It was British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan who, when asked what was most likely to knock governments off-course, famously said unforeseen issues were the most troublesome.
“Events, dear boy, events,” was his famous reply.
Almost every American President, even the idiot Donald, begins his** presidency hoping to focus on the pet projects touted during his election campaign, usually some grand domestic project or domestic policy reordering. Most, however, will find themselves blindsided by all-consuming matters of foreign policy which either nobody saw coming, or everybody hoped would go away somehow if back-burnered with sufficient determination. Lyndon Johnson had to shift his attention and resources away from his cherished Great Society towards South East Asia, where the quagmire sucked him in up to his hips, and all but killed him. When Nixon wasn’t busy directing his henchmen to engage in all manner of skullduggery in order to get re-elected, he was negotiating an end to the Vietnam War, negotiating the START I treaty with the Soviet Union, masterminding the beginning of a relationship with Communist China, and struggling to resolve the end game of the Yom Kippur War. Jimmy Carter finally found himself doing little beyond trying to resolve the crisis when the Shah was toppled, and fervent actors within Revolutionary Iran seized the US Embassy and took 52 Americans hostage. Reagan, already obsessed with winning the Cold War, became mired in Lebanon (where he lost 241 Marines in a shocking terror attack), and allowed himself to be derailed by the anti-communist insurgency in Nicaragua, with nothing, ultimately, but the Iran-Contra scandal to show for all his illegal machinations (many avoided prison who shouldn’t have – a sad story for another day). Bush the Elder was sitting there, fretting mainly about an economic recession, when Saddam Hussein decided to conquer Kuwait and menace Saudi Arabia, so suddenly war it was, on a massive scale. Plus the Soviet Union fell apart, creating upheaval that required careful management. Clinton perhaps got off lightly, a largely successful intervention in the genocide in Kosovo being probably the most significant foreign distraction during his tenure, but Bush the Younger – well, we all know what happened with Bush the Younger. The aftershocks of 9/11, and his subsequent escapades in Afghanistan and Iraq, are still rattling our foundations. Obama was continually distracted by Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Trump had his multiple fiascos with foreign trade, Syria, his bullying of Ukraine, and COVID, a disease which started abroad and might have been better contained if he’d had any sort of sensible foreign policy, and a capacity for the kind of diplomacy that would have facilitated cooperation with China, the E.U., and the World Health Organization.
Now Biden’s in the big chair. Joe plainly wants to expend all his energies upon what he’s identified as four historic domestic crises: COVID, the economy, climate change, and racial injustice (the first three of which have significant foreign policy components, mind you), and more power to him. That’s already a punishingly ambitious agenda, and it would be wonderful to see him succeed, even if only partially; but what are the odds that he really gets to concentrate on those problems? What damnable events are going to intrude to upset all his apple carts?
Let’s do a list, just for giggles! It’ll be a fairly long one since there are, I’m sad to say, a number of matters on the foreign policy front that seem likely to blow up in his face before very long. Lots of pots are fixing to boil over. I’m very worried about all of them. Here, worry along with me.
The most immediate potential crisis involves Ukraine, and Putin’s designs on the Eastern region of that beleaguered country. This situation has been simmering for a while now, ever since Vlad annexed the Crimean Peninsula back in 2014, and then sent his proxy forces into the mainland to take over the areas where there were large ethnic Russian populations. While the pundits (and wannabe pundits like me!) have been obsessed with COVID relief, the infrastructure bill, voter suppression, the pratfalls of Matt Gaetz, and the intolerable intransigence of Joe Manchin, Russian forces have lately been massing on the Ukrainian border. It doesn’t look good. Among the units being deployed are the elite 76th Airborne Division, augmented by lots and lots of heavy armour, which are the sorts of assets you don’t move around just for the hell of it. These aren’t “routine exercises”, either. Reports are that as many as 85,000 Russian personnel may have been moved to forward positions, from which a further invasion of Ukraine could readily be launched. Look at this:
The sight of Russian main battle tanks clicking down the rails like that, well, that’s pretty close to Code Brown on my threat board. I’ve seen stuff like this before. It usually begins with news reports that aren’t much noticed: Argentina Said to be Moving Forces Toward Falklands; Iraq Massing Troops on Kuwaiti Border; that sort of thing. Could this time be different? Could Putin simply be rattling the sabre, hoping to milk more concessions out of poor, bullied Ukraine? Sure. Sure, that’s possible. What if that’s not it, though? What if he invades in a big way? Ukraine isn’t a NATO member (thank Christ, perhaps), but it is a country that’s trying to join the Western community of nations, and has long term aspirations to membership in the E.U. It would be intolerable if Russian tanks flooded westward from the current contact line in the disputed Donbas region, particularly if Putin’s objectives go beyond seizing territory and extend to regime change in Kyiv. We’d have to do something. It could get messy.
Just what we need, armoured divisions rolling across the plains of Eastern Europe.
Then there’s China, and its behaviour in the Western Pacific. For several years now, beginning during the Obama administration, China has been occupying and militarizing various reefs and shoals throughout the South China Sea, shifting literally millions of tons of sand and gravel to construct airstrips and naval facilities, around which it claims national sovereignty over what legally are international waters. The aim, openly professed, is to effectively annex the entire swath of ocean, out to what they call the “nine dash line”, a vast area delineated on the basis of farcically meritless historical claims, and in flagrant violation of international law.
Friction between Chinese naval forces and elements of the US Seventh fleet has been almost constant for years now, as American ships ignore the Chinese claims and sail defiantly through the disputed waters on what are known as “freedom of navigation” missions. The Chinese are livid about this, and now may feel they have the might to impose their will – unwilling to accept any longer the post-war status quo of US naval superiority in the Western Pacific, they’ve been building up their own fleet at an astonishing rate, and now boast what is, measured by number of units, the world’s largest navy. They’re deadly serious. They believe virtually the entire South China Sea, a huge swath of the Western Pacific through which several trillions of dollars worth of international commerce flows each year, is their property. The thing is, freedom of the seas is one of the cornerstones of the rules-based international order, as formalized in the UN Convention On the Law of the Sea, and a crucial aspect of Western geopolitical policy since Britannia ruled the waves. We simply can’t tolerate the Chinese claims of sovereignty. We can’t have it. It’s a bedrock principal. Non-negotiable. It feels like this just has to come to blows at some point.
Related to this is China’s open and longstanding desire – one would almost say commitment – to take back Taiwan and re-assimiliate what they view as a rogue, breakaway province into the mainland, under Communist domination. Not surprisingly, the avowedly democratic capitalists of the Republic of China aren’t keen on this, but the prospects are bleak for an effective defence of the island if China brings massive force to bear, and the Chinese leadership knows it. They’ve been assembling a frightening array of resources to make it possible, including not only their navy, which now boasts aircraft carriers and large amphibious warfare vessels, but massive airfields (including what might be the world’s largest helicopter base, located directly across the strait from Taiwan), and a highly developed land-based missile force equipped with ship-killing ballistic missiles, which are obviously meant to deny access to the area by American carrier battle groups. At the same time they’ve been sailing their warships and flying their planes provocatively close to Taiwanese waters and airspace (and Japanese waters and airspace too), as if to test both resolve and material defensive capabilities. It doesn’t bode well. Admiral Philip Davidson, the highest ranking U.S. military officer in the Asia-Pacific theatre, made waves recently by predicting an invasion of Taiwan by the mainland within the next six years. Such dire predictions no longer sound outlandish. Moreover, as the balance of forces changes in the region, there might be little that the United States could do about it – envision China trying to stop the Americans from invading Cuba – but it’s impossible to imagine they wouldn’t try. Is China’s President Xi really reckless enough to risk it and see? My gut says he is.
Then of course there’s Iran. Biden wants to revive the nuclear treaty that Donald saw fit to abrogate, but this is bound to be a tough sell in Tehran – why trust American promises now? – and Israel remains vehemently opposed to it. Recent sabotage at an Iranian nuclear facility was almost certainly Israel’s handiwork, and this and other covert measures have only enraged the Iranian leadership to the point that it’s vowing to redouble its efforts to enrich the uranium it needs to build atomic weapons. If this mess continues down its current path, Israel is quite likely to try to do something on its own about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, diplomacy be damned, treaty negotiations be damned, and if it comes to that, the U.S. be damned. They might even get Saudi assistance in the effort. If that happens – well, it hardly bears thinking about.
Let’s not forget North Korea. Having led Trump around by his nose ring, Kim may well have developed a sense of complacency about pushing his luck with both the Americans and the democratic republic with which he shares the peninsula. He’s bound to test Biden at some point, probably sooner rather than later, it being such great good fun to snap his fingers under the nose of the supposed superpower. The policy options, should he openly accelerate his nuclear program and associated ballistic missile development, are uniformly grim. China continues to back him all the way (perhaps while Xi holds his nose, but the support is ongoing and apparently unshakeable), and Chinese leverage would be needed to bring Kim to heel. There would therefore appear to be no diplomatic solution. If Kim’s open flaunting of increasingly sophisticated nuclear weapons, installed upon ballistic missiles of ever-increasing range, is categorically unacceptable, that leaves only one choice.
Then there’s Afghanistan. Before he left office (God be praised) Trump made a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces this year, a commitment that Biden has just announced he fully and enthusiastically intends to honour. He’s set a symbolic departure date of September 11, no conditions attached. Few would argue at this point that a further continuation of America’s two-decade effort to defang the Taliban, while standing up an effective government in Kabul, has any hope of succeeding. The time to end the “forever war” indeed seems ripe. However, when U.S. forces withdraw, the Taliban is almost certainly going to attempt a reconquest of the country, while re-establishing their own peculiarly oppressive form of extremist fundamentalism upon the people the Americans spent the last twenty years promising to help and protect, with undoubtedly appalling results. It’s going to be tough to stomach. The urge to do something about it will be strong. If that urge is resisted, geopolitical rivals such as Putin, Xi et al may take it as a sign of weakness, and be emboldened.
It’s a right royal mess, it is. The sense that something is soon going to knock Matt Gaetz and Joe Manchin out of the headlines is becoming overwhelming.
Or maybe I worry too much. I’m sure that’s it.
**I can’t bear to use the plural pronoun “they” when referring to the singular, and thus far there’s never been a “her” (though readers of this column will know that I have high hopes for Kamala Harris), so “his” it is. Vilify me as appropriate.