Friday, January 22, 2021

The New Yorker

 The Awe and Anguish of Being an American Today

The lofty language and political togetherness of Joe Biden’s Inauguration made for a day to believe, again, in America and the idea of sharing power, even among people who disagree about almost everything. Listening to the enchanting young poet Amanda Gorman, I got a little weepy as she told us, “While democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated. In this truth, in this faith, we trust.” Lady Gaga’s powerful rendition of our anthem—pounding home the line “Our flag was still there”—was as relevant to the treasonous challenge to Congress this month as it was when British warships bombarded Fort McHenry, in 1814. On the very site of an insurrection that, two weeks earlier, threatened our union and resulted in five deaths, Joe Biden, our new President, promised that “democracy has prevailed.” His optimistic energy was infectious.

The problem, after any Inauguration, is all those other days. We need to be honest with ourselves about the health of our democracy. America has made gradual progress, no doubt. We are evolving, albeit with millions still denying the election results. On Wednesday, a woman born to Black and South Asian parents took the oath of office for the Vice-Presidency from a Latina Supreme Court Justice, another woman. “We dream. We shoot for the moon,” Kamala Harris said on Wednesday night. “We are undaunted in our belief that we will overcome.” Others will surely feel the same way. Biden has appointed the most diverse staff in history—men and a record number of women; Blacks, whites, and a Native American; a gay man and a transgender woman—who finally represent the splendid diversity of our land.

Yet we are still vulnerable to the selfish and voracious demands by many for more rights than others who are legally their equals. And to the belief in an alternative truth untethered to reality. During this sacred transition, some twenty-five thousand troops were deployed in my beloved Washington, D.C., in concentric circles, in an area of only five square miles—four times as many personnel as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria combined. On Inauguration Day, there was still spray paint on the Capitol’s marble columns—“A chilling reminder of what happened there just two weeks ago,” Senator Amy Klobuchar told NPR. Amid the calls to mend fences, the most striking images of the day were new fences, topped with prickly barbed wire, which prevented the public from participating in the celebration of their votes. Read on....

Monday, January 18, 2021

The New Yorker

 Biden Faces More Aggressive Rivals and a Fraying World Order

In a recent conversation, Sir John Scarlett, the elegant former spymaster of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, or M.I.6, pondered the foreign-policy challenges facing Joe Biden when he enters the White House—and the jarring differences since he left it four years ago. The bottom line, Scarlett told me, is that America’s adversaries are now “more assertive, aggressive, and self-confident.” Many of the threats were building in 2017, but they have escalated exponentially. As Biden returns to power in 2021, the variety and depth of hazards facing the United States—from nations and non-state militias, jihadi terrorists, drug lords, criminal syndicates, and hackers—are greater than at any time since the U.S. became a superpower after the Second World War.

From the beginning of the republic, not one of America’s forty-five previous Presidents has had it easy when he took office. Poor George Washington had to create the Presidency in a war-ravaged nation that was little more than a political experiment with limited financial resources, raging feuds among the Founding Fathers, and no international presence. America was so polarized when Abraham Lincoln took office that South Carolina had already seceded, and Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee soon followed. Woodrow Wilson simultaneously faced the First World War and the influenza pandemic, which killed more than a half million Americans and almost felled him, too. Franklin Roosevelt inherited the Great Depression and was then confronted by the Second World War.
Biden inherits a mess on both the domestic and international fronts, compounded by a pandemic that has produced mass death, rampant unemployment, and a global economic crisis. Read on....

Friday, January 8, 2021

The New Yorker

 The World Shook as America Raged

One of the darkest days in American history played out in a barely two-square-mile area, but it rippled across the globe. Authoritarian leaders were gleeful about the chaos in the world’s most powerful democracy. As armed insurrectionists, white supremacists, and rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, the Foreign Minister of Venezuela—a failing state with rival claims to the Presidency, and shortages of power, food, and medicine—tweeted a warning about political polarization in the United States. With more than a whiff of Schadenfreude, Jorge Arreaza wished Americans well in finding “a new path towards stability and social justice.”

Officials in Turkey, which has witnessed a dramatic erosion of democracy amid arrests of dissidents and journalists, called on all parties in Washington “to maintain restraint and prudence”—and then warned its own citizens in the United States to avoid crowded places. Iranian state television ran live coverage of the chaos at the Capitol, with a running ticker underneath, as Hossein Dehghan, a former Revolutionary Guard and a Presidential candidate in the upcoming June election, tweeted, “The world is watching the American dream.” The Russian deputy U.N. Ambassador compared the turmoil in Washington, D.C., to the 2014 protests in Kyiv that toppled the Ukrainian government. On social media platforms like Telegram, supporters of isis and Al Qaeda celebrated the turmoil in the United States. An isis publication predicted that America would be consumed with turmoil for the next four years.

America’s allies were also appalled—and posted their own undiplomatic admonitions on social media. Boris Johnson, a long-standing ally and personal friend of Donald Trump’s, chastised the President. “I unreservedly condemn encouraging people to behave in the disgraceful way that they did in the Capitol,” he said. The French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, insisted that “the American people’s will and vote must be respected.” In a tweet, the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, condemned the “shocking” scenes out of Washington. “We must call this out for what it is: a deliberate assault on Democracy by a sitting President & his supporters, attempting to overturn a free & fair election! The world is watching!” Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, appealed directly to the President. “Dear Donald Trump, recognise Joe Biden as the next president today.”

Worldwide, the broader question was about the impact on the credibility of liberal democracy if it could produce such turmoil in a country known for its strong institutions, laws, and checks and balances. Read on....

Monday, January 4, 2021

The New Yorker

 Biden Faces a Minefield in New Diplomacy with Iran

By Robin Wright
Joe Biden knows Iran better than any American President since its 1979 revolution. He has personally dealt with its top officials—a few of them for decades. “When I was Iran’s representative to the U.N., I had several meetings with Biden,” the Islamic Republic’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarifacknowledged after the U.S. election, in an interview with Entekhab, a Tehran publication. The two aren’t exactly friends. Their meetings “can be described as professional relations based on mutual respect,” Zarif said. But Biden does have the Iranian’s personal e-mail address, as well as his cell-phone number.
As one of his first acts on foreign policy, Biden wants to renew diplomacy with the Islamic Republic—and reŃ‘nter the nuclear accord that President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018. “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations,” Biden wrote, in an essay for CNN, in September. Yet the President-elect already faces a minefield over basic issues—such as, what exactly is “compliance”? Who moves first? And how? And what about all those other flash points not in the 2015 accord—Iran’s growing array of missiles, its proxy militias and political meddling, which have extended Tehran’s influence across the Middle East, and the regime’s flagrant human-rights abuses?
After Biden is inaugurated, he will have only a sliver of time—six to eight weeks—to jump-start the process before the political calendar in Iran threatens to derail potential diplomacy over the nuclear deal, Read on....