As you will likely have gleaned from other sources, Joe Biden is now the president of the United States. He has begun his time in office, as presidents are wont to do, by making a show of being busy and in charge. Biden spent the first few hours at his desk undoing all the work of his predecessor that could be undone by executive order.
Also significant are the final actions taken by those leaving power, something especially prevalent in the American system where departing administrations have several months before leaving office to prepare their Parthian shots.
The Trump administration did not depart from this tradition, with the former president issuing what has become a customary dose of executive clemency before vacating the scene.
Before George W. Bush took power, the Clinton administration popped all the W keys out of the keyboards
Other last acts are of more significance in policy. The Trump years were uniquely unfocused and contained little in the way of strategy. Instead, what was done comprised a series of individual actions, often enacted on the basis of the president’s likes and dislikes, taking in his willingness to strike a pose. His final secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, made it his business to carry these gestures off and did so until circumstance forced him to leave office.
Trump’s and Pompeo’s final week contained a number of announcements and executive actions on this score which will have lasting effects.
In rough order of significance, Pompeo: designated the Houthis, a rebel faction in the Yemeni civil war, a terrorist organisation; released a carefully-worded document which alleged that the coronavirus escaped from a Chinese laboratory, the Wuhan Institute of Virology; and finally declared China’s persecution of the Uighurs a genocide – a distinction America has long refrained from applying to the Armenian genocide or the genocide of the Rohingyas in Burma.
Pompeo also made a song and dance of making relations between the United States and Taiwan – which America still does not recognise – a little firmer.
One can see how these actions largely follow the image the Trump administration sought to present: that of a tough government keen to punish America’s enemies – be they imperial rivals, like China, or militia opponents. They echo one of its least convincing poses: that it was an operation willing to name names when evil was done.
This also follows a final sprint in diplomacy, which included American recognition of Moroccan control over Western Sahara – something entirely out of step with years of American policy – and a number of last-gasp attempts to have Muslim countries treat with Israel. In this, Trump and Pompeo sought to bolster their otherwise patchy efforts at having Israel recognised and made rich; they wanted to reward these new friends.
There are two approaches one can take to judging these actions.
Designating the Houthis as terrorists may complicate the Biden administration’s path in Yemen
First, one must note the extent to which there is an ignoble history of outgoing administrations making things harder for their unwelcome successors. This is something the Trump people were always likely to indulge. The Clinton administration purportedly vandalised the White House and stole property before George W. Bush took power, including popping all the W keys out of the keyboards. And this effort from the Trump people could be seen as an attempt to gum up the works in the same way before Biden and his officials were able to assume power.
A few of these decisions will take some reversing, as the new administration has already said it will likely do with regard to Yemen. The Western Sahara decision, for example, is simply too perverse to commend, and will likely be ditched as soon as is practical. Many of Biden’s first actions in power followed the same tack, of course – including the signing of executive orders ending Trump’s travel bans and re-joining America to the Paris Agreement pertaining to climate change.
But some of these final actions may not be reversed and with good reason. Biden’s incoming secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said rather pointedly before congress that he agreed with Pompeo’s late decision that China was indeed committing genocide in Xinjiang.
It is not ideal that the world’s new imperial power is a genocidal one-party state – but it is reassuring that the Biden administration has recognised this fact.
Blinken ought to examine all the final actions of his predecessor with the same care. The state department document relating to the coronavirus and its origins, for example, does offer evidence in a specific and worrying direction, whatever the motives spurring its publication.
While China continues to lie and obfuscate about the origins of a pandemic that has killed millions and shaken the global economy, releasing what material the United States has of its own investigations can help to make up for this consistent and thoroughgoing deceit.
Similarly, designating the Houthis as terrorists may complicate the Biden administration’s path in Yemen and fulfil a long-standing Saudi aim, but it is not wholly without justification. The Houthis have repeatedly claimed responsibility for rocket attacks on Saudi cities and the industrial sites that power its economy. Either these claims are correct, in which case they meet the bar for terrorism, or they are lies to disguise Iranian involvement – something which deserves its own recognition and condemnation.
And in the case of Taiwan, Blinken should use the opportunity he now has with a congress largely united in opposition to Chinese domination: he should go further and recognise Taiwan as sovereign.
Some of these actions, especially the ones related to China, are good on their own terms and must be seen as such. Considering them wholly through the prism of an otherwise classless exit, and throwing them out reflexively, would diminish some of the good they might yet do. This is good the new president and his administration must seek to continue.
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