Foreign follies

By Christopher Harper

If the recent international trips of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are any indication, the next four years will be a disaster.

At the G-7 conference in Great Britain, Biden interrupted Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ask for an introduction of the leader of South Africa. He was greeted with snickers from other leaders as he somehow missed that South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the only black man in the room, had already been introduced.

Later, at a news conference, Biden continually confused Libya and Syria. 

“There’s a lot going on where we can work together with Russia. For example, in Libya, we should be opening up the passes to be able to go through and provide — provide food assistance and economic — I mean, vital assistance to a population that’s in real trouble,” he told reporters.

After confusing the two countries several more times, Biden aides had to inform journalists that the president meant Syria rather than Libya. 

What a comfort as Biden headed for Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin!

But the media played along and ignored the gaffes, reveling in the lack of Donald Trump’s presence and puffing up Biden’s “accomplishments.”

“G-7 leaders come Together on Global Minimum Tax, Democratic Ideals.” The New York Times bellowed at the end of the meeting. “The agreement represented a dramatic return of America’s postwar international diplomacy, and Biden said it was evidence of the strength of the world’s democracies in tackling hard problems.”

I am genuinely heartened that the G-7 can agree on democratic ideals. Unfortunately, I still haven’t figured out precisely what the global minimum tax will do other than stifle business and individual enterprise throughout the developed world. 

The Washington Post reported, “[P]erhaps the most striking part of the first G-7 summit in the post-Trump era was its sheer normalcy and even the bland scriptedness that undergirded most of the proceedings.”

I think it’s grand that the leaders of the developed world can agree on normalcy and blandness. What a great accomplishment! 

Harris, the designed hitter on the border crisis, didn’t perform much better in her brief swing into Latin America to talk with the leaders of Mexico and Guatemala. 

The vice president hasn’t even visited the border since being anointed as the border crisis queen, and the administration has failed to articulate what it plans to do about the problems. In May, the U.S. Border Patrol reported that it stopped 180,034 people trying to cross through there, the highest number since Biden took office and nearly eight times the 23,000 stopped in May 2020.

Harris has fumbled several interviews about the border crisis.

The most awkward was an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, when she told him, “We’ve been to the border.” 

He corrected her, pointing out that she has not been to the border. 

That’s about the only aggressive question anyone from the mainstream media has made about the growing incompetence of Biden and Harris’ foreign policy. 

Silly me, why should I be surprised? Everything is just great because Trump is no longer president. 

India pulls a Trump on Saudi Arabia

Oil Refinery, from Wikipedia

One of President Trump’s greatest achievements was to drive America away from importing Middle East oil. It made the United States capable of sitting out any regional crisis, which in the Middle East seems to happen on a frequent basis. For example, if the Iranians threaten to close the Straits of Hormuz, the United States can take its time to act accordingly, not being pressured by rising gas prices at home. Heck, the U.S. could tell other countries to solve that crisis if it wanted to. Having options makes it harder for your opponent to win, and puts you in control.

India is, ironically, fast approaching where the U.S. was in terms of oil a few years ago. India is the third largest consumer of oil (behind the U.S. and China), and it imports almost 85% of that oil. This leaves India vulneable to any oil interruption, and with OPEC cutting production this month, India is actively trying to diversify its energy and vehicle oil usage. This is also why India is OK negotiating with Iran (which supplies 10% of India’s oil), mainly because it doesn’t have a lot of choices.

By the way, none of this is news, it was being called out last year and the year before that, so India “unsheathing a weapon” is a bit of a misnomer, since they’ve been working on this for some time. This could have been a great moment for the United States and Canada to step in and sell lots of oil to India. Not only would it be democracies helping democracies, but it would provide a 1 billion person counterweight to China’s aggression. Plus we’d make money on the deal. What’s not to love?

India probably paid attention to history and saw how the U.S. got screwed in the 1970s, plus how President Trump gave the U.S. more foreign independence. They are pushing lots of initiatives like solar cars and solar cells to reduce transportation and home usage, but these take time to build in, and India’s sporadic infrastructure doesn’t help the process. Again, all these initiatives provide opportunities for the U.S. to work with India and strengthen that relationship, something we sure don’t seem to be pushing all that much.

Oil isn’t leaving anytime soon as the fuel of choice, and inter-country relationships will continue to be heavily influenced by who produces, consumes and ships oil. The United States has a pretty significant interest in helping countries like India source their oil from friendly places while seeking to become energy independent in the long term. Not only does it make our planet better, but it makes our foreign policy a lot more stable, and we could all use that.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

Biden’s foreign faux pas

By Christopher Harper

Joe Biden was wrong on “nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

That’s the appraisal of Robert Gates, the former defense secretary under Barack Obama. Gates made the assessment in a memoir and has confirmed his appraisal in later interviews.

“We disagreed significantly on Afghanistan and some other issues. I think that the vice president had some issues with the military,” Gates told CBS News in a 2019 interview.

So far as president, Biden’s policies have been almost startling wrongheaded.

For example, Biden has failed to contact Israeli officials since he assumed office, and his press secretary has sidestepped questions about whether the Jewish state was an important ally.

Sure, Israel can be challenging to deal with. But the country has been a solid counter to radical Islam and repressive regimes in the Middle East.

Moreover, Israel entered into various groundbreaking peace agreements under President Trump with a host of Arab nations.

But there’s more. Biden promised from the campaign trail to be hard on Saudi Arabia, particularly when it came to their involvement in Yemen’s six-year-long civil war.

“We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are,” Biden said during a Democratic primary debate, adding that there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”

Again, Saudi Arabia can be difficult. But the country remains a powerful force in the region, particularly in countering Iran’s negative influence.

In a neck-snapping reversal of policy, Biden has suddenly realized that China poses an economic and military threat to the United States.
During the campaign, Biden criticized Trump’s policies of higher tariffs and other tough stances against the Beijing government.
After a two-hour telephone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden made a 180-degree turn in his thinking.
“Last night, I was on the phone with for two straight hours with Xi Jinping,” Biden told reporters in the Oval Office. “It was a good conversation. I know him well. We spent a lot of time together over the years I was vice president. But if we don’t get moving, they’re going to eat our lunch.”

That’s precisely what Trump said for nearly his entire presidency—a position Biden scoff at.

Maybe Biden has gotten one foreign policy initiative right: Staying on course with Trump’s approach to China.

Analyzing Mattis’ comments on China

It’s not secret that Jim Mattis and Donald Trump had issues working together. I was surprised to read that Mattis wanted to scrap Trump’s “America First” policy, and while I couldn’t get the full article from Foreign Affairs, the snippets I read said his main criticisms were:

  • Characterizing Afghanistan and Iraq as “forever wars”
  • Undermining our allies
  • Bad views on China

Let’s give the man his due and ask the question: is he right?

We’ve been in Afghanistan (officially) since 2001, and Iraq since 2003, although we withdrew all forces in 2011 per our Status of Forces agreement, and were invited back again in 2014. The Iraqi parliament has been working since early 2020 to get US troops to leave. In sum total, we’ve been in Afghanistan for 19 years (and counting), and Iraq for 8 plus 6 years, total of 14 years, assuming we leave this year.

In comparison, World War Two was from 1939-1945 (6 years), Vietnam was 1964-1975 (if you pick Gulf of Tonkin as the start, 11 years), Korea was 1950-1953 (3 years). The longest of these, Vietnam, has been characterized as a “forever war” before, so its no surprise that to the average American, Iraq and Afghanistan look like forever wars.

But are they investments in peace and stability? I’ve heard them compared to our time in Germany and Japan shortly after World War 2. We’re still technically stationing military in both countries. In Germany, our occupation started in 1945, but by 1949 we had already formed West Germany, and by 1955, West Germany was a member of NATO, and our forces were no longer “occupying” Germany. Japan was similar, with our occupation ending in the Treaty of San Francisco in 1952. While we are still in those countries today, we aren’t there to occupy or provide security. In fact, we expected significant insurgency issues (such as Germany’s Werwolf program), yet they never materialized.

Contrast that to Afghanistan and Iraq, where our troops are providing significant combat support and basic policing. That’s a massive difference between the two, and not dissimilar to Vietnam, where we still had to provide basic protection against an insurgency because of the host government’s inability to perform it themselves.

So to recap, if you militarily stay in country and have to fight an insurgency inside the borders, it feels like a forever war. If you stay and the country does its own policing, it doesn’t feel like a forever war. Or, from a military perspective, if you can’t bring your family to your new duty station, it might feel like a war zone.

What about undermining our allies? President Trump has been on record saying a lot of mean things. The Foreign Policy article argues that he is “undermining the foundations of an international order manifestly advantageous to U.S. interests, reflecting a basic ignorance of the extent to which both robust alliances and international institutions provide vital strategic depth.”

So the question is, has Trump undermined our alliances? Is the international order we have now worse off than before? The United States has mutual defense pacts with NATO, Australia, New Zealand, The Phillipines, Japan, Republic of Korea and the Rio Treaty with a smattering of South American nations. It also supports Taiwan, but the treaty is a bit vague as to whether we would respond to a PRC invasion.

Here we’re probably batting 500 at best. President Trump has worked to expand relationships with India and Japan, and has maintained a normal course with Australia and New Zealand. Trump’s push to pull out of Korea isn’t new, we’ve asked the Koreans to own their defense before. His attempts at directly negotiating with North Korea put us on a much better path to peace…I never thought I’d see a sitting President shake the North Korean dictator’s hands ever. Our relationship with South America hasn’t expanded much militarily or economically, and I’d call that a negative. The economic treaties throughout the world are mixed. In some cases, it got better (USMCA), in other cases, it stagnated (TPP).

NATO is a mixed bag. On one hand, he pushed for and got much needed investment by NATO nations in their own defense, something that nearly every previous Secretary of Defense and President has been asking for years. On the other hand, Europe wanted an Iranian deal so they could get back to buying oil, while Trump wanted to stop Iranian aggression in the Middle East. There’s no resolution to that short of Iran dropping its nuclear weapons program (it didn’t) or Europe or the US dropping their arguments (neither side has). Trump’s response of neutralizing the Israeli issue, first with the UAE and Bahrain and (maybe) with Saudi Arabia is some out of the box thinking. I would argue that NATO is stronger now than before, but some of the individual countries like Germany aren’t happy with the US.

Overall, point to Mattis on this one. Negotiating hard makes sense, but it could have been done with some more finesse, and creating hard feelings isn’t worth it in many cases.

Mattis’ comments on China are odd, given his time as Secretary of Defense and his shift towards Great Power Competition. From the Foreign Affairs article:

“Crucially, the United States should not press countries to choose outright between the two powers,” they said. “A ‘with us or against us’ approach plays to China’s advantage because the economic prosperity of U.S. allies and partners hinges on strong trade and investment relationships with Beijing.”

So, we should work with China? I’d be all about it, and so was William Cohen, opening up US military relations with the PLA in 1999. How did that work for us? China continued to steal technology, threaten its neighbors, build fake islands in the South China Sea, bury US industry with practices illegal to the WTO, and in general act in ways completely at odds of the US. The only difference between Russia and China is that China is happy to pay for this influence. When they needed a port in Sri Lanka, the Chinese invested their own money and worked with Sri Lanka, right up to the point the Sri Lankans couldn’t pay back a loan. China is happy to flex its muscles on every deal it makes, from the one-sided Vatican recognition to its territorial dispute with India. Unlike most other countries, there is no good faith in any of the past deals China made.

The Cohen Group has been happy to look the other way. Yes, there is a ton of money in China. Plenty of Americans are making money in China. Our hope in 1999 was that as China grew, it would naturally democratize. That wasn’t a bad call back then. It’s a terrible call now. The Cohen Group continues to look past this however. It’s founder, William Cohen, not only sided against Trump in 2016, he also has personal connections with the late John McCain and was his best man after he dumped his first wife.

Jim Mattis joining a group of academics that are already naturally anti-Trump and pro-China, and then coming out with a pro-China statement, isn’t that surprising. If we continue to view China like we did in 1999, then yes, everything Trump is doing is a terrible idea. But the last 20 years have shown that Afghanistan is not Germany, NATO wasn’t ready for high-end conflict, and China’s One Party system is happy to crush the United States if we let it do so. If the Cohen Group is happy to make money from this world view, good for them, but don’t be surprised when it doesn’t jive with the average American.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.