact of a Biden Presidency, with Raytheon’s CEO, Gregory Hayes, dismissing speculation that it could see a cut to military spending as ‘ridiculous’. He then added: ‘Defense has always been a bipartisan issue and when Biden was vice president, and previously as senator, I think he had a pretty good approach.’
Of course, what Raytheon’s CEO defines as a ‘good approach’ will likely be one in which the US continues to expand its military budgets while playing an active and aggressive role on the world stage, both directly and through its role as the world’s leading arms exporter.
Joe Biden’s voting record is a mixed one when it comes to interventionism, but overall he has a tendency to support the deployment of US forces.
In 1991 he opposed the first Iraq war, a decision he later said that he regretted. However, he consistently supported the Clinton interventions of the 1990s, urging the administration to go further and branding its inaction in Bosnia as ‘a policy of despair and cowardice’.
A strong supporter of the ‘War on Terror’, in 2001 he supported Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan. Then, in 2003, as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he strongly backed President George Bush junior’s disastrous war in Iraq, branding it ‘a march to peace and security’.
During his time as vice president, Biden is said to have held reservations about US military intervention in Libya, although his choice for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, was a strong supporter of it.
Throughout the 2020 presidential campaign he played up opposition to these interventions, pledging to end the US role in ‘forever wars.’ Yet he also ominously stressed that he will ‘never hesitate to protect the American people, including when necessary, by using force’.
The Obama presidency was certainly no stranger to force. The Trump administration may have escalated the US drone programme, but it was the Obama administration that normalized their widespread use and the policy of targeted assassinations in countries such as Somalia and Pakistan – despite civilian casualties.
If Biden sticks to his word, the one area where he could make a big difference is in regard to the US position on the Saudi-led bombing of Yemen.
Over the last six years, a Saudi-led coalition has inflicted a brutal bombardment on Yemen, killing tens of thousands of people and creating the worst humanitarian crisis in the world This war would simply not have been possible without the weapons and support that have been provided by the US. Time and again Biden has pledged to end that support.
There are certainly reasons to be sceptical. Biden was vice president when the war began, and the administration he was a part of refused to take action to stop it, irrespective of the mounting death toll and destruction. As pressure grows on Biden to reverse Trump’s ‘terrorist’ designation of rebel Houthi groups, the bigger question of arms sales is also yet to be resolved.
Such a move would be met by staunch opposition from Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and the other companies that have reaped such high profits from the war. An early test of Biden’s commitment will be whether he carries through with the $290-million bomb sale that Trump’s White House approved to Saudi forces in December.
For decades, successive administrations have shared a cosy and close-knit relationship with the Saudi royal family. Could Biden, a long-time Washington insider, be the one to change that?
Many will understandably be celebrating the end of the Trump era. His defeat was unquestionably a good thing.
However, his departure alone is not enough. The double-standards and callous disregard for human rights that have characterized Trump’s presidency are not new. For decades US foreign policy has enabled repression and abuses around the world.
Successive presidents have cosied up to many of the most authoritarian forces, arming and supporting them with little concern for the violence they are inflicting. Joe Biden has been at the heart of Washington while these self-serving and hypocritical policies have flourished.
If there is to be any fundamental change then Biden is unlikely to enact it of his own accord. It will take pressure. That’s why it’s vitally important that while we savour the end of Trump, campaigners in the US and beyond also challenge and scrutinize Biden – and hold him to his word.
Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).