Good morning, all!

Because much of the big news late last week related to foreign policy and diplomacy, I figured that would be a good place to start this pundit round-up.


Peter Bergen, national security analyst for CNN, notes the “tightrope” that the Biden Administration has to walk in dealing with MBS and Saudi Arabia.

The administration’s decision reflects the reality of the longtime marriage of convenience between the world’s longest-standing democracy and the world’s most absolute monarchy established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Saudi King Adul Aziz (sic) in 1945. This relationship has always been based on mutual interests around oil and, in recent years, counterterrorism against al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Biden is now trying to walk a tightrope. By releasing the damning intelligence report late on Friday and announcing the new “Khashoggi ban,” the new administration is hoping a mere rebuke and a slap on the wrist will be enough to signal the changing tides of US foreign policy after the Trump administration. At the same time, the Biden administration wants to maintain an alliance that has served both countries’ interests reasonably well for the better half of the last century.
Indeed, the story of Khashoggi’s murder says a great deal about bin Salman, and the Trump administration’s desire to ally with him, seemingly at any cost, including brushing Khashoggi’s assassination under the carpet.

Whoa, whoa, WHOA…FDR?

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The History.com link embedded in the Berger story details some of the national security interests that the Roosevelt Administration considered in its talks with King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, issues that included oil and a Jewish homeland. The two leaders famously got along very well.

It turns out, the two leaders hit it off so well that Roosevelt, who would die just eight weeks after the meeting, gifted the king with one of his wheelchairs (as well as a DC-3 passenger plane). The king, in turn, gave the president gifts, including a diamond-encrusted dagger, perfumes, pearl jewelry, belts of woven gold thread and embroidered harem costumes, Montgomery says.

Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institute wrote a February 2020 essay for the Order From Chaos blog that the agreements and bargains that Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud reached in 1945 are now obsolete.

…The crown prince is toxic, his reputation permanently stained.  And the bargain struck on the Quincy is out of date. The United States doesn’t need Saudi oil anymore, it is almost energy independent. The White House has sent American combat troops back to Saudi Arabia (they left in 2003), but they did not deter the Iranians from striking the kingdom’s most critical oil facilities last September. The Saudis were literally shaken out of their complacency, and their acute vulnerability was exposed to all.

The next president should bring American troops home immediately from the kingdom and cut off all military support to the Saudis, at least until there is a permanent political settlement in Yemen. Saudi diplomatic facilities in the United States should be shut or stripped down because they are used to spy on dissidents like Khashoggi. Saudi soldiers in the U.S. for training or other tasks should be sent home. The Saudis should understand that anyone implicated in the Khashoggi murder will not be welcome in the U.S. The attorney general should review what judicial process may apply to the case.

Graeme Wood of The Atlantic writes that a murderer should be called out as a murderer but, in light of the U.S./Saudi relationship now, ponders what the U.S. can actually do to “recalibrate” the U.S./Saudi relationship.

What would recalibration look like? First, banish any thought of formal punishment by Saudi Arabia itself. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, in the true premodern sense, and bin Salman is the law. Remember all of the legal dickering in the United States about whether the Department of Justice could indict a sitting president? A Saudi prosecution of the crown prince for murder would involve a legal short-circuit; the crown prince cannot prosecute himself, any more than he can tickle himself or sneak up on himself. Absolute monarchy is a terrible system of government for precisely this reason. If bin Salman is someday in a position to be prosecuted, it will be because the Saudi monarchy has been overthrown—and in that case, he will have much more serious issues than the Khashoggi affair.

Then consider the more realistic options. The United States could implore Saudi Arabia’s ruler, the 85-year-old King Salman, to demote Mohammed bin Salman and remove him from the line of succession. (“The message to the Saudis has to be to get rid of this guy,” Sarah Leah Whitson, a colleague of Khashoggi, told The New York Times.) This option brings us only millimeters closer to reality. In the almost four years since bin Salman officially ascended to the role of crown prince, he has relentlessly hacked at the legs of all who might step in as his rival. These include, most prominently, the very princes who would have served nicely as alternatives to bin Salman. He sidelined and arrested Mohammed bin Nayef, his predecessor as crown prince and a favorite of Western spy agencies; Khashoggi’s patron, the former intelligence chief and diplomat Turki bin Faisal, was never close to the throne, but he too found himself jettisoned to the outer orbits of power. Bin Salman has spent his rule eliminating alternatives, and killing Khashoggi was part of that process.

Martin Chulov of the Guardian says to make no mistake about it: Biden Administration officials have no love or like for MBS.

Such is the new administration’s distaste for the crown prince, there are suggestions of opposing his eventual ascension. For now, such an intervention is not a plan. But it remains on the wishlist of senior members of Biden’s team, some of whom prefer the staid certainty of earlier eras, with all its austere baggage, to Prince Mohammed’s unrestrained behaviour.

When King Salman finally took Biden’s call on Thursday, the US president championed human rights considerations that were shredded by Trump, but are now back in vogue, as is America’s claim to be a protector of universal human values.

There will clearly be no more of the impunity or easy blend of political favours and personal gain enjoyed under Trump. Nor will Biden’s chief envoy be a close family member with a business empire. Prince Mohammed identified with the Trump-Kushner way of doing business and, if the new administration’s reset turns into a full rupture, he has made little secret of his proximity to Vladimir Putin and the readiness of China to try to fill the void.

Benjamin Netanyahu also sees a partner in the crown prince, and less of an ally in Biden. Both may choose to pay lip service to Washington, while continuing to treat Iran as a prime regional threat, as the US aims to lure its leaders back to the nuclear deal

Mmmmmm-hmmmm.

Alex Ward of Vox reports that some Congressional Democrats are not happy with the Iranian airstrikes ordered by President Biden.

Congressional Democrats denounced the strikes almost immediately, saying the US is not at war with Syria and that lawmakers didn’t authorize any attack on Iranian-backed militants. As a result, they essentially argue Biden ordered an illegal launch.

“Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), a longtime advocate for bolstering Congress’s role in authorizing military operations, said in a Friday statement. “Our Constitution is clear that it is the Congress, not the President, who has the authority to declare war,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) added on Friday.

Criticism continued in the House. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a leading progressive foreign policy proponent, stated, “There is absolutely no justification for a president to authorize a military strike that is not in self-defense against an imminent threat without congressional authorization.”

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) also highlighted a 2017 tweet from current White House press secretary Jen Psaki that criticized then-President Trump’s decision to bomb Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack. “What is the legal authority for strikes?” Psaki asked, noting “Syria is a sovereign country.”

OTOH, Sam Heller of the Daily Beast with the different context of President Biden’s Iranian airstrikes from The Damn Fool’s.

…this latest action by the Biden administration also differs from Trump’s December 2019 airstrikes in some important respects.

First, the regional context is different. The backdrop for the December 2019 airstrikes was the Trump administration’s campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran, a strategy whose stated goals amounted, effectively, to regime change. The rocket fire on U.S. forces in Iraq that precipitated those 2019 airstrikes was seemingly part of an asymmetric response by Iran’s regional partners to crushing U.S. economic sanctions on Iran—after all, Iran could hardly reciprocate usefully by levying its own sanctions on the U.S.

The Biden administration, by contrast, has expressed its intention to return to the Iran nuclear deal that Trump left, which promises a relaxation of economic pressure on Iran. More generally, the Biden administration has seemed eager to reduce the temperature regionally, down from the constant atmosphere of near-war stoked by the Trump administration.

The Biden administration’s messaging around Thursday’s airstrikes reflected that change in the regional context…

Eugene Daniels and Natasha Bertrand of Politico notes something that Vice President Kamala Harris and I kinda sorta have in common.

Biden wants Harris to catch up and has urged her to engage with foreign leaders directly and develop her own rapport with key U.S. partners. Another, more strategic reason for the encouragement: as the heir apparent to the Democratic Party—especially if Biden, who is 78 years old, doesn’t run for re-election—Harris needs to bulk up her foreign policy expertise, and fast.

“The interest in her from outside is really about: Is she the future of the Democratic Party?” said one Asian ambassador, who spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve their relationship with the new administration. “Biden in a way represents the traditional white male politician. And Vice President Harris is in many ways the future: female, blended family … But her policy views, they are still waiting to be shaped out.”

The push started early: the day after the inauguration, Harris called the director-general of the World Health Organization to discuss the U.S. role in the global Covid-19 response. Since then, she has held solo calls with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron, given a speech at the State Department and on Tuesday participated in the first bilateral meeting of the new administration between the U.S. and Canada—an opportunity Biden himself was not afforded when he was vice president.

Harris has also had weekly lunches with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a veteran foreign policy and national security official whose experience rivals Biden’s. And her national security advisers, Nancy McEldowney and Philip Gordon, are themselves long-serving diplomats.

In spite of my over 40-year personal interest in foreign policy and diplomatic issues, I never took a college course in the subject. So I figured that since I do want to include more foreign policy links in my pundit round-ups (probably not as many links as I included in this one round-up!), I really need to upgrade my knowledge of the subject matter…so in order to “catch up,” as of last weekend, I am now auditing three online courses about international relations and global diplomacy.

In fact, one of my assigned essays is due in less than 24 hours!

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The irony that I see in these numbers is that a significant part of incoming President Obama’s public confidence ratings in handling matters of foreign policy were so high was Biden’s presence on the presidential ticket.

Pew Research Center: Majority of Americans Confident in Biden’s Handling of Foreign Policy as Term Begins

But the sharp partisan divides in views of the presidential election and its aftermath are also reflected in attitudes about U.S. foreign policy, particularly Biden’s handling of world affairs. Nearly nine-in-ten Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (88%) express confidence in Biden’s ability to handle foreign affairs, compared with only 27% of Republicans and Republican leaners. Just 17% of conservative Republicans say they have confidence in Biden’s handling of foreign policy. Among moderate and liberal Republicans, 42% say this. Conservative and moderate Democrats are about as confident in Biden’s foreign affairs ability as are liberal Democrats.


Perry Bacon, Jr. of FiveThirtyEight notes that there are factions within the Democratic Party based on the perception of the clear and present dangers to American democracy posed by the Republican Party.

Camp No. 2: Maybe there’s an emergency, maybe not; either way, just do popular stuff.

Key figures: Former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, Rep. James Clyburn, former President Barack Obama, Sen. Bernie Sanders and the liberal group Data for Progress.

Ideas: Get rid of the filibuster to pass popular legislation such as a new Voting Rights Act (H.R. 1), expanded background checks on gun purchases and an increased minimum wage.

The people in this group generally aren’t as alarmist as the this-is-an-emergency camp. They aren’t arguing that American democracy and the Democratic Party are at risk. And thus, this group generally isn’t pushing the most aggressive reform ideas, such as adding justices to the Supreme Court.

But they are pushing for some democratic reforms — in particular, getting rid of the filibuster. I included a number of major Black politicians in this camp because they tend to focus on getting rid of the filibuster as a means of passing laws that protect voting rights. From this camp’s point of view, an updated Voting Rights Act is a moral imperative, regardless of its electoral impact, and the filibuster must go if it stands in the way. When Obama referred to the filibuster as a “Jim Crow relic” in his speech last year at Rep. John Lewis’s funeral, he shifted the discourse in the Democratic Party on the filibuster, in my view, by casting it as a barrier to racial justice, a powerful message in an increasingly “woke” party.

On a spectrum, I would align myself somewhere between Camps 1 and 2.

Emily Cochrane and Jim Tankersley of the New York Times on the rough terrain that awaits the COVID relief package in the Senate.

Already, Mr. Biden’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 as part of the plan has run aground because of budgetary rules for the measure, which Democrats are advancing under a complex process that allows it to pass by simple majority vote, bypassing Republican opposition.

In the week ahead, they will also face challenges in steering other aspects of the bill through procedural obstacles and around political pitfalls, including debates over how much to spend on closing state and local budget shortfalls and how to distribute expanded tax benefits aimed at helping impoverished families.

The challenge for Mr. Biden will be holding both sides together in the face of unified Republican opposition to secure a bill that White House officials believe will cushion vulnerable Americans through the end of the pandemic and turbo-boost the economy as it reopens in full.

“We have no time to waste,” Mr. Biden said on Saturday at the White House. “If we act now decisively, quickly and boldly, we can finally get ahead of this virus.”

Progressives are pushing hard for party leaders to change Senate rules to keep the wage increase in the bill, arguing that Democrats must not scale back their ambitions for Mr. Biden’s first major legislative package.

Amel Ahmed writes for Washington Monthly that we need to rethink the way in which we talk about voting rights and cites the successes of Stacey Abrams as an example of that rethought positioning.

A truly progressive agenda would treat voting rights like economic rights, which also are not guaranteed in the Constitution, but have been earned through decades of struggle. Various groups mobilized throughout our history to demand that the government not just protect us from harm, but also provide the resources necessary to secure our well-being. (Think of the labor movement or the fight for entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare.) So, too, must we demand that our government support citizens in exercising the franchise, anticipating and meeting the needs of voters at every step from registration to casting a ballot.

This was the genius of Stacey Abrams and her network of advocacy organizations. Their work began with voter education and extended to mobilization, identifying the pitfalls that get between voters’ desire to vote and their ability to do so. In 2020, given the challenges of the pandemic and the subsequent and rapid shift to vote by mail, this was especially crucial. Ensuring that voters understood the different steps took outreach and education. Abrams’ success built on the work of previous generations who had laid a solid foundation for protecting voting rights in Georgia. But Abrams’ great achievement was understanding that it was not enough to guard against discrimination and that in fact our laissez faire approach to elections disadvantages all but the most well informed and politically connected. Hers was a more proactive approach that addressed the obstacles, both malicious and benign, that stand in the way of the right to vote with a systematic strategy to help citizens overcome them.

This is what we need to demand now, not of voting rights activists, but of our government.

Finally this morning, Kimberly Atkins of the Boston Globe writes about the reforms needed in order for Black citizens to have more trust in the Justice Department.

…In his opening remarks and answers to senators’ questions, Garland said that remedying the systemic inequities that put Black Americans at greater risk at every turn of the criminal justice system is a major reason he wants to lead the Justice Department.

“Like many, many Americans I was shocked by what I saw: videos of Black Americans being killed over the past summer,” Garland said. “That, I do think, created a moment . . . that brought attention for people who had not seen what Black Americans and other Americans in communities of color had known for decades.”

Garland called his new job, if he is confirmed, “an opportunity to make dramatic changes and really bring forth equal justice under law.”

The kind of reform needed to bring such real change will not be easy to implement, but for Garland the bar is low. He would head the department after an administration that, under former attorney general Jeff Sessions, gutted the agency’s use of consent decrees to address police misconduct and to reform departments where police abused their power.

And among the lasting public images Garland will have to erase is that of federal law enforcement officers using tear gas to clear protesters of police violence so that then-President Trump could walk through Lafayette Square as campaign video cameras rolled — with his then-attorney general, Bill Barr, at his side. This is the same Bill Barr who denied systemic racism even exists in policing.

Everyone have a good morning!

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