Jun 27, 2024

What Biden and Trump have in common might surprise you

Opinion by Peter Bergen, CNN 11 minute read Updated 8:53 AM EDT, Wed June 26, 2024 Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room,” also on Apple and Spotify. He is the author of “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN. CNN — You might think President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are worlds apart on most international issues. But look a little closer, and you will see that the two candidates actually share some surprising commonalities on foreign policy, trade and even immigration. While you are unlikely to hear much about those commonalities during Thursday’s presidential debate on CNN — it is, after all, a debate — it’s worth bearing these in mind when Biden and Trump take the stage for what could be one of the most consequential debates of any presidential campaign in recent memory. Voters should also consider issues like temperament, consistency and predictability when comparing the two candidates as the future commander in chief. After all, both American allies and rivals want a certain amount of predictability when dealing with the world’s leading superpower. American allies want and deserve to be treated with respect, not contempt. An excellent example of this is the effort to get all the members of NATO to spend 2% of their GDP on their own defense by the end of this year. This was a policy goal agreed to during the Obama administration when Biden was vice president, but you wouldn’t know that from how, when he was in office, President Trump constantly publicly berated NATO members to spend more on their defense and claimed falsely, the US was “owed” many billions of dollars by NATO allies who weren’t meeting the 2% target. Trump’s inaccurate berating didn’t do much of anything to move the needle on defense spending among key American allies like Germany, but it certainly engendered resentment amongst Germans against Trump. In 2018, only 11% of Germans had a favorable view of Trump, and favorable views of the US in general also dropped by 20% during his administration, according to a Pew/Körber Foundation poll. Also, rapid changes in American policy, such as Trump publicly proclaiming his “love” for the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un — whose rogue nuclear-armed regime has been a headache for American presidents going back decades — are unsettling to US allies and even rivals like China. China may be a nominal ally of the North Korean dictator, but Kim’s expanding nuclear and ballistic missile programs combined with his mercurial temperament are unnerving to the Chinese, who prize stability in East Asia. China On what is arguably the key foreign policy issue of the 21st century — US relations with China — there is little daylight between Biden and Trump. Trump inaugurated a far more combative approach to China than his presidential predecessors. The longtime belief that China would liberalize politically as it grew economically was officially abandoned in Trump’s 2017 national security strategy. Instead, the Trump administration started treating China as a peer competitor that had to be reckoned with and started shoring up its Indo-Pacific partnerships like “The Quad” made up of Australia, India, Japan and the US. Trump also slapped a wide range of tariffs on Chinese goods, long anathema for free marketers in both parties. Then, guess what? When Biden got to the White House, he doubled down, keeping those tariffs in place and even slapping a 100% tax on Chinese electric vehicles. Biden also banned investments in China by US companies that might benefit the Chinese military in areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and advanced computer chips. And Biden, on 60 Minutes in 2022, said that the US would defend Taiwan if China invaded, appearing to abandon the longstanding US policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan, which is supposed to keep the Chinese guessing about what an American response would be if they were to attack the island. Our contributors rewatched the 2020 Biden-Trump debates for clues. Here’s what they predict will happen Thursday What I will be looking for in Thursday’s debate would be how the candidates see US military commitments to Taiwan, given that US intelligence has assessed that China’s President Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao, has told his military to be ready to invade the island by 2027, a year that would fall inside the next presidential term. I’ll also be looking for — given that inflation continues to be a persistent worry for many Americans — how the candidates might address the continued imposition of US tariffs on everyday goods that are made in China, like shoes and luggage, which function as an additional tax on ordinary Americans, The Gaza War Then, go to the Middle East, where the war in Gaza rages on. Previously, the Trump administration failed to seriously address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and arguably inflamed the issue with actions such as moving the US embassy from its longtime location in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That provoked protests in which dozens of Palestinians were killed. Like Israelis, Palestinians believe that Jerusalem is their rightful capital. When he was in office, Trump not only turned a blind eye to Israel’s much-expanded settlement building in the West Bank, but he also appointed as US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who said publicly, contrary to longstanding US policy, that he did not believe that Israeli settlement activity was illegal, and the Trump administration could support Israel if it annexed parts of the West Bank. Meanwhile, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner — a family friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — negotiated the Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and some Arab states but gave nothing to the Palestinians. It was the seemingly impending extension of the Abraham Accords to include the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel — a deal encouraged by the Biden administration — that seems to have, in part, precipitated Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7th. In a rare interview two weeks before the Hamas attack, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince bin Salman, told Fox News, “Every day we get closer” to normalizing ties with Israel. Hamas wanted to disrupt this Israel-Saudi normalization, according to President Biden, speaking at a campaign event in October. The Biden administration has largely continued the Trump administration’s uncritical embrace of the Netanyahu government despite mounting frustration with Israel’s leader. Biden’s support of Netanyahu even has its own name — “the bear hug”— and while Biden and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken have occasionally protested publicly about the level of casualties in Gaza and, of late, they haven’t been doing too many bear hugs with Netanyahu, their de facto policy remains strong support for Israel. To underline this point, the Biden administration is going forward with the sale of $18 billion of F-15 fighter jets to Israel. The US government has provided many of the bombs Israel has used in its all-out war on Hamas, while the much-ballyhooed American-built pier in the Mediterranean to help get aid to starving Gazans has been a fiasco. It’s hard to recall a war in which the US supplies one of the belligerents with many of its weapons and the other side with aid supplies. What I will be looking for during the debate is how the candidates will address how best to end the war in Gaza given the stalling of the peace plan that Biden laid out publicly at the end of May that would start with a six-week ceasefire and the release of some of the hostages held by Hamas. Iran and Saudi Arabia Trump’s first overseas trip as president was to Saudi Arabia, where he was given a princely welcome since his anti-Iran stance closely aligned with Saudi interests. Trump pulled out of the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran in 2018 and, two years later, authorized the killing of a key Iranian military leader, Major General Qasem Soleimani, in a drone strike in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, because, according to Trump, he had “targeted, injured, and murdered hundreds of American civilians and servicemen.” When he was campaigning to be president, Biden vowed to reevaluate America’s long alliance with the Saudis following the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by officials working for the de facto ruler of the kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. But Biden officials are now all in on MBS because they believe the road to long-term peace between Israel and the Palestinians lies through Riyadh if the Israelis and the Saudis can agree to normalization of relations tied to some two-state solution. Despite some early efforts to resuscitate the Iran nuclear deal, the Biden administration has not renewed the agreement. Early this year, Biden also authorized a drone strike that killed the leader of an Iranian-backed militia in Baghdad, in response to the killing of three American soldiers in Jordan. After the Israelis killed a top Iranian general in Syria, the Biden administration led an international coalition to protect Israel when Iran, in retaliation, fired hundreds of drones and missiles against Israel in mid-April. None of the strikes ended up causing significant damage in Israel. Following the nuclear agreement with the Obama administration, the Iranians kept their enrichment of uranium far below the threshold needed for nuclear weapons. In the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from that agreement, the Iranians now have enough fissile material for several nuclear weapons, according to a report by the US Congressional Research Service earlier this year. The Biden administration is currently negotiating a defense pact with the Saudis, which is clearly intended to assuage their concerns about the Iranians and their nuclear capabilities. This would be similar to US agreements to defend allies like Japan or South Korea During the debate, I’ll be listening for how the candidates will deal with the theocratic regime in Iran now that it is close to being armed with nuclear weapons. Abandoning an American ally Trump and Biden jointly engineered what is perhaps the most embarrassing and cynical abandonment of an American ally in history when Trump signed a withdrawal deal from Afghanistan with the Taliban in 2019, and Biden went through with that deal two years later. The panicky, deadly US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 made the hasty American retreat from Saigon in 1975 look like the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Opinion: I was Bill Clinton’s press secretary. Here’s what Democrats need to say to defeat Trump The Americans left tens of thousands of Afghans who had worked with them behind and allowed the Taliban to re-establish their misogynist theocratic rule, while the country is now home to some twenty terrorist groups, according to the United Nations. Biden’s repeated invocations of his love for democracy didn’t play well during this episode. The Association of Wartime Allies, an advocacy group for Afghans who had worked for the US, estimated that only about 3% who had worked for the US government and had applied for special visas were evacuated out of Afghanistan, leaving 78,000 behind. Given that each candidate bears some responsibility for this mess, I’m hoping that the candidates might address how best to bring those American allies out of Afghanistan, since the US doesn’t recognize the Taliban regime or have an embassy in the country. The border And even on an issue as fraught as the southern border — something that we will surely be hearing a lot about from Trump during Thursday’s debate — for two years, Biden kept in place a Trump-era COVID health code known as Title 42, that kept most migrants to the US from being able to claim asylum. Title 42 resulted in 2.8 million immigrant expulsions from the US, many of them during Biden’s term in office. The Biden administration did try to lift Title 42 in 2022 but was challenged in the courts, so the measure remained in place until May 2023. After Title 42 expired, the largest wave of migrants in US history, many of them claiming asylum, surged across the southern border. In response this month, Biden ordered that migrants who cross the border illegally cannot claim asylum if migrant arrests at the border surpass an average of more than 2,500 a day, which has been the average since he came into office. In plain English, the Biden administration has effectively closed the southern border to asylum seekers. Biden also even allowed portions of Trump’s southern border wall to continue to be built, saying the money for the wall had already been appropriated. To be sure, there are real differences between Trump and Biden on immigration; this month, Biden said that hundreds of thousands of spouses of American citizens who are in the US illegally could get a path to citizenship, while Trump has promised if he were reelected that there would be mass deportations of illegal immigrants. When Trump was in office, his administration also presided over the cruel practice of separating more than 3,000 migrant children from their families. But the fact remains that when you look at the larger picture, Trump and Biden’s policies on the southern border now more resemble each other than not. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated this year that immigrant workers will add $7 trillion to the US economy over the next decade. Given the significance of immigrants to the American economy, I’m hoping to hear both candidates’ plans for how best to encourage legal immigration that go beyond bumper-sticker slogans like “Build the wall.” Ukraine and NATO \ Then there is the rather large elephant in the room, which is Trump’s bizarre bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Were Trump to be reelected, might he end all US support for the war in Ukraine? That is a real possibility, especially since Trump has said he could end the war within 24 hours. (Since the Ukrainians and the Russians have been fighting for a decade since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, this claim seems improbable at best.) Also, Trump’s former national security advisor, John Bolton, told me for the podcast In the Room that he believes if Trump were reelected, he would carry through on threats he made privately while in office to pull out of NATO. But consider that this spring, Trump didn’t get in the way of a massive $61 billion US aid package for Ukraine. Given Trump’s iron grip on his party, he could have opposed this package, and it then would have surely failed to pass in the US House; instead, Trump kept silent, which last month gave more than 100 Republican House members permission to vote for the desperately needed aid to Ukraine. So what I will be listening for during the debate is some explanation of what the Trump plan is for the Ukraine war and more broadly for NATO in general, which his own former defense secretary, Jim Mattis, publicly described as the “most successful and powerful military alliance in modern history.” To be sure, Biden and Trump have striking differences in style and temperament. But it’s also helpful to recognize that beyond their shared, advanced ages, on some key policy issues, Biden and Trump also share some of the same positions — even if it’s politically inconvenient for them or their supporters to admit it.