President Joe Biden faces a host of contradictions in dealing with Iran and Saudi Arabia. Pool Photo by Samuel Corum/UPI | License Photo
Vladimir Lenin, rephrasing Karl Marx and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, was fond of observing that the world was filled with contradictions. President Joe Biden and his administration are indeed consumed with the predicaments and consequences posed by contradictions, in this case from abroad. Meanwhile, Republicans must wrestle with their greatest contradiction: Donald Trump.
The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi approved by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria and possible re-entry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; and arriving at a modus operandi with China are the most formidable current foreign policy contradictions facing the new administration. More will be said about Republicans.
Regarding the killing of Khashoggi, the obvious contradiction is holding MBS accountable without wrecking or damaging U.S. relationships with Saudi Arabia, a major American security partner in the region. The broader and longer lasting contradiction between the two states has always been America's strong stand for human rights and freedom and the repressive nature of the kingdom and its more extreme Islamist elements that bred Osama bin Laden. The Biden administration has chosen "recalibration" rather than rendition to bring MBS to account.
In the world of realpolitik, holding heads of government accountable and responsible, and for all practical purposes MBS is just that, is not done. Vladimir Putin certainly authorized, under Russian law, assassinations of "traitors," and China's Xi Jinping has overseen a massive violation of human rights, whether against Uighurs in Xinjiang or dissidents in Hong Kong. And merely sanctioning subordinates does seem equitable justice.
Regarding Iran, preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons must be the highest priority. But Iranian interventions in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen remain dangerous and destabilizing to American friends in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel. Hence retaliation against Iranian proxy forces last week in eastern Syria for missile strikes against U.S. facilities in Iraq was taken with the support of a majority of Americans and Congress, even if the latter wanted more timely notification. How to balance these priorities is a vexing contradiction.
The third and perhaps most Gordian-like contradiction is China, to prevent cooperation and competition from exploding into conflict. As China increases its military strength, the United States follows suit, making China the pacing threat. But if the three largest challenges China poses are the pandemic and lack of transparency in understanding the causes; climate change that cannot be controlled without massive Chinese support; and trade and economic issues, U.S. defense spending of $740 billion this year is not relevant to resolving each.
Further, because one of the rare areas of agreement between Democrats and Republicans is over the threats posed by China, reconciling these contradictions may be a bridge too far. Under these circumstances, what then is the strategy or policy the Biden team must employ vis a vis China?
More or even less of the same seems destined to fail if the three main challenges noted above are to be addressed or solved and all the defense spending in the world cannot fix. As perplexing, many of America's closest allies, namely the European Union and Britain and Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan have either signed free trade agreements or joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with China.
Republicans, although a sizable majority reject this proposition, must deal with Trump. Impeached twice and pilloried by former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for inciting an insurrection, when asked, the senior senator from Kentucky said if nominated in 2024, he would vote for Trump. Hypocrisy is not new to politics. But what happens when or if the 45th president follows the path of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and is tried, convicted and punished for crimes he committed? What then do Republicans do? Quite a contradiction. And Trump may never be indicted or convicted.
More than subtlety and sophistication are needed in dealing with contradictions. While bringing MBS to account should be an obvious outcome, that is unlikely to happen. In 1972, President Richard Nixon authorized a major counterattack in Vietnam following the north's "Easter Offensive." Many feared this would destroy relations with the Soviet Union, where the president was headed to sign the ABM Treaty and SALT agreement. Ditto for China. That did not happen.
The takeaway is clear. Resolving any and all contradictions requires setting THE top priority and having the political courage not to veer from that objective. Maybe indicting MBS would cripple U.S.-Saudi relations. But blockading North Vietnamese ports and trapping Soviet merchant ships inside the harbor did not keep Nixon from Moscow. So what will it be, Mr. Biden?
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist and author of the upcoming book, "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Endangered, Infected, Engulfed and Disunited a 51% Nation and the Rest of the World."