Joe Biden’s appointment of William Burns as CIA director shows how the US, of whatever stripe, views the world. It sees things in absolute black and white. Peace and security can only be assured if ‘we’ remain dominant.
Trump’s coup plot has been treated by many in the media as the last gasp of a deranged political despot, but we are told that American democracy remains strong and that a new day is dawning. Had the news been coming from almost anywhere else in the world the headlines might have been different.
We would have been reading about a ‘failed state’. It is highly unlikely that America will stop tearing itself apart and equally unlikely that the world beyond the borders of the US will be able to breathe any easier following Biden’s promise that America is back and will lead the world.
Little attention has been given to the leadership team that Biden has been putting in place to ‘lead the world’. The anti-China thrust of some of the appointees is disturbing. In the words of the New York Times, Antony Blinken, the incoming secretary of state, “will try to coalesce sceptical international partners into a new competition with China.” Katherine Tai, the new US Trade representative, regards her role as seeking to build a global anti-China cabal and to use the World Trade Organisation to exert extra pressure on China. Biden’s choice of William Burns as director of the CIA is even more worrying for the world.
Burns was a senior state department official under Reagan, Bush senior, Clinton, Bush junior and Obama. He was closely involved with the US war on Iraq and had responsibility for state department operations in Iraq after the invasion. He was similarly involved in the attack on Libya, the coup in Egypt and the intervention in Syria. It is a suitable apprenticeship for someone who is about to head an agency that has such an inglorious record of murder, torture and intervention in the affairs of states. Burns has big shoes to fill. He will be replacing Gina Haspel whose curriculum vitae includes time running a ‘black site’ torture centre in Thailand. She later replaced Mike Pompeo when he became secretary of state.
This is, of course, all in the past. A bright new day is dawning for the US and the world. In announcing Burns’ appointment, Biden assured the American people “that they will sleep soundly with him as our next CIA director”. The rest of the world might have less restful nights, despite the praise being heaped upon the new CIA chief.
Former Iraq commander and CIA director David Petraeus, in an interview with Politico, described it as “an inspired choice”. John Brennan, another former CIA boss, famous for his use of drones for assassinations and for illegal spying saw the choice as “enlightened”. Referee reports from such characters no doubt fill the new director with a sense of pride. It is obvious that all concerned see him continuing the “good” work.
There should be no surprise when the CIA gets down to business under the new director and the next outrage is reported. He effectively submitted a public application for the job in June 2019 in an extended interview on US National Public Radio. In this discussion on ‘US Global Leadership’, Burns resolutely defended the US and NATO-led coup in Libya that ended with the murder of Muammar Gaddafi, and directly led to the ongoing civil war, the torture and killing of refugees and the return of slave-markets. According to Burns, “it was right to act in Libya in the way that we did,” and that Obama’s “decision to act was unavoidable”. When the US “unavoidably acted”, Libya was not a failed state. That status quickly changed.
The interview did show the “enforcer” to have some regrets, although it should hardly make anyone sleep more peacefully. He regrets that the US did not pursue the option of overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Burns was not in charge but thinks that a better policy would have been to directly intervene by ordering a military strike against Syria. Simply flooding the rebels with large amounts of weapons, including al-Qaeda and al-Nusra, was not enough. It is worth remembering that in the coming period, Biden will be taking expert advice from William Burns.
Burns has a background in high-level diplomacy, although it hardly offers much hope. In 2013 he led a mission to Moscow to try to persuade Vladimir Putin to hand Edward Snowden back to the US. When that didn’t work, he remonstrated with China for allowing Snowden to get out of Hong Kong. The Chinese were criticised for not “detaining” Snowden. who had blown the whistle on the NSA for spying on the world. Burns saw this as not being “consistent with the spirit… the type of relationship — the new model — that we both seek to build”.
William Burns’ appointment represents just how the United States government, of whatever stripe, views the world. It is predicated on a theory of international relations that sees things in absolute black and white. Anybody and everybody is either a current or potential threat. Peace and security can only be assured if ‘we’ remain dominant. It matters not how much damage is done, how many bodies there are, how many states are forced to fail. What matters is that America remains on top.
In part, this is a worldview based on the idea of American exceptionalism. One plank in this theory and one that many cling to, in the face of all logic, is that the United States will somehow manage to resist the laws of history. It will rise and not fall as other empires have risen and fallen. It is a view that was built on the fact that it defeated the world’s most powerful empire in Britain, conquered a continent and expanded its influence far beyond its borders.
The end of the Cold War seemed to reinforce this rather grandiose view, but the laws of history just won’t be ignored. America’s best days are behind it. Trumpism represents the decay that marks the end of the American century. Biden and his proclamation that “America is back” simply keeps the myth alive for a little longer.