Donald Trump loves executive orders as a tool of dictatorial power, avoiding the need to work through Congress. But that works both ways, making it relatively easy for President Biden to reverse many of Trump’s most disastrous decisions.
Here are ten things Biden can do as soon as he takes office. Each one can set the stage for broader progressive foreign policy initiatives which are long overdue.
1) End the US role in the Saudi-led war on Yemen and restore US humanitarian aid to Yemen.
Congress already passed a War Powers Resolution to end the US role in the Yemen war, only to have Trump veto it. Biden can immediately issue an executive order to end every aspect of the US role in the war, based on the resolution that Trump vetoed.
The US should also accept its share of responsibility for Yemen’s deep humanitarian crisis and provide funding for Yemen to restore this devastated country. Biden can expand USAID funding and recommit US financial support to the UN, the WHO, and to World Food Program relief programs in Yemen.
2) Suspend all US arms sales and transfers to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Congress passed bills to suspend arms sales to both of these countries, but Trump vetoed them too. Both countries have massacred civilians in Yemen. While mostly ignored at the behest of weapons companies, there are US laws that require the suspension of arms transfers to countries that use them to violate US and international law. The Leahy Law prohibits the US from providing military assistance to foreign security forces that commit gross violations of human rights as in Libya and Yemen; and the Arms Export Control Act, which states that countries must use imported US weapons only for legitimate self defense.
Once these suspensions are in place, the Biden administration can review the legality of Trump’s arms sales to both countries, with a view to canceling them and banning future sales.
3) Rejoin the Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA) and lift sanctions on Iran.
After reneging on the JCPOA, Trump slapped draconian sanctions on Iran and brought us to the brink of war by killing its top general. The Biden administration will face an uphill battle undoing this web of hostile actions and the deep mistrust they have caused, so Biden must act decisively to restore mutual trust: immediately rejoin the JCPOA, lift the sanctions, and stop blocking the $5 billion IMF loan that Iran desperately needs to deal with the COVID crisis.
4) End US threats and sanctions against officials of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Nothing so brazenly embodies the US government’s enduring, bipartisan disdain for international law as its failure to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). If President Biden is serious about recommitting the US to the rule of law, he can submit the Rome Statute to the US Senate for ratification and join 120 other countries as members of the ICC.
5) Back President Moon’s diplomacy for a “permanent peace regime” in Korea.
President-elect Biden has reportedly agreed to meet South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in soon after he is sworn in. Trump’s failure to end sanctions and offer security guarantees to North Korea doomed his diplomacy and became an obstacle to the process underway between Korean presidents Moon and Kim.
Biden can start by drafting a peace agreement to formally end the Korean war, and initiate confidence-building measures such as opening liaison offices, easing sanctions, facilitating reunions between Korean-American and North Korean families and halting US-South Korea military exercises. .
6) Renew New START with Russia and freeze the US’s trillion-dollar new nuke plan.
Biden can end Trump’s dangerous game of brinksmanship and commit to renewing Obama’s New START Treaty with Russia. It freezes each countries’ nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads. He can also freeze Obama and Trump’s plan to spend more than a trillion dollars on a new generation of US nuclear weapons.
In 2017, 122 countries voted for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) at the UN General Assembly. All 9 of the existing nuclear weapons states ignored it. Here is a visionary challenge for President Biden for his second full day in office when the TPNW will go into effect. He can Invite the leaders of the other nuclear weapons states to a conference to negotiate signing the treaty to remove the danger hanging over every human being on Earth.
7) Lift illegal unilateral US sanctions against other countries.
Economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council are generally considered legal under international law, and require action by the Security Council. But unilateral economic sanctions that deprive ordinary people of necessities like food and medicine are illegal and cause grave harm to innocent citizens.
The US has used executive orders to impose sanctions on Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea and Syria. UN special rapporteurs have compared them to medieval sieges. Since most of these sanctions were imposed by executive order, President Biden can lift them the same way on his first day.
8) Roll back Trump policies on Cuba and move to normalize relations.
The Trump administration overturned the progress towards normal relations made by President Obama. Biden should work with the Cuban government to allow the return of diplomats to their respective embassies and lift restrictions on remittances, among other measures. They would represent a down payment on a new era of diplomacy and cooperation
9) Restore pre-2015 rules of engagement to spare civilian lives.
In the fall of 2015, as US forces escalated their bombing of ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria to over 100 bomb and missile strikes per day. The Obama administration loosened military rules of engagement to let US commanders airstrikes expected to kill up to 10 civilians without prior approval from Washington. Trump may have further opened the door for strikes that kill civilians. Biden can reset these rules and start killing fewer civilians on Day One.
We can avoid these terrible civilian deaths altogether by ending these wars. Biden should set a date, no later than the end of December 2021, for all US troops to come home from all these combat zones. This policy may not be popular among war profiteers, but it would certainly be popular among Americans across the ideological spectrum.
10) Freeze US military spending, and launch a major initiative to reduce it.
At the end of the Cold War, former senior Pentagon officials told the Senate Budget Committee that US military spending could safely be cut by half over the next ten years. That goal was never achieved; the peace dividend gave way to a “power dividend.”
Military and industry leaders exploited the crimes of September 11 to justify an extraordinary escalation of arms spending, far outstripping its peak Cold War levels. The military-industrial complex is counting on Biden to renew a Cold War with Russia and China as the pretext for feeding record military budgets.
Biden must dial back the conflicts with China and Russia, and instead begin the critical task of moving money from the Pentagon to urgent domestic needs. He can start with the 10 percent cut supported this year by 93 representatives and 23 senators.
In the longer term, Biden should make deeper cuts in Pentagon spending, as in Representative Barbara Lee’s bill to cut $350 billion per year from the US military budget, approximating the 50% peace dividend promised after the Cold War—freeing up resources to invest in healthcare, education, clean energy and modern infrastructure.
Medea Benjamin is a co-founder of CODEPINK and the author of many books on history and politics. Nicolas J. S. Davies has written about the invasion of Iraq and “Obama at War” in Grading the 44th President.
Reprinted from Common Dreams, Nov. 19, 2020 under Creative Commons license.