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Biden's foreign policy challenges, from Iran's nuclear program to Russian hacking

When President Biden was sworn in shortly before noon on Wednesday, he inherited a host of foreign policy challenges from former President Donald Trump. Most he would have recognized from his time as vice president, but all of them have evolved in the meantime.

Biden’s predecessor in the White House can point to a few foreign policy achievements on his watch. These include the Abraham Accords, which established peaceful relations between Israel and several Arab countries; the killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; and the destruction of that group’s self-styled physical caliphate. But Trump’s attempts to charm North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un into giving up his nuclear weapons were an abject failure, and his withdrawal from the World Health Organization and decision to engage in a trade war with China have left a lot of pieces for the Biden administration to pick up.

President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dinning Room of the White House on Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dinning Room of the White House on Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)
President Biden at the White House on Thursday. (Alex Brandon/AP)

China

First among the foreign policy challenges that the new administration faces is an increasingly assertive China, as Biden’s secretary of state nominee, Antony Blinken, made clear Tuesday during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “There is no doubt that it poses the most significant challenge of any nation-state to the United States,” Blinken said.

Trump launched a trade war with China in 2018, and although the two sides reached an agreement to scale back hostilities in early 2020, Washington and Beijing have continued to trade blows, with Trump signing an executive order in November that banned Americans from investing in firms with links to the Chinese military. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in China, gave Trump another rhetorical cudgel with which to beat China and particularly its ruling Communist Party.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is shown delivering an address to China International Import Expo in November.Chinese President Xi Jinping is shown delivering an address to China International Import Expo in November.
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivering an address to the China International Import Expo in November. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who consolidated his hold on power during Trump’s tenure and is now effectively ruler for life, China in recent years has continued its military buildup, reinforced its claims to disputed territories in the South China Sea and sought to dominate international organizations, sometimes filling the vacuum left by the United States under the Trump administration.

The United States must approach China “from a position of strength, not weakness,” Blinken told the committee. Occupying such a position is still “largely within our control,” but doing so would require the United States to work with — rather than denigrate — its allies, and to resume its traditional leadership role in international institutions as opposed to “ceding [that] terrain to China,” he added.

In written responses to advance policy questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee, Biden’s defense secretary, retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, likewise identified China as “the top priority” for the Pentagon “because of its ascent and the scope and scale of its military modernization.”

Referring to “the continued erosion of U.S. military advantage vis-à-vis China and Russia” as “the most significant risk the Department must address,” Austin warned that unless this trend is reversed, it “could fundamentally challenge our ability to achieve U.S. national security objectives.”

Russia

In contrast to the rhetorical offensive that Trump maintained against the Chinese regime, the former president remained extraordinarily solicitous toward Russian leader Vladimir Putin throughout his four-year term. Before running for president, Trump had written an obsequious note to Putin, congratulating the Russian president on being named Time’s “Man of the Year” and declaring himself “a big fan” of the former KGB officer.

During Trump’s time in the White House, Russian intelligence reportedly paid bounties to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan in return for attacks on U.S. troops; poisoned Putin’s chief Russian critic, Alexei Navalny, in an apparent assassination attempt; and, most recently, was discovered to have launched a massive cyber espionage campaign against U.S. government and private entities. Often referred to as the “SolarWinds hack” after the software firm that discovered it, the Russian campaign is still ongoing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting via video conference at his residence.Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting via video conference at his residence.
Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting via videoconference on Jan. 14. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

However, even as evidence of Russian malfeasance toward the U.S. mounted, Trump rarely if ever found it in himself to criticize Putin. On Thursday, Biden’s first full day on the job, his administration announced a major intelligence review of Russian activities such as the bounty program and the SolarWinds hack. But in a sign that Biden intends to find common ground where possible with Moscow, the new administration was also widely reported to be planning to offer an extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty for another five years.

North Korea

While China poses a long-term challenge to U.S. interests, North Korea’s development of nuclear capability — and the failure of both the Obama and Trump administrations to persuade the Kim family regime to trade that capability away — remains a short-term threat that the new administration cannot afford to ignore.

Noting that “this is a hard problem that has plagued administration after administration,” Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday that the Biden team plans to “review the entire approach and policy towards North Korea” because “it’s a problem that has not gotten better — in fact, it’s gotten worse.”

People walk by a TV screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a ruling party congress.People walk by a TV screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a ruling party congress.
A TV screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a ruling party congress on Jan. 6. (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

Like Blinken, Austin, who in general gave little away in either his written answers or his comments during his lengthy Tuesday afternoon confirmation hearing, also committed to consulting with the United States’ two primary regional partners, South Korea and Japan, in fashioning a strategy to contain North Korea. The United States’ relationships with those partners “are critical to regional security and stability and provide a powerful deterrent to North Korean threats,” he said in his written responses to questions.

Iran

Another nuclear adversary rarely far from the headlines is Iran. Biden can expect his dealings with the Islamic Republic to be scrutinized by his political opponents. This is particularly the case because several of his nominees and prospective appointees for national security jobs in the new administration, including Blinken and William Burns, the president’s pick for CIA director, had roles in negotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which was heavily criticized by Republicans and from which the Trump administration withdrew in May 2018.

In the wake of Trump’s abandonment of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran has said it is no longer bound by the terms of the agreement. Earlier this month, Tehran announced it would resume enriching uranium to levels that were banned by the deal, which China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and Germany co-signed.

A key criticism of the deal was that it did nothing to constrain Iran’s development of a substantial ballistic missile activity or its irregular warfare activity — usually conducted via proxy forces — in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The Biden campaign website pledged that so long as Iran returned to compliance with the deal, a Biden administration would “re-enter the agreement, using hard-nosed diplomacy and support from our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani makes a statement at the cabinet meeting in Tehran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani makes a statement at the cabinet meeting in Tehran.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at a Cabinet meeting in Tehran. (Iranian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Biden “is committed to the proposition that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon,” Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But Blinken said withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal had reduced the time Tehran required to create enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from “beyond a year” to “three or four months,” based on what Blinken described as “public reporting.” The Biden administration will seek to negotiate a “longer and stronger” version of the agreement, Blinken said, but he acknowledged that “we’re a long way from there.”

Iran has, of course, been particularly active in two countries where the United States has had troops deployed: Iraq and Syria. Iranian and U.S. forces spent several years delicately tiptoeing around each other as they each sought to help their Iraqi partners defeat the Islamic State. That ended early last year when U.S. forces killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the mastermind of the Iranian proxy campaigns across the Middle East.

Afghanistan and Iraq

As Biden’s national security team prepared for their confirmation hearings, an unofficial memo outlining the administration’s plans for the next few weeks found its way around Washington. It stated that Biden intends to issue a “Forever Wars” executive order in February that will initiate a review of counterterrorism operations with a view to reducing them and will start a process to move “substantial use of force operations” out of the control of the CIA and place them instead under the military.

As the memo suggests, Biden is now commander in chief of a military still fighting wars that began many years before he became Barack Obama’s vice president in January 2009.

Trump had sought to make good on his 2016 campaign promise to bring U.S. troops home from the long wars the United States has been fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Horn of Africa in the years since al-Qaida attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. On Jan. 15, the Pentagon announced that U.S. forces had been reduced to 2,500 in each of Iraq and Afghanistan. Virtually all U.S. troops have also withdrawn from Somalia.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of the Taliban's peace negotiation team, amid talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in November. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of the Taliban's peace negotiation team, amid talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in November.
Mike Pompeo, then secretary of state, meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of the Taliban’s peace negotiation team, in November. (Patrick Semansky, Pool via AP)

The drawdown in Afghanistan bequeaths to Biden something similar to the basic U.S. footprint he has long advocated: a small force of intelligence and special operations forces to pursue al-Qaida and advise the Afghan government on how to secure the country against the Taliban. But the peace deal that the Trump administration signed with the Taliban commits the U.S. to withdraw completely from that country if the Taliban does not allow any terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, to use Afghanistan as a base. Beyond that, the deal also requires the Taliban not to have any dealings with groups that threaten U.S. security, a stipulation that would appear to include al-Qaida, which has never renounced its state of war with the United States.

While the United States has made “considerable progress” against both al-Qaida and the Islamic State around the world, in Afghanistan “there’s still a problem” with al-Qaida, Blinken told the Senate on Tuesday. “There’s still a presence, there’s still a relationship with the Taliban,” he said, before adding that that presence is “much diminished from what it was.”

However, Blinken said, “if we take our eye off that ball, there’s a risk that it comes back.”

With regard to the Islamic State, Blinken said that although U.S. forces and their partners had succeeded in ejecting the group’s forces from their self-declared caliphate, its affiliates had sprouted up across the globe. “We’ve still got our work cut out for us,” he said.

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