Biden’s White House Aims To ‘Decolonize,’ But Does It Really Mean It?

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

AFP photo: Doug Mills

There’s a new administration in the White House and a new watchword in US foreign policy: decolonization. Imperialism, so the reasoning goes, is to blame for all the ills of the world, so to fix it, empires like America must “decolonize.” The US, it is said, must see things from the perspective of smaller foreign powers that have often been at odds with it.

Those words might describe the worldview of Robert Malley, the new envoy to Iran (not a universally popular appointment). But if Iran is one of those smaller foreign powers, those in the state department behind the commitment to decolonize are not only misguided, they are woefully misinformed.

If imperialism equals occupying and bullying neighboring countries, then Iran, for example, has a long history of it. In 1936, Tehran annexed the Arab Kaab Emirate in the south, and renamed it Khuzestan. In 1971, Iran occupied three Emirati islands. In 2007, a mouthpiece of the Iranian regime declared Bahrain had always been “Iran’s 14th province,” and claimed there were “undeniable documents” in existence to prove it.

Yet Joe Biden, Malley and company don’t perceive Iran as a colonizer, only as colonized, which suggests either a lack of historical understanding or flagrant bias.

In his book, “The Call from Algeria,” Malley links the rise of Islamism to the failure of communism in what he calls the Third World. Leaving aside his use of a term that is now deemed offensive, Malley fails to see that Islamism is in fact Communism Mark II. Both ideologies use populist rhetoric and sanction violence. Had the Soviet Union not collapsed, Islamism would have remained a fringe movement.

If President Biden is persuaded by the decolonization argument, the US will up sticks and leave the Gulf, which is exactly what the mullahs have been dreaming of since 1979. The Iranians have hardly made a secret of what their intentions have been; with the US and its military forces gone, the way would be open for Iran to step in as the dominant power in the region, restructuring security and turning neighboring countries into satellite states.

Iran has often pressed for admission to the Gulf Cooperation Council, which currently comprises Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman. In fact, Iran would like to go further and replace the GCC with something bigger – what its foreign minister, Javad Zarif, called a “Greater Persian Gulf” that would include not only the Gulf but also the Red Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean, which sounds more like expansionism than decolonizing.

The Biden administration is dressing up its decolonization policy as the ditching of Donald Trump’s “America First” unilateralism. In reality, the US is being very choosy about just how multilateral it wants to be.

Biden rejoined the Paris agreement on climate change on his very first day in office. But the US also plans to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, which would allow Tehran to export more than two million barrels of oil a day. How does that square with reducing fossil-fuel energy, one of the commitments enshrined in the Paris agreement?

The Biden team has been selective at the United Nations, too, breaking with multilateral decisions to pursue its own unilateral policy.

Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701 call for all militias in Lebanon to disarm and disband. For “all militias,” read Hezbollah in particular. Yet the White House – especially when occupied by the Democrats – prefers to talk to Hezbollah rather than enforce UN resolutions.

Similarly, on Yemen, the UN Security Council has passed no fewer than nine resolutions imposing an arms embargo, travel ban and asset freeze on any individual or entity connected to the Houthi militia, which is accused of obstructing the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Yet the new US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has had the Houthis removed from the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations because, he argued, the war in Yemen can only be resolved by talking to the Houthis.

Pursuing decolonization and combating climate change appear to give the US the moral high ground. But the reality is that foreign policy is never cut and dried or black and white but a frayed mess of grey areas and compromise.

The Biden administration may put on a show of “fixing” the world by pursuing decolonization, a term it clearly does not fully understand but will use to put a gloss on the fact that the US, like all governments, has its own agenda. It will embrace multilateralism when it is expedient. It will “see things from the perspective of smaller foreign powers” when it is advantageous.

Under Biden, the US will pick and choose where to dispense its largesse, as all empires do. Impartiality has nothing to do with it.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.