Believe it or not, the world did not stop turning on its axis because of the US election and ensuing, self-indulgent disputes in the land of the free-for-all. In the age of Donald Trump, narcissism spreads like the plague.
But the longer the wrangling in Washington continues, the greater the collateral damage to America’s global reputation – and to less fortunate states and peoples who rely on the US and the western allies to fly the flag for democracy and freedom.
Consider, for example, the implications of the Israeli army’s operation, on US election day, to raze the homes of 74 Palestinians, mostly women and children, in the occupied West Bank village of Khirbet Humsa. The pace of West Bank demolitions has increased this year, possibly in preparation for Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley – a plan backed in principle by Trump.
Appealing for international intervention, the Palestinian prime minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh, claimed Israel had acted while “attention is focused on the US election”. Yet worse may be to come.
Trump’s absurdly lopsided Middle East “peace plan” gave Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s rightwing leader, virtual carte blanche to expand settlements and seize Palestinian land. Joe Biden has promised to revive the two-state solution. But while the power struggle rages in Washington, analysts warn, Netanyahu may continue to arbitrarily create new “facts on the ground” – with Trump’s blessing.
“Over the next 11 weeks, we are likely to see a major uptick in Israeli demolitions, evictions, settlement announcements, and perhaps even formal annexation of parts of the occupied territories, as Netanyahu and his allies in the settler movement seek to make the most of Trump’s remaining time in office,” Khaled Elgindy of Washington’s Middle East Institute predicted.
The Khirbet Humsa incident gained widespread media attention. The same cannot be said of a football pitch massacre in northern Mozambique that also coincided with US polling. While Americans were counting votes, villagers in Cabo Delgado province were counting bodies after Islamic State-affiliated extremists decapitated more than 50 victims.
Nearly 450,000 people have been displaced, and up to 2,000 killed, in an escalating insurgency in the mainly Muslim province where extreme poverty exists alongside valuable, western-controlled gas and mineral riches. Chinese, US and British energy companies are all involved there. Mozambique’s government has appealed for help, saying its forces cannot cope.
Biden vows to maintain the fight against Isis. But it’s unclear if he is willing to look beyond Syria-Iraq and expand US involvement in the new Islamist killing grounds of the Sahel, west Africa and the Mozambique-Tanzania border.
As for Trump, he claimed credit last year for “defeating 100% of the Isis caliphate”. The fool thinks it’s all over. In any case, he has shown zero interest in what he calls “shithole” African countries.
Afghanistan is another conflict zone where the cost of US paralysis is counted in civilian lives. It’s a war Trump claims to be ending but which is currently escalating fast.
While all eyes were supposedly on Pennsylvania, Kabul university was devastated when gunmen stormed classrooms, killing 22 students. Another four people were killed last week by a suicide bomber in Kandahar.
Overall, violence has soared in recent months as the US and the Taliban (which denied responsibility for the Kabul atrocity) argue in Qatar. Trump plainly wants US troops out at any price. Biden is more circumspect about abandoning Afghanistan, but there’s little he can do right now .
The Biden-Trump stand-off encourages uncertainty and instability, inhibiting the progress of international cooperation on a multitude of issues such as the climate crisis and the global pandemic. It also facilitates regression by malign actors.
China’s opportunistic move to debilitate Hong Kong’s legislative assembly last week by expelling opposition politicians was a stark warning to Democrats and Republicans alike. Beijing just gave notice it will not tolerate democratic ideas, open societies and free speech, there or anywhere.
China’s leaders apparently calculated, correctly, that the US was so distracted by its presidential melodrama that it would be incapable of reacting in any meaningful way.
Taiwan’s people have cause to worry. The “renegade” island is next on Chinese president Xi Jinping’s reunification wish-list. Who would bet money on the US riding to Taipei’s rescue if Beijing takes aim?
Much has been said about the negative domestic ramifications of Trump’s spiteful disruption of the presidential transition – his lawsuits, his refusal to share daily intelligence briefings with Biden, and his appointment of loyalists to key Pentagon posts. He hopes to turn January’s two Senate election re-runs in Georgia into a referendum – on him.
But not enough attention is being paid to how this constitutional chaos affects America’s influence and leadership position in the world – or to the risk Trump might take last-minute, punitive unilateral action against, say, Iran or Venezuela. Like Xi, Vladimir Putin undoubtedly relishes US confusion. He may find ways to take advantage, as with last week’s Moscow-imposed Armenia-Azerbaijan “peace deal”. Authoritarian, ultra-nationalist and rightwing populist leaders everywhere take comfort from America’s perceived democratic nervous breakdown.
This is the worst of it. By casting doubt on the election’s legitimacy, Trump nurtures and instructs anti-democratic rogues the world over. The Belarus-style myth he peddles, and will perpetuate, of a strong “man of the people” resisting a conspiracy plotted by corrupt liberal elites, is the final, toxic element of his profoundly poisonous legacy.
Farmers in Palestine, fishermen in Mozambique, and students in Kabul all pay a heavy price for his unprincipled lies and puerile irresponsibility. So, too, does the cause of global democracy.