This month we begin the transition from a Trump era to a new presidency based on peace and cooperation. There is no area where this renewed vision is needed more than foreign policy. Trump has mocked, mocked and burned bridges with our allies, while also teaming up with some of the most brutal dictatorial regimes in the world – especially those in the oil-rich Middle East. The damage done by the Trump administration is profound and requires hard work and a clear understanding of the extent of the damage to repair it. Since foreign policy is primarily determined by the executive branch, President Biden has a tremendous opportunity to reorient our foreign policy in the region.
Trump began his presidency by pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal, which had been a major diplomatic feat with the buy-in of all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – China, France, Russia, UK, US – plus Germany and Iran. The deal was remarkable not only for the countries it brought to the table, but also for what it prevented: a nuclear-armed Iran that could threaten the United States and risk a global nuclear war.
Almost every action under President Trump has made armed conflict more than less likely. Trump imposed a crippling sanction after imposing a crippling sanction on the Iranian people – by depriving them of much-needed medical care during a pandemic and further exacerbating the power of the brutal authoritarian regime. Earlier this year he ordered the assassination of an Iranian commander who risked an all-out war. As a result of these actions, Iran finally stepped back from the nuclear compact that Trump himself tore apart in 2018 – and now has 12 times more enriched uranium than would have been allowed under the agreement.
Meanwhile, Trump has teamed up with some of the world’s most notorious human rights abusers, including Saudi Arabia, a regime responsible for some of the United States worst atrocities of our young century. Under the absolute monarch Mohamad bin Salman (“MBS”), Saudi Arabia regularly imprisons, tortures and kills lawyers for human rights and political reforms in its own country – especially women’s rights activists. Using US weaponsSaudi Arabia bombed, blocked, starved and slaughtered thousands of Yemeni civilians in its war in Yemen. After the resolutions to end U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia overwhelmingly passed both houses of Congress, Trump vetoed them all. When MBS was linked to the murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, Trump boasted that he had “saved his ass.”
However, the shameless celebration of human rights violations did not end with Saudi Arabia. In the run-up to the elections, Trump brokered so-called “peace agreements” between the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan and Israel. Besides the very well documented War crimes in YemenThe United Arab Emirates have also been credibly charged with war crimes Libya. It is ostensible too pay for child soldiers from the same militia that committed the genocide in Darfur and severely undercut the transition to democracy in Sudan. Bahrain is a brutal dictatorship that summarizes political dissidents and demonstrators, including religious leaders; routinely uses torture and arbitrary detention; and is aimed at human rights defenders and women.
Are these the regimes we want to strengthen?
In truth, these are not peace deals, but arms sales agreements with human rights abusers. And they are less concerned with normalizing relations with Israel than with forming military alliances against Iran. Proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to rage in Yemen, Syria and partly in Libya. And these alliances only further align the United States and Israel with the Gulf States in these conflicts. Shortly after the UAE deal was finalized, Trump proposed a staggering $ 23 billion arms sale to the UAE, which the government admitted was linked to the deal. (I introduced Resolutions this week to ban those sales.)
And we have to ask: what do these agreements mean for the millions of Palestinians who continue to live under Israeli military occupation? Instead of making statehood or self-determination more likely, they normalized and made the profession real Peace for Israelis and Palestinians is becoming increasingly unlikely. In return for the recognition, Israel is said to have agreed to stop the planned annexation of Palestinian land. But this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Visited found an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank and ordered imports from these settlements to be labeled as “products of Israel”, suggesting that de facto annexation will proceed swiftly. The autocrats in the Gulf seem to agree with this rule. As the former director of the US office of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem Mitchell Plitnick wrote: “The motivations of the Gulf States are as clear as they are indifferent to the concerns of the Palestinians.”
President Biden has a tremendous opportunity to reverse this. Rather than standing with one group of dictators over another, we should position ourselves equidistant from both to be honest brokers, to protect our national security and interests, while promoting human rights and democracy. We can hold Iran accountable for its human rights violations Likewise Hold Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates accountable.
This also applies to the job. Ignoring the suffering of the Palestinians goes against our most basic values. It also threatens our national security. No less than Trump’s former Secretary of Defense said the United States pays “a military price” every day for our role in maintaining the occupation. As I said before, we have to bring the call for a two-state solution with unrestricted human rights and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians back into the public debate.
In a broader sense, we must recognize that keeping tens of thousands of troops in the region is a failure. If the only interaction people have with the United States is through arms sales and our military presence, they see us as an imperialist occupying power. It also sends a signal to the rest of the world that material interests like oil are more important to us than democracy or human rights.
We have a unique opportunity to realign our foreign policy away from short-sighted military alliances and towards justice. We can create an America that means what it says when we say we stand up for human rights and democracy. An end to arms sales to dictators. An end to the collective punishment of innocent civilians. And renewed support for multilateralism and accountability. I hope President Biden takes this opportunity.