In his first days in office, President Joe Biden has signaled a willingness to disavow austerity policies and expand public benefits, sparking cautious optimism about whether his administration could succeed in minimizing damage done by the coronavirus pandemic.
But Biden is at risk of repeating similar mistakes made by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who promised more relief to the poor than he could deliver because of his decision to escalate conflict in Vietnam.
In 1964, Johnson won the presidential election on promises to eradicate poverty and inequality in the United States. Over the next two years, he and his allies in Congress established welfare programs — including Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps — that most Americans today could not imagine living without, even if they aren’t nearly as generous as they should be.
Never miss another story
Get the news you want, delivered to your inbox every day.
But by 1968, Johnson’s credibility and his vision for the “Great Society” were in tatters. Public outrage at his decision to escalate hostilities in Vietnam forced him to announce in March that he would not seek a second term. By June, he was forced to ask Congress for some $6 billion in domestic budget cuts to help pay for what was, by then, a full-blown war. Johnson’s priming of the Pentagon killing-machine also caused inflationary pressures that fueled economic crises into the 1970s, which set the stage for the rise of Ronald Reagan and the trend toward deep, penetrating cuts to the social safety over the next few decades.
Today, President Biden is at risk of making comparable missteps. Though his plans to “build back better” are far less ambitious and coherent than LBJ’s “War on Poverty,” basic government action has the potential to prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths and the immiseration of millions, given the ongoing health and economic crises. But while Biden has made moves on the recovery front that have given some cause for cautious optimism — most notably, by disavowing austerity — he isn’t doing all he can to foreclose on the possibility of the U.S. military stirring up trouble all over the world, in developments that would likely derail his domestic agenda.
On two major fronts, Biden represents a clear improvement over Donald Trump: The newly inaugurated president, like his predecessor, will attempt to make overtures to Cuba and Iran. (Outreach to the latter will be no small task in light of Trump’s attempts to goad the country into total war by unilaterally canceling multilateral nuclear accords and assassinating Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.) Biden has also shown some promise by declaring that the U.S. will cease its support for Saudi Arabia’s genocidal war in Yemen, even if his declaration was vague and unconvincing. But in almost every other regard, the benefits of the Biden administration’s foreign policy are much less obvious, and could leave the U.S. wreaking havoc on every continent in the world except Antarctica.
With respect to South America, the president is doing little to change course on a Venezuela regime change policy chartered by Elliot Abrams, a veteran neoconservative operative who rose to prominence by helping the Reagan administration commit mass murder in El Salvador in the 1980s. Secretary of State Tony Blinken has confirmed that the Biden administration will continue the Trump administration’s policy of recognizing Juan Guaidó as the leader of Venezuela, despite the fact that Guaidó is unpopular and no longer even a legislative leader.
Regime change is also critical to the Biden administration’s policy toward Syria. Blinken categorically rejected any other approach during an interview with CBS News, despite the fact that this August will mark the 10-year anniversary of President Obama first calling for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “In Syria, we rightly sought to avoid another Iraq by not doing too much, but we made the opposite error of doing too little,” Blinken has said — as if the same U.S. government that’s helping starve millions of Yemenis has a great track record of alleviating suffering.
On the other side of Asia, there are also worrying signs. Blinken said during his confirmation hearing that, “Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China.” Biden himself has taken things further: He accused his predecessor of being “soft” on China, and vowed to “pressure, isolate and punish” the country. Biden did not specify his reasons, but nationalistic Americans have been salivating at the thought of “punishing” China in light of the COVID-19 pandemic’s origins in Wuhan. With China being one of the few countries that can challenge U.S. hegemony — and it can do so simply by selling off a sizable share of its vast U.S. Treasury bond holdings — this is an incredibly dangerous game that runs the risk of miring the planet in more chaos with the end of the pandemic in sight.
With respect to Russia, the other great power that the ruling class loves to cite as a bogeyman, Biden is also aiming to be the tough guy. As vice president, he clashed with President Obama over his former boss’s refusal to send lethal military aid to the Ukrainian government after the start of its struggle with Russian-backed separatists in 2014. According to Biden’s memoir, Obama shot down rallying cries from his number two by replying: “We’re not going to send in the Eighty-second Airborne, Joe.” Biden is already earning himself gushing praise from Beltway think tank ladder-climbers for “confronting” Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call. Among the issues raised by Biden in the call was “Ukraine’s sovereignty,” according to the White House, though the stance is hardly principled.
Biden is also continuing the Trump administration’s policy of recognizing Israel’s claims on Jerusalem as its capital, ignoring sovereign Palestinian claims on the city as its own capital and lending credibility to Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine, which ramped up in 2018, when the Trump administration announced it would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
Biden also has an eye on increasing U.S. involvement in Africa. French President Emmanuel Macron has already asked Biden to up U.S. participation in ongoing operations in West Africa, and the newly inaugurated president agreed to cooperate. Ironically, as Danny Sjursen has remarked, the fight involves Islamist militants in the Sahel region that came to power after being forced to flee Libya in the wake of the disastrous intervention there spearheaded in 2011 by President Barack Obama. Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan played a role in the Libyan misadventure as a leading aide to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “Sullivan might push new boss Biden to attempt to clean up his old mess,” Sjursen quipped.
What new messes that tidying-up operation might create is anyone’s guess. The same is true for all the other foreign policy matters that the Biden administration is approaching with the sort of bravado that drives defense contractors wild. In normal times, this would be sufficiently distressing. But many voters backed Joe Biden to minimize the damage done by the Trump administration’s disastrous approach to a pandemic that has left hundreds of thousands of people dead.
It would be tragic if Biden, like Johnson, promised more than he could deliver to constituents who are suffering most because of a misplaced belief that the U.S. military and the State Department are interested in and capable of liberating people around the world.