More than a hundred days have passed since the inauguration of the sixth elected President of the re democratization period in Brazil, Mr. Jair Bolsonaro. Time enough to observe that a few words of this first sentence appear not to fit together in the current governmental term, namely, “President”, “redemocratization”, and “Jair Bolsonaro”. In this brief article, I explain how those words are being settled apart, through an overview of what has been at the center of media and academic debates. Then, I show what has been the most problematic aspect of those debates, and how they are, consequently, reinforcing the Government’s strategy of resignifying Brazil’s history and reality. Finally, I define what I have termed anti-presidentialist regime, erected upon such strategy which, I argue, is the concluding part of the project presented to the population by the Legislative and Judiciary in 2016, with Dilma Rousseff`s impeachment. My intention here is not to assemble what several political scientists, journalists, economists, and also the political opposition have been expressing to the local and international presses. Instead, I aim to make sense of a broader change regarding the way Brazilians became to recognize themselves: how is such a shift taking place, who is it favoring, and what is the likely outcome?
At first, it is paramount to understand what Mr. Jair Bolsonaro is. He is more a “something” than a “somebody”, and I explain this point: Bolsonaro has made his path as a Congressman as a means through which to assure to his family and his surrounding community of friends and employees safe positions in politics. He is an instrument toward such goal and had succeeded. This becomes clear when one analyses his performance over near thirty years in the House of Representatives: polemic discourses in plenaries; offensive statements directed against homosexuals and women Deputies; a poor record of accepted propositions by his peers (two projects); and a wide range of ideas and proposals oriented to militaries – 53% out of the total, although none was approved in the House. While such performance appears to be low, it happened to be enough for assuring a loyal part of the electorate who had constructed a reliable identification with his “authentic and spontaneous” way of talking.
After his premature retirement from the Army with a granted military patent of captain, the politics turned out to be a space of opportunities to safeguard the economic future of his people. Aware of being a kind of “spokesperson” of the conservative strand of the society that, by this time (the 2000s), was enclosed in itself, Bolsonaro would escalate his style and convert it into a “label”. Although not yet taken seriously by many in the House and within the society, one of his sons was elected Councilor of Rio de Janeiro in 2000 with seventeen years old, under the minimum lega lage to assume the position, replacing his mother, Mrs. Rogéria Bolsonaro. Not by chance, this was the son who most quickly understood and reproduced the label: still a teenager, Carlos Bolsonaro held an active discourse in favor of the civilian armament and the reduction of the criminal age in his campaign. The Brazilian media evaluates that, currently, he is the one who has the most influence over the President – what was underpinned by the unexpected dismissal of Mr. Gustavo Bebbiano, the then Ministry of the General Secretariat of the Presidency and the President of Bolsonaro’s political party, the Social Liberal Party. Bolsonaro announced Bebbiano’s removal from office in 18th February, after an episode of disagreements with Carlos concerning a supposed WhatsApp (mis)communication between Bebbiano and Bolsonaro. It is argued that the event in itself might not have rendered Bebbiano’s dismissal if he wouldn’t have been in continuous disagreements with Carlos since the government’s transitional period.
Nowadays, we have Bolsonaro’s three sons occupying positions in the Legislative, throughout different federal spheres (National Congress and City Hall), and none of them is in the first mandate1. Therefore, we have a political clan, i.e., an instance of informal nepotism. Naturally, alongside the core of the clan constituted by the father and sons, there is an extensive network of collaborators, friends, and supporters that has been consolidated over the years. They might recognize themselves as part of a large family, but the core is tight and well defined. If there is something clear so far within the Government is that: how many more raise opposition to the core, how many more may fall out, either removed or resigned. Bolsonaro is then not a politician in the strict sense of acting towards the common good within the public sphere, seeking the most prepared ones to tackle the tasks. Besides the episode encompassing Bebbiano and his second son Carlos, we are collecting demonstrations of how the hierarchy of the government is built up – as an example, the third son Eduardo took part at the first official meeting with the US President Donald Trump, instead of the Chancellor Ernesto Araújo, in 19thMarch.
The politics is the space that has welcomed Bolsonaro after the Army, in which he could better act to the benefit of his peoples, i.e., professional, economic and material guarantees to his family first, then to the network around them. He has succeeded, as his own plan was just like that personal, simple and clear compared to other politician’s high ambitions. As President, he has been keeping his old discursive style – polemic, controversial, authentic (in his electorate’s words), interventionist and extremist – while strengthening the label Bolsonaro, which was meant to represent conservatism mainly in religious and behavioral terms, and actually represents the most significant far-right authority in Latin America.
Jair Bolsonaro is from the state of Rio de Janeiro, one of the most violent in Brazil. At the same time, one with the highest visibility and popularity, perhaps in the world. The city of Rio de Janeiro (the homonymous state capital) hosted several international mega-events during the last ten years, ranging from religion (the first apostolic journey of Pope Francisco, who is born in Argentina, was to RJ, where he celebrated the World Youth Day in 2013) to culture, sport and business. Alongside them, it had dramatically increased the number of murders, armed repression and forced evictions of poor black people from territories that have turned out to be on the way of those mega-events. Had Bolsonaro been a politician (again, in the original Greek sense of the term), in facing such scenario, and considering his strong discourse on public security – favoring an increase in weapons circulation and military police’s power of action -, he might have been elected Governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro. However, he is not. He is solely the leader of a clan, who has never aspired to be the personification of a national leader.
Here, I argue, lies the most problematic aspect of the debates concerning the last ten months of Brazilian politics, assembling the electoral period, the transitional government and the almost five months of Bolsonaro’s Presidency: the expectation of an Executive that acts according to the coalition presidentialism is indeed wavering. Coalition presidentialism has been the regime since the redemocratization of the country in 1985 with President José Sarney4. There are two irreconcilable logics at play: on the one side, intellectuals and pragmatics struggle to find in Bolsonaro’s Presidency plausible elements to delineate either a strategy or a personality that fits within the overarching framework of the coalition presidentialism regime. Although nothing resembles the other five Presidents of the redemocratization period5, there is still a considered segment of the society committed to explaining the over-reluctant behavior of the President, which inevitably contaminates the Executive, without putting the regime itself into question.
On the other side, the logic of Bolsonaro does uphold the unfolding developments: as the leader of a conservative clan consisted of white middle-to-upper class heterosexual men, since his first mandates at the House of Representatives he plays solely on the customs agenda, openly displaying no sympathy to democratic principles. He was elected in October 2018 precisely due to such biography and, over the empty presidential campaign that did not have debates nor a minimum exposition of a government program, he never held the promise of diversification. After all, he was not interested in politics, but in raising polemics about traditions, habits, norms, and myths. His last frictions with the President of the House, Mr. Rodrigo Maia (of the Democrats Party, which is center-right and part of the government’s support base), make clear his complete apathy concerning politics.
He plays according to his logic, which is instrumentalized by mechanisms able to promote chaos and polarization – social media, ideological discourses, delegitimation of the opposition as an interlocutor, empty promises and doubtful declarations later falsified by the ministers, and a real war against the press. Nonetheless, chaos and polarization are indeed effective methods to misconduct a country with 34.5 million informal workers6, more than 12 million of unemployed7 and 15.3 million people living below the line of extreme poverty8. As long as press and academic debates keep focused on the failures and shortcomings of this sixth elected representative of a supposed democratic coalition presidentialism regime, we all fail.
Therefore, we urgently need to change the focus and the language, to construct a possible resistance. The focus, away of Twitter and the partisan dichotomy left-right, which is in the clan’s usual rhetoric, toward the proper Executive agenda of reforms and public measures. The language, away of personal adjectives and aggressive responses, toward an assertive and confrontational oratory related to the paralysis of the Executive. Here I use the word paralysis referring to the fact that, with more than ten percent of the term of office spent, we have no real program for Health, Education, Environment, Human Rights, Culture, Work and so on. What we have is still a robust ideological plan of action, replicating the ton used during the campaign. The National Congress is still recalcitrant with the Pension Reform, which has just gone through the first round of voting at the Constitution, Justice and Citizenship Commission (CCJ, in Portuguese) of the House.
Although the political horizon is still unclear, the present is so far undoubted: Bolsonaro is not playing by the rules of the coalition presidentialism, neither is personally attached to the principles of liberal democracy. Bolsonaro has no clue about how to balance the distribution of functions, roles and positions among the ministries and state companies, let alone how to manage the amendments in the budget – recently, the House has approved, in a surprisingly fast majority of 448 votes vs. 3, the Proposal of Constitutional Emendation 2/2015 known as the “authoritative budget”, which substantially restricts the government’s power over the allocation of funds. This is seen as a significant defeat of the Ministry of Economy Paulo Guedes. For Bolsonaro himself – who has already publicly declared against the Pension Reform which is, in turn, the main flag of his mandate proposed by one of the two so-called “super Ministers”, Mr. Guedes – it is all under control.
To highlight the challenge to so-called coalition presidentialism, I will call this particular way of managing government, daily affairs, and (anti)politics a regime of “anti-presidentialism”. Through this specific regime, Bolsonaro’s government simultaneously control the government and the opposition mainly through the setting of the agenda – restricted to customs, myths, contentious issues, and random opinions – employing direct communication with the population via social media.
He won the presidential election with 39.3% of the total electorate who went to the poll and currently needs to preserve the rate of 30% of overall approval to move forward with the reforms, according to companies of data surveys and to the economic press. Today, we have 37% of Brazilians that evaluate Bolsonaro Government as “good”. There is a parcel of the electorate that would remain loyal to the label Bolsonaro: openly chauvinist, homophobic, sexist, conservative, interventionist and safeguard of the patriarchal roots of the Brazilian society. During the Workers Party’s terms (Lula, 2003-2011; Dilma, 2011-mid-2016), this parcel of the electorate – composed mainly by white men of middle and high economic classes, former militaries and evangelicals – has seen a double movement going on in the country: on the one hand, the growing and spread of progressive ideas in the fields of social policies, customs and human rights, which were celebrated by the low classes who are generally the target of security forces’ narco-politics. On the other hand, the lowering of purchase power as an effect of the international economic crisis of 2008 that was felt hard by the middle class, which is generally the target of austerity measures.
The welfare policies of President Lula (Bolsa Família, Fome Zero) did not alter the inequality structure of the country, and there are several plausible critics about Lula’s double strategy of making poor people and the bourgeoisie compliant, through providing access to consumer goods and the reconciliation of conflicting interests, respectively. What is relevant to highlight, however, is the social consequences of this political articulation undertaken during the Workers Party’s terms: the rise of gender activism, feminist movements, human rights advocacy, naming and shaming of racist politicians, and a feeling of empowerment among the poor people. The silenced low class has become louder and proud of its color, race, and sexual orientation. The intolerance grew concomitantly, both among the political-economic elite, and the ordinary people eager to have the “normal order” back, i.e., privileges of gender, class, and race.
Political scientists, journalists, economists and also the political opposition have been struggling to keep up with the daily twists promoted by Bolsonaro and his team, to understand them in light of the democratic principles and the coalition presidentialism regime, which normativity is in effect for the last thirty-four years of the Brazilian history. That is where I claim they are reinforcing Bolsonaro’s strategy of resignifying Brazil’s history and reality. Bolsonaro’s team is, on the one hand, made by a majority of militaries already responsible for more than one-third of the Ministries that, together, have a budget more prominent than the Ministry of Health and Education. Naturally, it is inescapable to cope with the old issue of military hierarchy vs. submission to civilians, which has been proved difficult in the negotiations of the Pension Reform.
On the other hand, the team is made by several people who were entitled due to their consent and conviction concerning the conservative customs agenda — nothing beyond that. The Ministers of External Relations, Human Rights & Family, Environment and Education are the most notable examples of what is at stake for Bolsonaro: to ideologically resignify the frontline channels of telling Brazil’s history and reality, inside and outside the country. This agenda has been featured “anti-intellectualism” by the opposition, denoting precisely the denial of facts, statistics, studies, and historiography. The ambivalence is that, even though such denial is already identified, the opposition insists on the intellectual language to confront such an agenda. That is, while Bolsonaro speaks his own truths and manifests his conception of the facts (not the facts themselves), the opposition complains about the lack of accuracy with numbers and narratives about the trending-topics selected by Bolsonaro himself.
As an example, the order launched in the last 31st March to celebrate the Military Coup of 1964 that has initiated the twenty years of the barbaric Brazilian dictatorship, has prompted a massive reaction within the national and international societies 9 . We are witnessing an entire miscommunication that, in the end, has been monopolizing the opposition toward raising a reaction against nothing with the wrong toolkit, as Bolsonaro does not recognize the sound of intellectualism. In other words, would not be the national opposition an echo of Bolsonaro’s anxieties, reverberating his desires and perspectives, they will start to see a backlash before whom he cares about, the international market.
I wrap up this article with the questions concerning the broader change upon the way Brazilians came to recognize themselves: how is such a shift taking place, who is it favoring, and what is the likely outcome? I claim that Bolsonaro is a by product of such change and that it is crucial to highlight the path, the conditions of possibility for his election and continuous support among still 30% of voters. I already mentioned above few concrete facts of the Workers Party’s period in power that contributed to catalyze changes on Brazilians perspectives about themselves. And I would say that, by no means, we are alone: such changes are following an international trend of conservatism. However, Bolsonaro is conservative, to say the least. To be precise, he is located at the far-right part of the political spectrum, what is an unthinkable image for Brazilians historians, social scientists and anyone else who has been thinking of the country since 1985.
Notwithstanding the traditional assumption of Itamaraty that Brazil is a successful example of multiculturalism and harmonious coexistence of differences, Brazilians are carving a deadly version of racism and persistent racial and economic inequality, as “Black Brazilians earn, on average, 57 percent less than white Brazilians. They make up 64 percent of the prison population. Brazil’s Congress is 71 percent white”10. Jair Bolsonaro spurs these numbers. His vocabulary is ideological, and his agenda is no longer part of the progressive path of emancipation that Brazilians were experiencing. He reinforces an illiberal democracy in the country, cheating people’s hope of better days and boosting actual crusades against intellectual discussions and teaching on race, gender, and sexual orientation. Simultaneously, he speaks out in favor of economic liberalism, which is a promise to re-establish the pre-2008 living conditions of the middle class through the privatization of vital national companies.
I named anti-presidentialism regime all this configuration that encompasses an original label shaped over Bolsonaro’s years as a Congressman under which his clan currently acts; a specific language, vocabulary and “functional ignorance” that works to silence substantiated critics; an exacerbated use of personal social media as the official communication channel of the Government; an ability to shape a customs agenda and to monopolize the public engagement around it; and, lastly, a profound lack of knowledge and skills to employ the instruments of the coalition presidentialism regime, which he calls “the oldpolitics”.
We are then reinforcing such anti-presidentialism regime by interacting with its elements, either misunderstanding or complaining about them, or even being sick of delusion. Bolsonaro has won more than sixty thousand new followers on Twitter during Carnaval through the promotion of chaos and polarization with a given video he posted. In Brazil, there is an elected Congressman who resigned from his third mandate and is living abroad in 2019; a Councilor who was a relentless human rights defender brutally murdered in 2018; and uncountable number of politicians who have occupied high positions in the national or local governments in prison due to corruption and support to militias. Liberal democracy is crumbling in Brazil at least since August 2016, with Rousseff´s controversial impeachment, and civilian restrictions are in a fast track of enlargement. The latest measure announced by the Minister of Education was to significantly “decentralized” public funding for superior studies of philosophy, sociology, and social sciences, as “they do not give an immediate return to taxpayers”, according to Bolsonaro.
Eduardo, his third son who is conducting Brazilian foreign policy, seeks for inspiration among the Hungarian Viktor Órban, the Italian Matteo Salvini, the Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu, and the North-American Donald Trump. Each manifestation from those countries’ peoples of non- acceptance of topics of the world far-right agenda is, after all, an engagement. In Brazil, due to the notorious unpreparedness of the President, resistance might be more successful by firstly ignoring posts and tweets of the clan that holds no other goal than to spawn social chaos. Resistance must require liberal democracy, constitutional rights, the rule of law and public policies, with expected outcomes and data. We must pressure the Executive parliamentarians and the media to focus on the democratic agenda. We must organize ourselves around specific flags such as funding for superior education and the combat to narco-politics as it is currently undertaken in favelas, where the state forces drive the genocide of black people. We cannot engage anymore with Bolsonaro’s strategy that is constructed, daily, through a discourse of normality. We need to urgently recover people’s power to shape conceptions of the normal.
Implications of Right-Wing Politics in United States
US witnessed one of the tumultuous transition of power as the republicans shook the very roots of a model democracy in the US after the Capitol hill mayhem .
Trump administration during the four-year Presidential Term has been worst on all fronts -be it Internal Policy, Health Policy, unemployment, Governance, Foreign Policy, security and Trade policy.
Trump being afraid of defeat resorted to inciting Voters, supporters and workers to attack Capitol Hill, and his racial tirade and overtures drowned him in Last year’s most trumpeted Presidential Elections when the country appeared divided between the rightist and leftists.
The elections witnessed the bloodshed, torture, violence and sheer violation of legislative laws that warranted immediate legal action.
From his election to the Presidential slot, Trump behaved like an amateur and insensible, had run the political affairs as a personal business rather than a statesman. He, being an actor, took the job as a mere role but the presidency demands prudence and sensible decisions to avoid any worst repercussions.
Trump’s aggressive response to matters of importance further exacerbated the situation, especially with China and Iran.
The leftists or change agents wanted a people-friendly government where the rights of people should be protected regardless of their political affiliation or association, caste, colour, creed, religion, ethnicity.
For the years, US democracy has been a model for many developing countries owing to its non radicalised and people-friendly Governments.
All the democratic forces were stunned over the unfortunate incident of Capitol Hill mayhem and were shocked that even developed nations like America can be enthralled, enticed and incited to the level that they will shake the very roots of Democracy i.e Capitol Hill.
The world responded with regrets that it was unfortunate that trumpism radicalized supporters to the extent that they were instigated and incited to influence the Presidential Elections results so that Biden’s Victory may not be validated.
The world might have moved to tears when Trump supporters and workers ransacked Capitol Hill and brought disgrace for America around the world.
All experts, analysts and pro-democracy leaders condemned such act since it was against the norms of civilized nations of the world.
All that mayhem that stormed the US was orchestrated and masterminded by a Business Tycoon, Actor turned Politician Donald Trump who already lost his credibility for his election to the office of President since he was facing rigging and horse-trading charges in his first term that led to his impeachment Trial but luckily he was set free twice from impeachment during his presidency.
Furthermore, his complete failure to tackle the issue of pandemic also contributed to his humiliating defeat since he ridiculed the pandemic by terming it China Virus owing to trade war with China.
Later, when the pandemic went out of control, he took initiative but it was too late to restrict the covid-19 infections since the US had the highest ratio of Infections in the world.
Trump escalated the situation with Iran by killing General Qassem Suleimani in Iraq. later, Iran attacked American Military bases in Iraq but there were no causalities reported for the incident. Iran also shot down a passenger plane by mistake and all passengers were killed.
Trump’s diplomatic relations with China worsened due to the Trade war. American relations with North Korea did not improve though both Trump and KIM met in Singapore to reach a possible peace agreement.
His amnesty or pardon for his friends also came under heavy criticism since he was afraid that they might be prosecuted as his term ended.
His blunders contributed a lot to his worst defeat though, he being stubborn did not accept defeat but later, Supreme Court rejected his claims of any rigging in elections.
Republicans being a right-wing party radicalized the political workers and community to that extent that people violated law without any fear as they enjoyed the support from the white house.
Such aggressive policies led to the isolation and there was division based on ethnicity, colour and religion that is alarming for the tolerant and peaceful nature of people.
The right-wing politics of Donald trump sowed the seeds of hatred and hostility that will have serious repercussions in the long run as long as the trumpism pandemic exists among the people.
His failure to implement a deal of the century plan in the Middle East that was aimed merely on supporting Israel by giving a greater share of settlements. The deal came to a logical end as it was heavily criticized and Palestinians called it a suicide if accepted.
Despite signing the deal with the Afghan Taliban with the help of Pakistan to end 20 years longest war on terror and paving the way for US troops’ withdrawal, the law and 0rder situation has not improved so far as the peace dialogue between the Afghan Taliban and Government yet to take place.
Right-wing politicians led by Trumps have serious implications that will ultimately create problems for Biden to cope with during his presidency .
Biden has to overhaul the whole system to restore the Trust and reputation in the world and strengthen the US through unity by abolishing the discriminatory approach.
The Selection of an Afro-American lady as Vice President has already laid the foundation to put the country on right track and building the trust of all the communities whether voted for him or not as he called himself the president of all Americans rather than of those who voted and supported him during his victory speech.
The Vote is the great tool of people to bring in the choice of leadership as it is the constitutional right of every American and can be exercised on free will without any pressure .
The Afro-American community still recalls the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd by Police, supported Joe Biden after he chose Kamala Harris as Vice President candidate .
On the other hand, though Trump was given clean chit in impeachment since he was charged of inciting the supporters to attack Capitol Hill that will be marked as a black day in American history, yet he has sown the seeds of intolerance, political victimization and radicalizing the peaceful Americans.
This aspect of populist or right-wing politics always plagues the peaceful and vibrant societies in a developed nation like the US, UK, France and Germany. Trump promoted racism through his flowery speech that incited and enthralled mob violence to exert pressure through street power as practised in Asian states such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China and Japan.
The political analysts term Trump as an existential threat for Biden as he still enjoys the second largest votes in key states and may create problems especially the legislation for key issues.
Biden will have to fix diplomatic relations with all nations of the world especially Tehran and Beijing as Former President Donald Trump escalated the diplomatic relations with these countries with his insensible and aggressive attitude.
He will have to take immediate steps to clear the mess that was stalled by Trump’s radicalized and extremist approach to right-wing Politics whose price is being paid by citizens through isolation and hatred.
Biden and Kamala Harris will have to chalk out such policies that deal with communities with equality and justice and especially deal with the pandemic situation through vaccination drive to minimize the covid-19 infections. The causalities have surpassed thousands whereas long lockdowns have created unemployment and economic crisis impacting many industries.
They need to sit with health experts and Economists to get the country out of the crisis. It will be better to take help from the nations that managed to defeat this pandemic with SOPs and measures.
Beyond ego, the US may seek help from Russia, China, Singapore and the UK to win against the pandemic situation, though the ratio of the infections dropped worldwide as the cold winter departs.
Joe Biden will have to support Kashmiris against the unilateral move of India as he had promised in the election campaign.
He should play his role for the Middle East peace plan of the two-state solution so that Palestinians may have a state as per their wishes and the map they have in mind.
It was the sensible decision from him that troops’ withdrawal option was postponed ,given the critical situation in Afghanistan. Rather, he should not jeopardize or sabotage the peace deal with the Taliban .Instead ,he should engage person like Zalmay Khalilzad to strengthen the dialogue process between the Afghan Taliban and other stakeholders including the existing Government of Ashraf Ghani so that peace could be restored as it will benefit all the countries and play a pivotal role in regional stability and prosperity. The pandemic has united the world as human conscience has roused again.
Finally, Democrats have always saved America and promoted justice, equality and opened doors for the world for immigration but Trump wreaked havoc with all the social norms and promoted intolerance, racism and inequality that shook the very roots of the country and gave birth to happenings of Capitol Hill and distrust on the electoral system.
Biden Administration is expected and mandated by the masses to clear that mess and pave the way for his second term if he succeeds to bring change to the country.
Right-wing politics has its pros and cons but the version introduced by Republicans radicalized the whole system and divided the country even in times of emergency. Populist leaders all around the world have impacted various governments specially in Asian States as they are elected on popular vote .
The version introduced by Trump may give birth to the dissent voices as left-wing whose critique may be beyond rectification whereas the ethnic divide, will promote separatism as happened in UK, Spain, Russia and Subcontinent when people’s rights were compromised and the freedom of expression was annulled.
US cannot afford further isolation and division of communities on the basis of ethnicity , colour or radical thoughts since it has already the price during the regime of Trump .
New US Administration Approach to Syria: How Different Could It Be?
With the new US administration in the White House, there are rather lofty expectations about a change in the American Middle East policy in general and towards Syria in particular. Some argue that the US Middle East policy will remain somewhat in line with that of Trump’s presidency, while others believe that Biden’s team will try to reverse many of the previous foreign policy steps. The rest say that we should expect an Obama-style Middle East policy, which means more diplomatic engagement with less military involvement and a heavier focus on the human rights issues.
The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle. The new US administration will certainly attempt to undo some of the predecessor’s moves: withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, putting the Houthis on the terror list, suspending aid to the Palestinians, etc. However, this will require considerable effort on the part of the new White House.
First, the new Administration will spend much more time dealing with the domestic issues they have inherited from Trump: polarized domestic politics, economic issues, consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and response to it, etc. Biden’s administration will have to devote much of its time to all of this, so it is safe to say that the Middle East will not stand in the forefront of the US foreign policy focus.
Second, in the realm of foreign policy, US relations with Europe, China and Russia are of far greater importance to Washington than those with the Middle East which will remain on the margins of the US foreign policy, being a concern only through the lens of strategic threats, such as combatting terrorism (anti-ISIS coalition efforts), nuclear non-proliferation (revival of the JCPOA), and interacting with actors involved in those issues.
Third, Biden will face certain domestic opposition to some of the Middle East policy issues, e.g. Iran nuclear deal, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, sanctioned entities and so on.
Finally, having different views, approaches and rationale, US allies in the region (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey and Israel) could possibly frustrate some of the plans devised by the new administration.
Therefore, we should not expect the Middle East to figure high on the US foreign policy agenda, as well as keep our expectations low as concerns possible breakthroughs on the profiles which will get certain US attention: the Iran nuclear deal, Syrian Kurds issue, reconciliation with Turkey, dealing with Libya, cultivating relations with Israel and Palestine.
Syria Is Not a Priority
Syria has never been a priority for the US foreign policy and will likely remain a second-tier issue for Biden and his team. In fact, some analysis of the US Middle East policy over the last decade shows consistency of approach. Although Obama started his presidency with his 2009 Cairo speech, intended as a signal of support to the region and increased attention from the US, his administration responded to the Arab Uprising with certain discretion and was reluctant to increase American involvement in the regional conflicts—Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya—rather opting for a low profile, proceeding with its fight against terrorism and focusing on diplomacy to a greater extent. Trump administration, by and large, continued this approach avoiding military involvement and shifting more of the responsibility for security and regional problems onto its regional allies—Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, etc. While Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and increased sanction pressure on Tehran, this never translated into a significant change in the American approach to the region. Even in Syria, which suffered several US missile attacks, the moves of the previous administration did not lead to a drastic change of the situation on the ground. Moreover, US “betrayal” of the Kurds and a partial withdrawal of its military from Syria had little serious impact on the course of the conflict. Therefore, over the last decade, the US regional policy has, by and large, been going along the similar lines of limited engagement, fight against terrorism, support of its regional allies.
Today, Biden administration’s plans do not provide for a change in the established approach and deal only with a limited number of policy issues, those coming in for heavy criticism under Trump, e.g. the Iran deal, extending support to the Syrian Kurds, suspending dialogue and aid to the Palestinians, etc.
It is worth noting that the new US administration does not regard the Syrian conflict as a separate problem, important in its own right. It, rather, treats it as a secondary issue linked to other, more important policy issues, such as dealings with Iran and the nuclear deal, relations with Turkey, which happens to brand US-backed Syrian Kurdish militias (YPG) as terrorists, as well as dealings with Russia who, in recent years, has become more active in Syria and in the region at large, or ensuring security of US allies in the region (Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iraq, etc.) who feel threatened by increased Iranian military presence in Syria. Therefore, the Syrian profile is largely viewed in the context of US policies towards Iran, Russia and Turkey, rather than as a separate foreign policy concern.
Interestingly, though, the new Administration refused to send its representative to the 15th round of the Astana Syria talks held in Sochi on Feb. 16–17, despite an invitation being sent, as is argued by Alexander Lavrentiev, Russia’s special envoy on Syria. The US ceased to participate in the Astana meetings in mid-2018. Mr Lavrentiev went on to suggest that the new administration has yet to formulate its Syria policy, despite being officially in office for over a month now. “There are signals [coming from the US] that they will be ready to work with us, but so far no conclusive proposals have been made,” concluded the Russian envoy. Thus far, Washington has not devised its Syria policy, having other actors involved guess its possible approach and future steps.
Moscow Concerns with US Syria Policy
US military presence in Syria is among major concerns for Russia. American soldiers are deployed in northeastern and eastern provinces of Syria as well as in the south, around al-Tanf settlement, on the border with Jordan and Iraq. Moscow perceives American presence in the country as illegal and among the key obstacles to its reunification. US support to the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) prevents them from striking a deal with Damascus, something that is needed to restore the country’s territorial integrity and to assume control over those areas, as the majority of oil fields, water resources (Euphrates river), and some 40% of all agricultural lands are located in Kurdish-held regions. When the US is going to leave Syria is thus one of the most important questions for Russia.
A short answer would be that Washington will not pull out its forces from Syria, at least in the mid-term. Regardless of who occupies the White House, there are certain interests and goals that the US has in Syria, and it will hardly abandon them.
First and foremost, American military presence in Syria serves as a deterrent for the Syrian government forces and loyal militias, as well as for Russia, Iran, pro-Iranian units and Turkey. American troops prevent the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the Russian forces from asserting control over the oil fields and extending it to the economically-needed, 3-million strong northeast and east provinces of Syria. They also keep an eye on Iranian activities in east Syria, on the border with Iraq (border-crossing in Al-Bukamal), and keep Iran from further entrenchment. Finally, American troops keep the Turkish forces and the Ankara-backed armed Syrian opposition from the offensive against the Syrian Kurds. In addition, American military surveilles Russian activities and moves in the region. Being no heavy burden for Washington, the mere presence of several hundred US soldiers in the country kills many birds with one stone. That is why we can hardly expect the new US leadership to abandon such a position.
Second, the fact that the US is capable of significantly increasing its military presence in Syria at any given moment and within a short span of time puts it in a position of being a potential spoiler of any military or political/diplomatic initiative or deal that Russia, Iran, the Syrian government or Turkey may undertake. Besides, recent reports indicate that the US is constructing a new military base with airfield facilities near al-Omar oil field in Deir ez-Zor. Its runways are 2.5 km-long, which allows it to host heavy military planes (Lockheed C-130 Hercules, Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, or В-52). Once finished, the base will let the US easily send several thousands of soldiers or PMC fighters to Syria overnight, handing it an opportunity to rapidly build up its military presence and capabilities in the area. This makes Washington an indispensable participant of any settlement in Syria and forces Moscow, Ankara, Tehran and Damascus to take American interests and concerns into account. It is unlikely that Washington is ready to lose such leverage.
Third, being the leader of the anti-ISIS coalition, the US maintains its presence on the ground, which enables it to fight the remnants of terrorists. US officials have recently called attention to the fact that the main focus of US military in Syria is to fight the Islamic State which has become more active over the past six months. This reason serves as an official excuse to justify US presence in the country.
Finally, the US wants to maintain its ability to influence the political process in Syria. As of now, Washington has several instruments at its disposal. Its unilateral sanctions coupled with the Caesar Act, created serious additional problems not only for the Syrian economy but for the socio-economic, humanitarian and medical situation affecting millions of ordinary civilians as well. Such sanctions are politically motivated, pursuing a change in the regime’ behavior, something that was never achieved. Essentially, this results in making the socio-economic and humanitarian conditions in the country only worse and obstructing any attempts to reconstruct critical infrastructure. Many humanitarian organizations report severe impediments in delivering humanitarian aid to Syria and rebuilding the country, with many INGOs being simply afraid to work in Damascus-controlled areas because of their fear to be sanctioned. According to the UN Special Rapporteur Prof. Alena Douhan, “secondary sanctions and over-compliance with unilateral sanctions result in fear for all interlocutors and drastically affect all population groups in targeted societies impeding people, private business, workers, scholars and doctors to do their job and to enjoy human rights.” As a result, US sanctions on Syria allow Washington to exert serious influence on the political settlement of the conflict as well as on Syria’s economic reconstruction, along with letting the United States remain a key actor in the conflict resolution.
Another leverage the US has in terms of shaping the political process in Syria is its support to SDF. Today, while backing the Syrian Kurds, Washington also obstructs any serious talks between them and the Syrian authorities in Damascus aimed at reaching reintegration of the northeast and eastern provinces of Syria back under control of the central government. Even though the most recent round of talks between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Damascus activated by Moscow ended up with reaching an important preliminary agreement on major controversial issues, this does not prevent the Kurds from backtracking once the Americans decide to sustain or increase their support to them and reaffirm their commitments. Such moves can substantially affect the ongoing intra-Syrian political processes and prevent the country from restoring its territorial integrity. As long as the Syrian Kurds enjoy support and commitments from the US, it is extremely hard to expect them to reach any viable deal with Damascus.
By the same token, the US can influence Turkey and its Syria policy—either through increasing pressure on Ankara or trying to co-opt it by addressing its concerns and moderating the Turkish-Kurdish agreement. Such steps can potentially change the course of the conflict, thus profoundly affecting Russian positions in Syria.
Similar logic applies to the US policy towards Iran and to the revival of the JCPOA. Washington would very much like to tie the nuclear deal to other issues of concern, such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and/or its “malign activities in the region”, including those in Syria. Such an approach aspires to change Iran’s behavior, for instance, in Syria in exchange for the nuclear deal revival and lifting US sanctions. In the US line of reasoning, the White House has an upper hand in the talks with Iran to be able to force it to follow its preferred path. That can, in turn, affect Iran’s behavior not only apropos the return to the JCPOA but concerning its Syrian policy as well. The risks, if this approach fails, are high, as this will have counter-productive results. If the nuclear deal is not revived and sanctions remain at place, Iran will most likely persist in its “malign activities” in Syria and throughout the region, while reserving the option to escalate them. Even the most recent US attack on pro-Iranian targets in Syria had more to do with Iran and its activities in Iraq and Syria rather than with the Syrian conflict itself.
This is to say that the US policy towards Iran and the revival of the nuclear deal, or towards the Syrian Kurds, or the way how Biden’s administration will deal with Turkey, or Russia on the track of the Syrian conflict will have a serious impact on the situation in Syria. So far, there is no indication that it is going to be among the priorities of the new administration. Syria, though, will most likely remain part of US regional policies and subordinate to US dealings with Iran, Turkey and Russia. Outcomes of US-Iran, US-Turkey and US-Russia dialogue can potentially have a profound effect on the situation in Syria. Although it is hard to expect the new US administration to drastically change its approach to the Syrian conflict, there may be new promising avenues for diplomacy which will, hopefully, yield more positive results than negative ones.
From our partner RIAC
Washington Ill-Prepared to Set Human Rights Agenda
It is evident that US Democratic President Joe Biden and his team will pay more attention to the human rights agenda in foreign policy than their Republican predecessors did. It is also clear that Washington will actively use this agenda in dealing with its main geopolitical adversaries—above all, China and Russia. Finally, it is obvious that the United States will try to put together a consolidated Western front to shoulder American human rights initiatives. Human rights will become one of the tools to keep liberal democracies together confronting what is perceived to be the global rise of illiberal authoritarianism. We are likely to hear strong rhetoric on human rights coming out of the White House and the State Department. We will observe multiple human rights-focused US initiatives in international organizations. And we will also see new American human rights-related sanctions against Moscow and Beijing.
Still, at the end of the day, this strategy might turn out to be less successful than the new US leaders anticipate. No matter how Russian or Chinese governments are planning to handle, respectively, the Alexey Navalny case or political protests in Hong Kong, it is very unlikely that either Moscow or Beijing will yield under US pressure. Moscow and Beijing will continue going hand in hand with each other in blocking US-proposed international resolutions, in containing US foundations and NGOs operating in sensitive areas, and in countering the coming American information offensive on the human rights front. The growing pressure from the White House will only further cement the China-Russia partnership.
Moreover, the reality is that Washington is ill-prepared to make a convincing case on human rights and broader democracy issues.
First, America itself has not fully recovered from a deep and protracted political crisis. Many inside the US still question the standards of November’s presidential elections as well as the legitimacy of information restrictions imposed on Donald Trump and his supporters by major social networks and the US mainstream liberal media. The 2020 large-scale violent racial riots also question the assumption that the United States can serve today as a universal model of human rights observance. Until President Biden fixes related problems at home, his international human rights crusade will not look too credible even for his fellow citizens.
Second, it is easy for Biden to raise human rights issues against Russia and China—or against North Korea and Iran. This is a light and unburdensome task—in any case, these countries are not and will not be US allies or partners anytime soon. However, what about other potential targets—like Turkey and Saudi Arabia? On the one hand, both Ankara and Riyadh are perceived in Washington as gross violators of basic human rights. On the other hand, Washington badly needs partnerships with both of them. If the Biden administration heads down a slippery slope of double standards and selective use of the human rights agenda in foreign policy, this will not make this agenda more convincing for anyone. If Biden chooses to go against traditional US clients and friends, the political price for such integrity might turn out to be prohibitively high.
Third, though the international human rights agenda remains important, it seems that today, in most societies, the public puts fairness before freedom. 20 or 30 years ago, the quest for freedom was the driving force behind the majority of street protests, political upheavals and revolutions. Today people revolt mostly against what they believe to be unfair and unjust. The widely shared sentiment of unfairness and injustice rather than human rights or political democracy is the main source of various populist movements in all parts of the world.
The balance between the quest for freedom and the quest for fairness has always been moving from one side to the other, forming long political and social cycles in human history. In the first half of the 20th century, fairness and egalitarianism were perceived as more important than freedom and human rights, while in the second half of the century, the balance shifted away from the former and toward the latter. Today we observe the global social pendulum once again swinging in the opposite direction.
In this context, the recent statement of Chinese President Xi Jinping about the ultimate victory over absolute poverty in China may well outweigh all the eloquent human rights rhetoric coming from US President Joe Biden.
From our partner RIAC
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