Sunday, December 6, 2020


A fractured foot is causing presumptive president-elect Joe Biden to limp for the next several weeks. The actions of many of our allies and enemies indicate that they believe Mr. Biden’s limp will become a metaphor for his foreign policy. 

The Nov. 27 assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s chief nuclear scientist, the European Union’s draft proposal for a new “EU-US agenda for global change” and China’s imposition of sanctions on four Americans accused of interfering in Hong Kong’s politics are examples of those anticipatory actions. So, too, is Russia’s threatening a U.S. naval vessel in international waters.

Fakhrizadeh, the father of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, was killed outside Tehran when his car was shot up by a remote-controlled machine gun, the kind of hit we have only seen in movies. He was the fifth Iranian nuclear scientist killed since 2010. Naturally, Iran blamed Israel for the assassination and threatened retaliation. Though Israel is most likely responsible, other nations — Saudi Arabia among them — or Iranian dissidents could be responsible for it. 

The assassination anticipates Mr. Biden’s intended rejoining of the 2015 nuclear weapons deal with Iran. Not only will it likely slow Iran’s nuclear weapons program, it will make the remaining Iranian nuclear scientists even more fearful. 

Fakhrizadeh’s death followed soon after a covert meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. That meeting occurred around the time Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was also meeting with the Saudi prince to persuade him to enter into a peace accord with Israel like the ones Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan have signed. He failed to do so because the Saudis already view Mr. Biden as an inconstant ally who won’t stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

The Saudis fear Iran more than they fear any other nation. They, and the Israelis, were the principal opponents of the 2015 nuclear weapons deal former President Obama signed with the ayatollahs. The Saudis anticipate Mr. Biden’s rapprochement with Iran and are waiting to see how far it will go. A Middle East nuclear arms race may result.

Iran, too, is anticipating Mr. Biden. In a threat aimed at Mr. Biden as well as Europe, the Iranian parliament reportedly passed a bill banning further U.N. inspections and compelling further enrichment of uranium if the European signatories to the 2015 deal don’t provide further relief from oil and banking sanctions. 

Our European allies are also anticipating Mr. Biden’s weakness. Mr. Biden has recently assured NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg of America’s “enduring commitment” to NATO, sparking a debate among NATO members about the wisdom of investing in defense. 

The European Union is reportedly planning to propose a new “once in a generation” agenda of cooperation with the U.S. on its priorities, among them cooperation on regulating the digital world, fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and deforestation. Noticeably absent from the list is defense spending. The EU wants to bury the tensions of the Trump era and theoretically deal with China’s strategic challenge.

Those are very big goals. The EU has, throughout the Trump years, tried to impose economic penalties, including massive tax increases, billions of dollars in antitrust penalties and strict regulations, on U.S. companies such as Microsoft, Google and others because they are dominant in EU markets. Mr. Biden may compromise with these EU actions.

At the heart of the EU’s desires is to eliminate the pressure Mr. Trump put on the NATO nations — 21 of which are also EU members — to spend more on defense. They want to trade with China, spend even less on defense, and leave the China threat for us to deal with. China, too, after congratulating Mr. Biden on his election victory, is working to anticipate his policies.

There is no diminution of China’s efforts to build islands and military bases in the South China Sea or its threats to Taiwan. On Nov. 30, in addition to its ongoing sanctions against some Americans, China sanctioned four more Americans who have ties to the Hong Kong democracy movement. The Chinese know that Mr. Biden won’t commit U.S. forces in defense of Taiwan. In the next four years, China will try to crush Taiwan as it has crushed democracy in Hong Kong.

Russia, too, wants to see how far it can push for Mr. Biden. On Nov. 24, the USS John McCain was sailing in international waters in the Sea of Japan. Russia claims more than 100 miles of waters off its coast and when the McCain came about a mile into Russia’s claimed waters, it was threatened with ramming by a Russian naval vessel. 

In sum, our allies, such as Israel, are trying to preempt some of Mr. Biden’s policies (or, in the case of the EU, prepare to take economic advantage of them) while our enemies are calculating how much aggression they can get away with.   

Mr. Trump has accomplished a great deal, exiting Mr. Obama’s Iran nuclear weapons deal, getting Arab countries to make peace with Israel, getting the United States out of Cold War treaties with Russia that the Russians weren’t abiding by and pushing the NATO nations to invest in their own defense. The world is preparing for Mr. Biden to limp, abandoning those accomplishments, long after his foot is healed.  

• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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