Those who thought that the elderly American President, formerly Barack Obama’s vice-President, would step into the international limelight as the wise and moderate statesman he had been during the election campaign have had to revise their judgement.
Just a few weeks after taking office, Joe Biden abruptly brought the United States back onto the Middle East stage with a dual political-military move that has aroused considerable perplexity and protest in the United States and abroad.
As Pentagon spokesman John Kirby pointed out, the first surprise move decided directly by the President was to order an aerial bombardment against two bases of militiamen believed to be close to Hezbollah and Iran, located in Syria near the border with Iraq.
Between 22 and 27 people, whether militiamen or civilians, are reported to have died in the attack, which took place during the night of February 25.
The order to strike the pro-Iranian militias was motivated by Biden’s need to react to an attack in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, at the beginning of February against a U.S. army logistics base, which resulted in the death of a Filipino employee of the base.
Commenting on the incident, Pentagon spokesman Kirby said: “The airstrikes have destroyed warehouses and buildings used on the border by pro-Iranian militias Kathaib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al Shuhaba and have conveyed the unambiguous message that President Biden will always act to protect American personnel. At the same time, the action is intended to deliberately pursue the goal of de-escalating tension in both eastern Syria and Iraq’.
Apart from the fact that it sounds ambiguous to justify a surprise attack on the territory of a (still) sovereign State like Syria with the need to “reduce tension” in the region, President Biden’s initiative has aroused not a few perplexities also in the United States, in addition to the obvious protests of the government in Damascus.
While many Republican Senators and Congressmen have approved of Biden’s actions because, as Republican Senator Pat Toomey has argued, “Biden has the right to respond with weapons to the recent attacks supported by Iran against American interests”, members of his own party have not hidden their criticism and perplexity because allegedly the President did not respect the exclusive prerogatives of Congress in terms of “war actions”.
Democratic Senator Tim Kane was very harsh and explicit: “an offensive military action without Congressional approval is unconstitutional”.
His colleague from the same party, Chris Murphy, told CNN that “military attacks require Congressional authorization. We must require that this Administration adheres to the same behavioural standards we have required from previous Administrations…
We require that there be always legal justification for every American military initiative, especially in a theatre like Syria, where Congress has not authorised any military initiative”.
With a view to underlining the inconsistency of the White House’s justification that the attacks were to ‘reduce tension’ in the region, Democratic Congressman Ro Khana publicly stepped up criticism by saying, “We need to get out of the Middle East. I spoke out against Trump’s endless war and I will not shut up now that we have a Democratic President”.
As we can see, the criticism levelled at President Biden has been harsh and very explicit, thus marking the premature end of the ‘honeymoon’ between the Presidency and Congress that, in the U.S. tradition, marks the first hundred days of each new Administration.
President Biden’s military show of strength appears to be marked not only by the doubts over constitutionality raised by leading members of his own party, but also by the contradictory nature of the motivations and justifications.
According to the White House, in view of reducing tension in Syria, bombers need to be sent, without prejudice to the need to “convey a threatening signal” to Iran, at the very moment when the President himself is declaring he wants to reopen the “nuclear deal” with Iran, i.e. the dialogue on the nuclear issue abruptly interrupted by his predecessor.
In short, the new President’s opening moves in the Middle East region do not seem to differ too much from those of his predecessors who, like him, thought that military action – even bloody and brutal – could always be considered a useful option as a substitute for diplomacy.
This military action, however, seems scarcely justifiable in its motivations if it is true that President Biden intends to reduce the tension in relations with Iran, which have become increasingly tense due to initiatives such as those of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who at the beginning of last year ordered the assassination of the highest-ranking member of the Iranian military hierarchy, Qassem Suleimani, who was shot by a drone near Baghdad.
President Biden’s other move that, in a delicate and sensitive theatre such as the Near East, appears at least untimely, was to authorise CIA to declassify the report on the assassination of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, killed in 2018 on the premises of the Saudi Consulate in Turkey.
The CIA report bluntly accuses Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of ordering the murder of the dissident journalist. Its publication, authorised by President Biden, has sparked a storm of controversy inside and outside the United States, thus seriously calling into question the strategic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which over the years has been painstakingly built with the dual aim of counterbalancing Iran’s presence and influence in the Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, as well as controlling the extremist impulses of rich and dangerous regional partners such as Qatar.
Prince Bin Salman, now firmly established as sole heir to the Saudi throne, is a compulsory counterpart of the United States.
In vain (and recklessly), President Biden has publicly declared his preference for a direct dialogue with King Salman.
The 85-year-old King, however, is not only in poor health conditions, but has also clearly told the Americans that he has the utmost confidence in “his sole and legitimate heir” to whom he has already actually delegated the management of the Kingdom’s affairs.
President Biden’s Administration, and its new Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, have never made a secret of preferring another Crown Prince as a potential counterpart, namely Mohammed Bin Nayef, who is very close to CIA thanks to the good offices of the former Chief of the Saudi intelligence services, Saad Al Jabry. Nevertheless, in the complicated world of the Saudi Court, things do not always proceed in the simple and straightforward way preferred by the Americans.
Mohammed Bin Najef is currently in prison on corruption charges and is therefore definitely out of the race for the throne, while his CIA liaison, Al Jabry, has self-exiled to Canada to escape the ‘persecution’ he believes has been orchestrated by the Saudi courtiers.
If the United States wants to keep on playing a role in the Middle East and possibly exercising a stabilising function in a region which was greatly destabilised by George W. Bush’s unfortunate Iraqi adventure, which effectively handed Iraq over to the Shi’ites close to their Iranian “brothers” and gave Iran the keys to control the Persian Gulf, the President and his Secretary of State will have to rely on a good dose of political realism, leaving out of the dialogue with Saudi Arabia the ethical considerations which, although justified, do not seem appropriate, also because America has never seemed to have had many scruples when it comes to physically eliminating its ‘adversaries’ with very hasty methods, be they an Iranian general, two dozen unidentified Syrian militiamen or their relatives.
In short, the early stages of Biden’s Presidency do not look very promising. Allies and adversaries alike are waiting for the United States to get back on the field in the most sensitive areas with pragmatism and realism, two factors that seem rather lacking in Joe Biden’s preliminary foreign policy moves.