As Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo withdrew in the dying days of their administration, they sowed the foreign policy ground with landmines. The landmines were meant to checkmate the new administration so that, no matter which way President Biden moved, the landmines would blow up.
In the first minutes of the administration, certain statements by Biden nominees forecast how Biden might tiptoe through that minefield. Sometimes they suggest that Biden will try to defuse the landmine. But sometimes they suggest he may embrace them.
Like weather forecasts, these forecasts may be wrong. They are only preliminary forecasts. The statements may have more to do with seeking senate approval than stating policy.
On January 11, Pompeo planted a Cuban landmine. He put Cuba back on the list of state sponsors of terror, reversing the policy of the Obama administration. In justifying the decision, he could not point to a single act of state sponsored terrorism. He could only vaguely and deceptively wave at supporting Venezuela and hosting the National Liberation Army of Colombia so they could participate in peace talks with the Colombian government.
There is a shameful hypocrisy in Cuba being called a terrorist country by the country that has engaged in invasions, assassination attempts, terrorist attacks and embargoes against them. There is also an irony in the country who sends soldiers to take lives calling the country who sends doctors to save lives a state sponsor of terrorism.
The Trump administration has embargoed and brutalized Venezuela, trying to overturn the legitimate election of Nicolás Maduro. After early indications that Biden might be open to some kind of negotiation for elections in Venezuela, the recent forecast is that Biden may embrace rather than defuse the Venezuela landmine. On January 19, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, told members of the US senate that Biden will continue to recognize coup president Juan Guaidó. Blinken called for "an effective policy that can restore Venezuela to democracy."
On January 12, one day after accusing Cuba of supporting terrorism, Pompeo accused Iran of supporting al-Qaeda. Reveling in hyperbole, Pompeo called Iran al-Qaeda’s "new home base." Pompeo offered no evidence for the charge. Iran called the charge "warmongering lies." Pompeo offered nothing to refute them. Reuters quoted a former senior U.S. intelligence officer as denying any friendship between Iran and al-Qaeda now or in the past: "any claims of current cooperation should be viewed warily," the intelligence source said.
Far from supporting al-Qaeda, Iran has been a leading force fighting back al-Qaeda and ISIS. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have been viewed with hostility by Iran since their inceptions. Iran has always viewed al-Qaeda and the Taliban as existential enemies of Iran. From the beginning, Iran has seen the Taliban as a Saudi and Pakistani cultivated Sunni force intended, in part, as an anti-Shia Iranian force that could pressure Iran from one side while Iraq squeezed Iran from the other.
Though little discussed, and never admitted, after 9/11, Iran backed the US, cooperating with them against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Northern Alliance, who provided many of the anti-Taliban fighters once the Americans and her allies invaded Afghanistan, was, at least in part, put together by Iran, who placed it in the hands of the Americans. Iran offered its air bases to the US and permitted the US to carry out search and rescue missions for downed US planes. The Iranians also supplied the US with intelligence on Taliban and al-Qaeda targets. Never discussed, Iranian diplomats were secretly meeting with US officials as early as October 2001 to plan the removal of the Taliban and the creation of a new government in Afghanistan. At the Bonn Conference of December 2001, Iran was absolutely crucial in setting up Afghanistan’s post-Taliban government.
Iran also arrested hundreds of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters who escaped into its borders. Iran experts Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett say that Iran documented the identity of more than two hundred al-Qaeda and Taliban escapees to the UN and sent many of them back to their homelands. For many others who couldn’t be sent back to their own countries, Iran offered to try them in Iran. Iran also followed up on an American request to search for, arrest and deport several more al-Qaeda operatives that the US identified. According to Hillary Mann Leverett, who was negotiating directly with the Iranians for the White House, Iran captured some and said that the others were either dead or not in Iran.
Biden has offered hope that the US will return from maximum pressure on Iran to diplomacy. He has offered hope that the US will return to the JCPOA nuclear agreement that Trump illegally broke. Iran has repeatedly promised that they will return to full compliance with the deal as soon as America returns to full compliance with the deal, including compliance with the promise to end sanctions. As recently as the first day of the Biden presidency, President Hassan Rouhani assured the US and the world of this promise: "If they issue an order, they will see an order issued in Iran, no more. If they effectively implement their commitments, they must know there will be effective implementation of commitments on this side."
"We are a long way from that," Biden’s nominee as Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, insisted to senators, though, sullying the hope offered by Biden. Anthony Blinken used the same words. The early forecast then is caution for Biden’s suggestion that he may defuse this landmine.
Clouding the forecast further is Blinken’s statement that the Biden administration would consult with Israel and Saudi Arabia first, two countries who would do anything to stymie the US from returning to the agreement: "It’s vitally important that we engage on the takeoff, not the landing, with our allies and partners in the region, to include Israel and to include the Gulf countries."
On day two of the Biden administration, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a briefing that Biden "has made clear that he believes that through follow-on diplomacy, the United States seeks to lengthen and strengthen nuclear constraints on Iran and address other issues of concern. Iran must resume compliance with significant nuclear constraints under the deal in order for that to proceed." This formulation further cloudies the forecast on Biden’s strategic approach to the landmine. On the one hand, it repeats the possibility of turning from "maximum pressure" to diplomacy; on the other, if the constraints have to strengthen or extend beyond the nuclear restraints to restraints on other issues like the possession of defensive ballistic missiles, or if Iran has to give up its only leverage and return to compliance before the US, who violated the deal, returns to compliance, the terms may make negotiations impossible for Iran. Iran has been clear that their increased nuclear activity is in compliance with the JCPOA because the agreement clearly allows Iran to cease its commitments if another signatory ceases to honor its commitments. Since the US illegally violated the agreement first, it must return to compliance first. Foreign minister Javad Zarif, who was a key Iranian negotiator in the deal, has clearly stated in a recent article that "Biden can choose a better path by ending Trump’s failed policy of "maximum pressure" and returning to the deal his predecessor abandoned. If he does, Iran will likewise return to full implementation of our commitments under the nuclear deal." He added the Biden administration must "unconditionally" remove "all sanctions," and promised that Iran would then "reverse all the remedial measures it has taken in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal."
The China landmine was planted in Taiwan. Pompeo announced that the US is "lifting all of these self-imposed restrictions. Executive branch agencies should consider all "contact guidelines" regarding relations with Taiwan previously issued by the Department of State under authorities delegated to the Secretary of State to be null and void."
This announcement of diplomatic contacts above the lowest level of contact breaks an agreement that former ambassador and Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Chas Freeman says "has long been the key to peace or war—possibly nuclear war—between the United States and China. Freeman is a former Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d’Affaires in the American embassy in Beijing and is former State Department Director for Chinese Affairs.
In 1979, the US joined the rest of the world in recognizing Beijing in mainland China and not Taipei in Taiwan as the capitol of China. Freeman explains that China agreed to abandon its plan to reintegrate Taiwan by force and to turn to peaceful negotiations, while the US agreed to withdraw US forces from Taiwan, end its defense treaty with Taiwan and maintain only "low-profile, ‘unofficial’" diplomatic relations.
It is this delicate, peaceful relationship with China that Trump and Pompeo have disturbed by establishing open diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Freeman explains that three joint communiqués negotiated with China between 1972 and 1982 that "are the foundation of Sino-American relations," promise that the US would cut off official relations with Taiwan, have no troops in Taiwan and reduce and limit arms sales to Taiwan. All of these promises have now been threatened by Trump’s Chinese landmine, climaxing dangerously in Pompeo’s reestablishment of high level diplomatic relations with Taiwan and his "stipulation…declaring (inaccurately) that ‘Taiwan has not been part of China.’"
This is another landmine that Biden may be embracing rather than defusing. Director of national intelligence nominee Avril Haines said on January 19 that the US should take an "aggressive stance" against China. Haines said the US needs to devote more resources to support an aggressive stance to "meet the reality of the particularly assertive and aggressive China that we see today."
On January 19, the Trump administration, still planting the terrorist landmine, declared the Houthis a terrorist organization.
Far from being a terrorist organization, the Houthis have been fighting a terrorist
organization. The Houthis have been the major force fighting back the savagery
of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a terrorist organization who have found
themselves, not for the first time, fighting on the same side as America. Yemen
has descended into one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world as the
Houthis have suffered under embargoes and bombs: bombs supplied by the US and
dropped from planes refueled by the US that were guided by intelligence provided
by the US.
Though the Houthis are not free of all crime during the war, they are not terrorists and are certainly not a terrorist organization like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who have allied with the Houthi’s Saudi attackers.
Pompeo has added that designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization would have the added benefit of deterring the "malign activity" of their Iranian backer. But, as the Houthi are not a terrorist organization, as charged by the US, so they are not merely a proxy piloted from Iran as proven by their refusal to follow Iran’s request not to invade and occupy Sanaa at the beginning of the war. In 2014, Iran specifically discouraged the Houthis from capturing the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. Despite Iran’s position, the Houthis captured the city, effectively demonstrating Iran’s lack of control. They are supported by Iran but not steered by Iran. And that support has largely been a product of the war and not a cause of it.
The Yemen landmine may be the one landmine that signals in the opening minutes of the Biden administration forecast a defusing of the landmine. The first signal was Anthony Blinken’s statement during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he would quickly revisit the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization. The second even larger signal was Blinken’s assurance during his confirmation hearing that Biden "has made clear that we will end our support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and I think we will work on that in very short order."
The foreign policy field is mined. Early statements in the early minutes of the Biden administration suggest that the field may remain dangerous with some mines being defused but some being stepped on or embraced.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.