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Opinion How Biden can update the Obama doctrine

Then-Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama speak at President Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017.
Then-Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama speak at President Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)
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Joe Biden’s national security team has been getting plenty of advice about Trump policies that it should immediately jettison on Wednesday or consider keeping. Yet given the large number of top Biden officials who are veterans of Barack Obama’s administration, there’s a more interesting question: Which strategies from those eight years ought to be relaunched — or discarded?

If personnel is policy, a full-on revival of Obamaism might seem likely. Secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken and deputy Wendy Sherman; national security adviser nominee Jake Sullivan and deputy Jon Finer; director of national intelligence nominee Avril D. Haines and CIA director-designate William J. Burns were all senior officials under Obama, while defense secretary nominee Lloyd J. Austin III headed the Pentagon’s Middle East command. Almost every other top official so far nominated for State and Defense Department roles is an Obama veteran.

The group, along with Biden himself, has already telegraphed some immediate acts of restoration, including rejoining the Paris agreement on climate change that Obama helped to negotiate. Next will come the resuscitation of the deal curbing Iran’s nuclear program and the New START agreement limiting U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals — provided that Tehran and Moscow cooperate, as they probably will.

Those steps ought to be uncontroversial, though of course they won’t be in a polarized Washington. Not only were the deals Obama’s biggest foreign policy achievements, but also President Trump’s repudiation of them has led to dead ends and disasters. The New START accord, without which a new nuclear arms race might take off, is about to lapse because of Trump’s foolish and unworkable demand that China be included in any extension. And during Trump’s four years of climate denialism, the catastrophic costs of warming have steadily mounted — from record hurricanes in the Caribbean to spreading wildfires in the West.

The small army of die-hard Washington opponents to the Iran deal will have to account for the fact that Trump’s alternative — rupture, followed by “maximum pressure” — failed to induce the regime of Ali Khamenei to negotiate a better bargain, as Trump claimed he wanted, or to topple the regime, as the aides who pushed the policy hoped. Instead, Iran has returned to enriching uranium and other dangerous steps toward producing nuclear weapons, while its aggressions around the Middle East are ­undiminished.

Meanwhile, the United States has been arming and defending Sunni Arab regimes that, when it comes to domestic oppression and foreign aggression, are hard to distinguish from Shiite Iran — Saudi Arabia and Egypt chief among them. Israel, whose defense is usually cited as the prime reason for Trump’s strategy, has shown that it is more than capable of defending itself against Iran’s conventional threats, such as the missiles the Revolutionary Guard has tried to smuggle into Syria and Lebanon.

Still, one piece of Obama’s Iran policy proved unworkable — and it flows from one of his larger errors. With scant experience in foreign affairs before becoming president, Obama argued that U.S. “engagement” with adversarial regimes could diminish their hostility and even cause them to liberalize internally, without the need for the revolutions or invasions favored by the neocons of the George W. Bush administration. Obama tried out this doctrine on Myanmar (or Burma) and Cuba, as well as Iran.

The results were pretty dismal. U.S. sanctions were lifted and relations restored with Cuba’s Castro regime and Myanmar’s generals, but neither substantially changed. The Burmese military allowed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to form a civilian government after an election, then launched a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya minority while she stood by — and cheered. Cuba released political prisoners, then rearrested some of them; the heavy political repression on the island has remained unaltered.

While he rightly argued that the Iran nuclear deal was itself worthwhile, Obama believed it could lead the regime to embrace “a different path.” It never came close to doing so, even before Trump’s pressure campaign.

For Biden’s Obama veterans, the logical response to these failures would be a more realistic, hard-nosed appreciation of the challenges posed by U.S. adversaries — including China and Russia, as well as smaller fries such as Iran and Cuba. They must be dealt with where accords on arms or climate are in U.S. interests, but illusions about their regimes’ potential for positive evolution through U.S. suasion should be abandoned.

Blinken and Sullivan appear to get this. The focus of the Biden administration’s “engagement,” they have said, should be other democracies, which need to be bolstered and rallied to strategies that allow them to outcompete and outlast the dictators. Given the damage Trump has done to U.S. democracy, the new team will start in a hole. But it’s the right way to update Obamaism for a new era.

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