Tag Archives: strategic parnership

Biden’s Middle East Visit: An Orgy of Cynicism, Hypocrisy, and Erasures

21 Jul

[Prefatory Note: A stylistically modified version of this post was published a few days ago in COUNTERPUNCH. It criticizes the dual tracks of Biden’s ill-executed trip in mid-July to Israel and Saudi Arabia. It faults Biden for the extreme cynicism of pursuing a realpolitik approach in Riyadh and an approach in Israel that mixed silences about apartheid, Shireen Abu Akleh, and the Palestinian ordeal with fanciful claims about shared values and democratic affinities.]

Biden’s Middle East Visit: An Orgy of Cynicism, Hypocrisy, and Erasures–

Shared Values and Fist Pump Geopolitics

The U.S. Government at the highest level criticized Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, because she went to China on a mission to develop opportunities for cooperation with respect to the protection of human rights, which I found appalling at the time. The mission had been carefully several weeks earlier by UN staff that had visited China and negotiated the itinerary of the visit, which took occurred in May of this year. The whole experience seemed a win/win breakthrough as a major country opening itself up to a high degree of independent international scrutiny with respect to its human rights record, an exposure the U.S. has resisted and opposed. High officials in Washington let it be known in advance that they considered the trip ‘a mistake,’ and expressed consternation that its hyped allegations of ‘genocide’ associated with the treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang were not confirmed by Bachelet, although human rights violations in the province were duly noted by the High Commissioner in her report on the visit. 

Western policy-minded China experts pointed to the supposed ‘danger’ of legitimating China’s narrative by the visit and contributing “an important milestone in China’s normative power.” [see Patrizia Zoguo and Lukian Da Bono, “The Steep Cost of Bachelet’s Visit to China,” The Diplomat,June 13, 2022] Critics even observed that such a visit so effectively whitewashed China’s wrongdoing that rather than improve prospects for its compliance with human rights the mission would likely have the perverse effect of emboldening China to commit even grosser violations in the future, and this despite China having agreed to establish a variety of continuing interactions and periodic consultations with the Geneva-based Office of the High Commissioner, connections no other geopolitical actor has seen fit to negotiate, and yet the critics failed to draw any such comparisons such was there resolve to prove it wrong for any part of the UN System to cooperate with China.

I regard China’s effort to enhance its image as a legitimate state to be a positive development not deserving the hostile reaction that it received in many sectors of the West, but especially in those quarters that were intent on a new cold war to blunt the competitive edge that China was gaining, especially in the world economy and on many technological frontiers of special relevance in the digital age. To seize upon this Chinese initiative, even granting that it was partly motivated by quite nomal soft power ambitions of sovereign states, is to denigrate most attempts to develop an international culture of respect for human rights as an essential foundation for indispensable cooperation in a variety of functional areas, including trade, climate change, migration, and environmental protection. And we should not overlook American class-based arrogance in relation to human rights, given its refusal to accord economic and social rights the normative status they deserve, and of which China is proud, and justly so, given its remarkable record of poverty alleviation over the course of the last half century. This acute societal shortcoming in the United States is exhibited to the world and visible to all in the form of large-scale urban homelessness in the cities of the United States, and accented by less visible unavailability of affordable health care and nutritious food to millions of its own citizens; as well, constitutionally validated gross violations of the right to life arising from permissive rules governing access to assault weaponry for anyone with the money to make the purchase. A surge of civic violence, including mass school and mall shootings that keep blindsiding governing institutions at all levels of society who remain willing to pander to the interests of the munitions industry and the toxic populism of gun culture. Should not we, as Americans, have long ago interrogated our distinctive vulnerability to such a pattern of negative exceptionalism.

It is with these considerations in the background that we should assess the Biden mid-July visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia. If the critical reaction to Bachelet’s mission reflected establishment resentment to this breach in the geopolitical wall of hostility that had been constructed during the last years of the Trump presidency to justify coercive diplomacy directed at China. In contrast, Biden’s visit to the Middle East dramatized the extent to which human rights are buried far underground when perceived to clash with strategic interests being pursued in foreign policy as abetted by the domestic incentives to treat certain flagrant violators of human rights as if they are upholding the highest standards of a model democracy. Of course, it is of relevance to note that overlooking Saudi Arabia dreadful record, which includes blood dripping from the hands of the de facto head of state, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmon (MBS), did bring Biden and the normally compliant media visible discomfort and occasioned some retreat from Biden’s fist pump greeting in Saudi Arabia. 

Perhaps embarrassed, Biden made clear that it was only national security interests prevented him from fulfilling his 2020 campaign pledge to treat Saudi Arabia as a ‘pariah’ state. Biden somewhat surprisingly affirmed, considering his good will diplomatic goals, that he still believed in the rightness of his pledge when it came to Saudi human rights. Even more provocatively, Biden rejected MBS’s insistence that he had nothing to do with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi back in 2018. In view of his praise of Israel’s democratic credentials, Biden made himself vulnerable to MBS’s clever taunt—you seem to care much more about Jamal Khashoggi than Shireen Abu Akleh. Rather than implicate Israel, the U.S. official investigation of the murder of its own citizen, seems constructed to share the grief of Akleh’s surviving family instead of accepting the political costs of seeking accountability of the sort that might protect future journalists covering dangerous hotspots in Israel and elsewhere.

When it came to Israel, not only were human rights issues off the table, but Israel was     praised extravagantly and unreservedly as an ally with shared values whose behavior could not be judged negatively. Biden displayed his affection for Israel by unnecessarily declaring himself to be a non-Jewish Zionist as if race was not a factor in the implementation of the Zionist vision in Israel. On another level, such a flourish seemed to express Biden’s view that disregarding the plight of the Palestinians was not a sufficient demonstration that U.S. partisanship was underpinned by a ideological identity. Pro-Palestinians had anticipated this one-sidedness, [See statement of the Global Network on the Question of Palestine, “Biden’s Upcoming Visit to the Middle East: A Recipe for Violence not Peace, July 12, 2022] and predicted its refusal to take note of such developments as the condemnation of the most internationally respected human rights NGOs in Israel and Occupied Palestine were branded as ‘terrorist’ organizations months ago by the Israeli Secretary of Defense and currently aspiring prime minister, Benny Gantz. Even nine of the most important EU members (including France, Germany, Spain, and Italy) issued a joint statement on July 12th repudiating this cynical branding by the Israeli government evidently designed to inhibit international funding as well as destroy the domestic viability of these key civil society actors. In the same spirit, although much more serious from a human rights perspective, Biden and Western media kept completely silent about the glaring reality of Israel apartheid despite the strong mainstream human rights NGOs in the West and even in Israel concluding that Israel was guilty of committing the continuing international crime of apartheid.[See 2001 reports of B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, and 2022 of Amnesty International, as well as 2017 UN report of the Economic and Social Council of West Asia).  Unlike the visit to Riyadh if Biden had raised these concerns even politely if would have undoubtedly produced a negative reaction among Jewish lobbying groups in the U.S., with repercussions for fundraising and the 2022 and 2024 elections. Despite Biden groveling at the feet of Yair Lapid, the Israeli caretaker prime minister, Trump remains the American leader of choice for the majority of Israelis according to recent public opinion polls. Trump doesn’t bother to pretend that he favors Palestinian statehood in a meaningful form, while Biden is apparently eager to retain membership in the liberal Zionist camp by way of rhetoric that falls short when it comes to policy.

The visit to Israel ended with the so-called The Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration signed by the two leaders on July 14, 2022. The opening sentences of the Declaration set the tone, which unlike the national interests justifications for the diplomatic visit to Saudi Arabia, the prior Israel visit is affirmed as a virtual pilgrimage, far exceeding the proprieties of alliance statecraft or the pursuit of common national policy agendas. The extravagant language used is worth noticing, and especially as it implicit vindicated the marginalization of the Palestinian quest for justice and a shared war-mongering tone toward Iran:

“The United States and Israel reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our two countries and the enduring commitment of the United States to Israel’s security. Our countries further reaffirm that the strategic U.S.-Israel partnership is based on a bedrock of shared values, shared interests, and true friendship. Furthermore, the United States and Israel affirm that among the values the countries share is an unwavering commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and the calling of “Tikkun Olam,” repairing the world.”

The Declaration went on to attack the UN and even the ICC as giving way to anti-Semitism, all because it was a venue for well-evidenced criticisms of Israel’s state practices and policies. This love fest even agreed to join forces to oppose the BDS Campaign and indeed any effort regarded as delegitimizing Israel as a state. There were, as well, imprudently phrased commitments in the Declaration especially with reference to Iran, the language of which is provocative:

“The United States stresses that integral to this pledge is the commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome. The United States further affirms the commitment to work together with other partners to confront Iran’s aggression and destabilizing activities, whether advanced directly or through proxies and terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”[emphasis in the original}

Of course, among the revealing and dangerous silences associated with the Biden visit was the failure to mention Israel’s arsenal of nuclear weaponry and resulting strategic hegemony throughout the region. From any kind of detached perspective dedicated to peace and stability a nuclear free zone for the Middle East would be the optimal way to promote the true interests of the United States in the region, including energy production increases. When in history has a dominant state enacted its own policies in ways that ran against its national interests in response to pressures from a small state that it heavily subsidizes, including with weapons?

To end on a constructive note, the White House might considering entrusting future international political travel plans to American Express rather than the State Department. Its time to shed Blinken’s blinkered ‘rule-governed’ geopolitical fairy tale if we want to live together with others on the planet in ways that work. If this bit of unsolicited advice is follower, it might lead to real foreign policy gain!