Opinions #03/24

Opinions #03 / 24
The playbook

Biden attacks Trump, and a few days later the former Republican president attacks the current occupant of the White House. Normal political confrontation less than a year before the elections. But these are not rapier skirmishes, but very heavy durlindan blows. And the reference to the military epic in this case is justified. Because at the center of the dispute between the duelists is a constant call for war.

For Joe Biden, if Trump were to win the election, it would be a defeat for his allies on this side of the Atlantic, given the former tycoon’s isolationist vocation. It is assumed that Europe is destined to be attacked – by Russia, China, Iran…?

Trump’s response is equally strong, but timelier: Biden is dragging the United States into war. And the motivation lies in strikes carried out in Yemen against the Houthis, Iran’s Shiite allies. Iran and its nuclear program have been a constant political target of the Trump administration, which was responsible for the US withdrawal from the hard-fought 2015 agreement under Obama. The agreement known as the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was signed by Tehran and the five nuclear powers present in the UN Security Council (the USA, Russia, China, France, and Great Britain), as well as Germany. Having violated the agreement, Trump – in complete harmony with Israel – reinstated sanctions against Iran.

Today’s winds of war are also a consequence of this gap. The future remains uncertain, with the risk of expanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which after October 7 has become existential for the two main players: Hamas and Netanyahu.

But the fate of this conflict in the Middle East, when Washington is once again resorting to “additional” military force, is far from surprising. The decision by force is more than a custom, it is a practice that has doctrinal value. An indirect daughter, in turn, of many doctrines, which the United States has introduced over the last two hundred years to guarantee itself wide freedom of muscular maneuver beyond its borders. From the Monroe Doctrine to the Bush Doctrine, passing through the names of Eisenhower, Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Powell, Wolfowitz. All is inspired by increased advocacy for Washington’s interests across a growing reach that spans over five continents.

This methodological advance generally led to a reduction in political options that the White House could consider. Strengthened by its economic and financial power, aware of its military power, confident in the ability of its “dream machine” (Hollywood and beyond) to shape public opinion, the “soft power,” created in the US, could confront most international challenges without resorting to war.

It was Barack Obama who first identified the bottleneck, in which the System found itself. And he did this sensationally and painfully in a very long interview given to The Atlantic. It was April 2016, and Obama was a few months away from leaving the White House after a dual mandate that sent him into the history books as a non-military leader. No direct US intervention in the conflicts that have flared up in the world under his administration, starting with the largest – Syria and Ukraine. And even on Libya, despite enormous pressure from his inner circle, he managed to not involve the US military too directly, allowing the fervor of Sarkozy and Cameron to spill over into a “regime change” operation against Gaddafi.

An operation, in which the Americans participated “behind the scenes.” It was a painful compromise between a president by vocation opposed to the use of force and important figures in his administration, who are staunchly interventionist, such as Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, and Samantha Power, the United States representative in the UN, who in turn is the creator of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which is also the source of pressure for intervention in Syria against Assad. The persistence of these two charismatic personalities even provoked, as Obama recalled in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, lively bickering inside the Oval Office.

But the key moment was different, and regardless of the characters of the moment.

“There is a manual in Washington that presidents must follow. This manual comes from the foreign policy establishment. The manual prescribes responses to various events, and these responses, for the most part, are military in nature. (…) But the manual can also be a trap, leading to wrong decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you will be judged harshly if you do not follow the rules, even if there are good reasons for not applying them.”

In late August 2013, an American strike on Syrian positions was considered inevitable. There have been accusations of a new chemical attack against Assad’s opponents. And although military intelligence did not confirm the discovery of a “smoking gun” with the actual responsibility of the Syrian president, everything was ready to strike at him. But a few minutes before ordering the attack, Obama decided to stop everything, causing shock within the government apparatus. And in a confessional interview, three years later, he proudly announces this decision.

“I’m very proud of this moment. The vast majority of conventional wisdom and our national security apparatus have gone quite far. My authority was believed to be at stake, America’s authority was at stake. So, if I hit the pause button at that moment, I knew it would cost me politically. The fact that I was able to step away from the immediate pressure and think on my own about what was in America’s best interests, not only regarding Syria but regarding our democracy, was a difficult decision I made. And I think ultimately it was the right decision.”

Obama’s counter-doctrine has not attracted supporters among his closest allies. Even his vice, Joe Biden, who spent eight years with him in the White House and is now more convinced than ever of the usefulness of the manual disputed by Obama. To the point of pushing his aides to convince members of Congress in favor of further rearmament of Ukraine. No longer referring to “our principles, our values,” but directly to US economic interests.

“The White House has quietly encouraged lawmakers from both parties to frame military action abroad as a potential economic boom at home,” five presidential aides admitted to Politico. According to Biden, as Jonathan Lemire and Jennifer Haberkorn were told, funding Ukraine’s weapons is “good for American jobs.”

Senior correspondant

Alessandro Cassieri