Trump Promised to End America’s Wars. Biden Might Actually Do It.
The former vice president contributed to a legacy of failed wars in the Middle East. Can he fix it?
This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.
U.S. President Donald Trump never seemed overly concerned about the deaths of thousands of Yemeni civilians at weddings, on school trips, and in their homes. He was more interested in getting to know the new young power in Saudi Arabia responsible for the bombing, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. On two occasions, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution to ban the sale of precision-guided missiles to Riyadh, hoping to wipe America’s conscience clean. Trump, however, vetoed it without compunction both times.
By contrast, in 2017 he claimed that images of dead “beautiful little babies,” killed in a chemical attack allegedly ordered by the Syrian regime, had compelled him to order strikes on regime territory. Many saw the contradiction as showing that his attack on Syria was just an attempt to score a point over his predecessor, who had failed to observe his own red line that a chemical weapons attack by Bashar al-Assad would trigger a military response.
Trump’s policies in countries afflicted by war were transactional and, at times, amounted to a betrayal of U.S. allies. He displayed unprecedented fickleness for an American president when he went back and forth on the decision to keep or withdraw American troops in northeast Syria. Dareen Khalifa, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said Trump’s indecision undermined the position of the West’s Syrian Kurdish allies, “because any U.S. backing could end with a tweet.” The Kurds had to keep a door open to the regime in case Turkey, which sees the Kurds as secessionists and terrorists, intensified its attacks on their territory.
Trump failed to deliver on his promise to end America’s wars. Instead, he almost started one with Iran when he walked out of the nuclear deal and approved the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani. Desperate to show a victory before the election, Trump pushed for a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan, but according to a U.S. watchdog there has been a 50 percent increase in violence in Afghanistan since the deal was signed in Doha, Qatar, earlier this year.
Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee who may be poised to win the presidency, intends to walk the middle path, somewhere between Barack Obama and Trump, to mitigate the damage unleashed by wars that started during his tenure as vice president and those in Iraq and Afghanistan that he signed off on as a senator.
“It’s long past time we end the forever wars,” Biden said in his first speech on his foreign policy in New York in 2019. He opposes the war in Yemen and is unlikely to veto if Congress decides to pass another resolution to stop the sale of weapons to Riyadh. But while he has been openly critical of Saudi Arabia, few believe that any American president can for long stop deals worth billions of dollars to one of its most prominent clients. He can, when he has the time and when Yemen figures on his long list of priorities, push the Saudis toward diplomacy and force Mohammed bin Salman to make enough concessions to the opposition, the Houthis, that an agreement can be reached. But it is unclear exactly how he would go about it.
In Syria, Biden has more to answer for. In its 10th year, the Syrian war has left hundreds of thousands of people dead and half the population displaced. Obama and Biden were criticized for not doing enough to help the protesters and washing their hands of Syria as the regime bombed cities.
Biden, unlike Trump, is certain to keep at least a small number of troops in northeast Syria to support the Kurds, maintaining a foothold in a country now predominantly in the Russian orbit. He wishes to retain the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration to squeeze the regime into making political concessions. The Biden campaign’s policy paper says he will press all actors to pursue political solutions, facilitate the work of nongovernmental organizations and, “mobilize other countries to support Syria’s reconstruction.” But it does not say how he would go about it, especially given he failed to do any of these when he was vice president. “He does not know how to do it,” said Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat currently in exile in the United States. “Biden’s team is split among those who talk to Assad, those who don’t see a point in it.”
The biggest difference between Trump’s and Biden’s approaches to the region is Iran. While Trump was obsessed with punishing Iran through his campaign of “maximum pressure,” Biden wants to reinstate the nuclear deal. Beyond that, it’s hard to judge the extent of Biden’s ambitions. The real prize would be to facilitate talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with a view to easing tensions between the Islamic powers, each vying for supremacy in a region fraught with fundamentalist religious doctrines. But Biden’s plate will be full enough trying to bring existing wars to an end, before he starts contemplating a lasting regional peace.