I have formerly written about some of the accomplishments achieved by the Trump administration in a number of key areas, such as the elimination of Qassem Soleimani, putting an end to Iran’s naval provocations in international waters in the Arabian Gulf, convincing US allies of the need to renegotiate the nuclear deal, and successfully mediating between Russia and OPEC to restore stability in the region’s oil markets, not to mention the support offered by the Federal Reserve (US Central Bank) to a number of countries to help them overcome the economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic.
Today, however, I will be writing about the weaknesses and even failures that Biden inherited from previous administrations. Despite the importance of the achievements made by the two former administrations, the role of the United States as a global leader has recently diminished, significantly receding to its lowest levels in decades. This certainly complicates matters for President Joe Biden, making it difficult for him to restore the US’s leading role, but not impossible.
Merely 30 years ago, the US’s power was at its peak in terms of its military superiority, political influence, and economic prosperity. For instance, in January 1991, the United States led the war to liberate Kuwait, erasing the memory of its defeat in Vietnam, as it managed to mobilize support and form an international coalition consisting of more than 30 countries, many of whom provided substantial military assistance. American diplomacy even succeeded in persuading the Security Council, including China and the Soviet Union, to offer their support.
In his memoirs, veteran American diplomat William Burns recounts how then-President George H. W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker managed to establish and lead a new international order in which the US had no real competitors.
According to Burns, at the time, history seemed to be under the US’s watchful eye, and the world did not hesitate to heed America’s call. At that time, the United States was in the process of winning the Cold War, the Soviet Union was in its last days, and Europe and Germany were regaining their unity after decades of division. At that time, the United States was the only major economic power.
On January 11, President Biden nominated William Burns as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, which can be seen as a wise choice, except that Burns will soon find that the US has fallen quite a way from where it used to be in 1991, and that he will be dealing with a much more complicated situation that is less aligned with the US’s aspirations and plans.
All those who witnessed the events of January 6th could see the dire situation facing Washington. As right-wing extremists stormed the US Capitol, the world bore witness to the state of mayhem that highlighted the security forces’ inability to secure the state’s institutions.
As a foreign observer of the unprecedented events that unfolded that day, and as the world watched the Congress headquarters being breached and congressional representatives rushing to take cover and hide under tables, one can safely say that America has hit rock bottom. This dark moment in the nation’s history emphasized the US’s inability to provide protection for the representatives as they were in the process of approving the results of the presidential elections, a constitutional process that was delayed by armed right-wing rioters that the police were unable to intercept.
Needless to say, all the events that have been unfolding in Washington since the November 3 elections have caused massive damage to America’s global standing and credibility which prompted its opponents to take action and test the limits of the new administration. For example, Iran has resumed its international naval provocations in the Arabian Gulf by seizing a Korean tanker and taking it to its shores. Furthermore, Iranian regional proxies have intensified their activities in the region. For instance, the Iran-backed Houthi militia attacked Yemen’s Aden airport the moment the new unity government arrived. Although the ministers survived, the triple missile attack killed and wounded dozens of innocent travelers.
Meanwhile, Iran has doubled down on violations of the nuclear deal, announcing on January 13 its intention to produce uranium for military purposes, in a clear violation of its obligations in the agreement. That announcement came just days after it resumed enriching uranium up to 20 percent at its underground Fordow nuclear facility in its biggest breach yet of the nuclear deal.
This prompted the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and the UK to condemn these violations and release a statement saying, “the production of uranium metal has potential grave military implications.” France’s Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian emphasized, “this has to stop because Iran and - I say this clearly - is in the process of acquiring nuclear [weapons] capacity.”
In Iraq, Iranian-backed militias have doubled their attempts to destabilize the country and strengthen Tehran’s grip on the situation in the months leading up to the approaching parliamentary elections. What made matters worse was the slow pace in the rehabilitation of the areas liberated from ISIS. Only a small amount of the sums pledged at the International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq, which was held in Kuwait in 2018, were disbursed.
This allowed the terrorist organization to regain some of its strength. There are many reasons for this slowdown in action and one of them can be attributed to the US’s abandonment of leading this issue.
Similarly, the US’s role in Syria, Lebanon, and Libya has declined significantly. The US has either abandoned its allies entirely or offered them inconsistent support, which gave Iran the opportunity to recruit, train, and finance sectarian militias.
Meanwhile, in the Eastern Mediterranean, the US was unable to put an end to the conflict between its two allies Turkey and Greece, in contrast to the past when America’s allies and partners did not hesitate to heed its guidance and requests.
As for the Palestinian cause, the situation has become much more challenging due to the unilateral actions taken by Israel with the approval or encouragement of the United States. As a result, reaching a solution has become much more difficult, and thus, threatening the security and stability of the region. On the other hand, in 1991, Burns describes in his memoir how Palestinians and Israelis sat side by side at the instruction of the US, at a time when American demands were never overlooked or dismissed, a time when American primacy remained undisputed.
During the past 30 years, the US’s leading role has declined for many reasons, some of which can be attributed to its own ill-advised actions which ended in the unfortunate events that unfolded last month, with right-wing extremists launching an attack on one of its most important constitutional institutions.
There is no denying that America’s image and international reputation have tumbled mightily, and in my opinion, in order for the United States to restore its global standing, the new administration needs to adopt a different communication approach to reassure its allies and partners and deter its opponents. In 1991, the US succeeded because it relied on diplomatic efforts that were backed by credible threats of force to maintain peace and security.
Under the current circumstances, it is clear that the same approach needs to be taken as the US faces the challenges of the upcoming period, the most important of which are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and the economic recession.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.