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In a World on Fire, Biden Struggles to Banish the Curse of Trump

From Afghanistan and Ukraine to the Middle East, the US president faces the fallout from his predecessor’s foreign policy blunders.

Is Joe jinxed? In less than three years as US president, Joe Biden has faced more than his fair share of international crises. America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan blew up in his hands like a cluster bomb. Then came Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Europe’s biggest war since 1945. Now, suddenly, the Middle East is in flames.

It could just be bad luck. Or it could be Biden, who prides himself on foreign policy expertise, is not as good at running the world as he thinks. But there is another explanation. It’s called Donald Trump. If Biden’s presidency is cursed, it’s by the toxic legacy of the “very stable genius” who preceded him.

It’s worth noting how the poisonous effects of Trump’s geostrategic car crashes, clumsy policy missteps and egotistic blunders continue to be felt around the world – not least because he hopes to be president again. In 2020, with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side, Trump unveiled his “ultimate deal” for peace in Israel-Palestine.

His plan was a gift to rightwing Jewish nationalists, offering Israel full control over Jerusalem and large parts of the West Bank and Jordan Valley while shattering hopes of a viable Palestinian state. It was laughably, amateurishly lopsided. Except it was no joke. It excluded and humiliated Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, convinced many that peaceful dialogue was futile and so empowered Hamas.

Netanyahu had long advised Trump that the Palestinians could be safely ignored, normalisation with Arab states was a better, more lucrative bet and Iran was the bigger threat. Now he could barely contain his glee. “You have been the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House,” he cooed. Naturally, Trump lapped it up.

The catastrophic consequences of Trump’s dangerous fantasising are now plain to all – but it’s Biden, his re-election prospects at risk, who is getting heat from left and right. Partly it’s his own fault. He thought the Palestinian question could be frozen. Meanwhile, Trump, typically, has turned against Netanyahu while praising Hamas’s close ally, Iranian-backed Hezbollah, as “very smart”.

The 2018 decision by Trump, egged on by Israel, to unilaterally renege on the west’s UN-backed nuclear counter-proliferation accord with Iran was the biggest American foreign policy blunder since the Iraq invasion. Ensuing, additional US economic sanctions fatally weakened the moderately reformist presidency of Hassan Rouhani.

Iran took Trump’s confrontational cue – and shifted sharply to the anti-western, rejectionist right. A notorious hardliner, Ebrahim Raisi, president since 2021, has pursued close alliances with Russia and China. At home, a corrupt, anti-democratic clerical oligarchy, topped by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, brutally suppresses dissent, notably advocates of women’s rights.

Mahsa Yazdani is the mullahs’ latest victim. Her “crime”, for which she was jailed for 13 years, was to denounce the killing by security forces of her son, Mohammad Javad Zahedi. Such persecution is commonplace. Yet if the Barack Obama-Biden policy of engagement, backed by Britain and the EU, had been maintained by Trump, things might be very different today, inside and outside Iran.

Instead, Biden faces an angry foe threatening daily to escalate the Israel-Hamas war. Iran and its militias are the reason he is deploying huge military force to the region. Iran is why US bases in the Gulf, Syria and Iraq are under fire. And thanks to Trump (and Netanyahu), Iran may be closer than ever to acquiring nuclear weapons capability.

Trump’s uncritical, submissive, often suspiciously furtive attitude to Vladimir Putin has undermined Biden’s Russia policy, doing untold, lasting harm. Untold because Democrats have given up trying to cast light on at least a dozen, publicly unrecorded Trump-Putin calls and meetings over four years in the White House.

It’s not necessary to believe Moscow’s spooks possess embarrassing sex tapes, or that Trump solicited Russian meddling in US elections, to wonder whether he cut private deals with Putin. Did he, for example, suggest the US would stand aside if Russia invaded Ukraine, where there had been fighting over the Donbas and Crimea since 2014? Trump has a personal beef with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. That alone is sufficient to shape his policy.

Trump’s criticism of European allies and threats to quit Nato caused a damaging loss of mutual confidence that Biden still struggles to repair. For his part, manipulative Putin sticks up for the former president. He recently declared that federal lawsuits against Trump amounted to “persecution of a political rival for political reasons”. Evidently, he’d like to see his pal back in power.

Did Trump’s behaviour in office, his impeachments and failed coup, encourage Putin (and China’s Xi Jinping) to view American democracy as sick, failing and demoralised. Probably. Trump’s 2020 Afghanistan “peace deal” – in truth, an abject capitulation to the Taliban – confirmed their low opinion. It led directly to the chaotic 2021 withdrawal and a shredding of US global credibility that was largely blamed on Biden.

Little wonder Putin calculates that American staying power will again fade as Trump, campaigning when not in court, trashes Biden’s Ukraine policy and his House Republican followers block military aid to Kyiv. Unabashed by his Middle East fiasco, Trump vainly boasts he would conjure a Ukraine peace deal overnight – if re-elected (and not in jail).

It’s an unusually challenging time in world affairs. And Biden has been unlucky domestically, too, given a post-pandemic cost of living crisis and a supreme court gone rogue. Yet his biggest political misfortune remains the noxious global legacy and continuing, uniquely destructive presence of Trump.

He is more than just a rival waiting for an 80-year-old president to slip and take a tumble. Symbolically, Trump is nemesis. He is the darkness beyond the pale, he’s a monster lurking in the depths, he’s the enemy within. He’s Joe’s Jonah.

Source : The Guardian