The New York Post is now flexing its muscles as the newspaper of “veracity” in the wake of Biden’s son and Ukraine and the slippery energy deals. This policy has led it to try and raise other benchmarks of “trustworthiness,” such as the recent article: “Why Jen Psaki “can’t or won’t” answer whether Israel and Saudi Arabia are ‘important allies?”
Is Biden’ press secretary so ill-informed as not to be able to answer a basic question of US policy, as it has been in living memory? The whole world knows that Israel and Saudi Arabia are important US allies. But as described in the NY Post Article, rather than saying simply, “yes” when asked this question, Psaki gave a convoluted answer, preserved (if you can stomach it) in a WH transcript.
Much could be read into her answer, especially the part about Prime Minister Netanyahu being someone the President has known for some time.
“Obviously, we have a long and important relationship with Israel, and the President has known him and has been working on a range of issues that there’s a mutual commitment to for some time. It is just a reflection of the fact that we have been here for three and a half weeks, he’s not called every single global leader yet, and he is eager to do that in the weeks ahead,” Psaki said.
This answer actually addresses the question, “We know you haven’t called Netanyahu and King Salman yet, why?” This is clearly the question Psaki was expecting, as if the strength of US alliances depends on when there was last a phone call, and which side made it.
Faced with Psaki’s seeming lack of knowledge of the countries and leaders concerned, one journalist tried to get something closer to an answer.
“… but can you please just give us a broad sense of what the administration is trying to achieve in the Middle East? For example, does the administration still consider the Saudis and the Israelis important allies?”
The response was more of the same: “Well, you know, again, I think we — there are ongoing processes and internal inter-agency processes — one that we, I think, confirmed an inter-agency meeting just last week — to discuss a range of issues in the Middle East. We’re — we’ve only been here three and a half weeks, and I think I’m going to let those policy processes see themselves through before we give, kind of, a complete laydown of what our national security approaches will be to a range of issues.”
Is something weird is going on? Is Biden trying to distance himself from Israeli and Saudi Arabia?
It isn’t going to happen. Regardless of campaign rhetoric and Biden and team trying to distance themselves from Trump and his cosy relationship with the Zionist State, the US couldn’t refuse its friendships now.
Psaki’s answer should be read as, “We know what we want to do, but we can’t say anything about it until we see what’s possible.” How long will that take? Probably until the next presidential election, or Biden keels over, whichever is the sooner, as it always does in US foreign policy.
Different Train, Same Rail Lines
What does being an important US ally actually mean? What will the US do for you, what will you do for it in return, and, what will you allow each other to get away with whilst doing it?
Will the US support Israel no matter what it does in Gaza, or whoever tries to attack it? Will Saudi Arabia still be acknowledged as leader of the Arab world, be allowed to develop nuclear weapons unmolested and murder journalists who get too close to the action?
It is not enough to simply say, “We have a long and abiding relationship with Israel, an important security relationship, I’m sure they’ll discuss that and a range of issues when they do connect,” as the connection is set in stone. It would be so time-consuming to recast it, even if both sides are willing, that it will not be worth the effort unless backed by a similar strong public interest, as Jimmy Carter found when the Camp David Accords had no effect on his popularity.
One point of difference between the Trump Administration’s approach to Israel and previous ones’ was the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Trump himself claimed credit for this, as if he were correcting an injustice rather than taking a partisan stand in the Middle East peace process.
However it wasn’t Trump’s initiative at all. The decision rested on a law passed by Congress, on Oct. 24, 1995, by an overwhelming 93-5 margin. This was merely confirmed under the Trump Administration.
The law did include a waiver provision for the President, which was used by Obama, Bush and Clinton when they said negotiations were ongoing. But all Trump had to do was not invoke the waiver, and act on the law passed by Congress long before he took office, ran for President, or even decided which party he supported.
When Trump chose not to exercise the waiver, there was the usual mainstream media criticism of him, but none of Congress, which had actually made the law. As is typical in a democracy, no one wants to believe that the president of the day is not in charge – the policy agenda is broadly set because the resources are there to fulfill it.
It does not really matter who is in the White House, or which political party, Democratic or Republican, is claiming the credit-of-the-day. As Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary found when he freed all the slaves in his empire at the stroke of a pen, but didn’t give them homes or jobs to go to when they were no longer property, changes of policy don’t come without major shifts of resources, and the US doesn’t have the stomach to make them.
Portmanteau Words With No Bottom
Claims by Biden’s spokesperson that the president is only several weeks into his administration are not part of an answer but a device of subterfuge. If he is there for four or even eight years, he will be little nearer to making fundamental changes in US policy.
He can change the tone of it considerably, by emphasising certain principles over others. This can then affect longer term policy by providing a new paradigm for how alliances develop in the future: new common principles will make it easier for some to get in, and easier for others to be squeezed out.
But the question is not what will change, but how the rhetoric about the existing realities will change. At one time US allies were lauded for being “democratic”. Then dictatorships were lauded for being “anti-communist”, so “democratic” was then subsumed into the concept of “anti-communist”.
Then it was “pro-Western”, regardless of whether they were democratic or anti-communist or not. Now it is “anti-terrorist”, as if these other things put you in that camp, and if you don’t have the other things you sponsor terrorism, a very convenient and totally absurd concept.
Biden’s foreign policy task will be to find ways of describing friends and enemies which make their previous selling points part of a new rhetoric. The reality on the ground won’t change, either in the countries he is talking about or the nature of US support for them. But that reality will be described in a different way, which implies that whatever it was before, it was also always what it is described as now.
Destruction with a Human Face
This administration is pretending that most Americans are so ill-informed that, as Biden has been less than a month office, he has too many other and more pressing problems to solve, such as getting people vaccinated and wondering what the next move to get Trump is, to know if Saudi Arabia and Israel are allies of the US.
After all, foreign policy was supposed to be Biden’s strength. He knows all the people Trump has alienated, and must therefore be presumed to know how to deal with them in a more constructive way. So shouldn’t his spokesperson – who by definition speaks on behalf of HIM – know something about who these people are and where they stand?
Biden Inc. wants to show the world that they are something different from Trump. I am not convinced he will be able to.
But at least he should be able to get things done, due to his good relations with world leaders, even if policy and practice remain fundamentally the same. That advantage will vanish overnight if no one knows where they stand, what they can expect and what will be expected of them, because Biden has more important things to think about right now.
Work with allies is exactly that – work. It needs ongoing attention, and commitment of will as well as resources. It needs the development of a common hymn sheet, in which each knows what the other really means when they say the words respective audiences want to hear.
The big test will come when Biden realises his options for making a better peace have been taken away by the intent of US policy over such a long time. To be the superpower, the US will want to start a new war.
Whatever else Trump did, he didn’t do that. But any such war will have to be a “non-Trumpian” conflict – against an enemy he wouldn’t have fought, for reasons he wouldn’t have chosen.
This is why Saudi Arabia and Israel should be pressing Biden and his spokesperson to confirm that they are important US allies. For all the US support for those countries, they offer strong options for anyone wanting to start a new kind of war to show they are different.
The human rights records of both Saudi Arabia and Israel have long been a source of concern even amongst those sympathetic to them. Both are on at least the fringes of becoming nuclear powers, admittedly or not, and neither will comment on how far they have gone in that direction.
War with Israel over the Gaza Strip, rather than Palestinians in general, would be a way of the US remaining the big noise and supporting Israel’s general policy and existence, but not specific violations. War with Saudi Arabia over its autocracy, the obvious thing to blame for its slide into abuse and the best way of getting US hands on its oil, would be presented as the basis for developing a new paradigm for the Arab world which protected everyone else, most notably Israel.
These wars are unlikely, but by no means impossible. With few other options to change things, the new Administration will have to consider some equally unlikely moves to maintain its domestic base as well as achieve international objectives.
US allies have long learned that this status doesn’t guarantee anything. But words are still powerful, and when you don’t hear the ones you expect, that can have even more impact.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.