Less than a week before he leaves office, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has delivered a deluge of last-minute measures that will impede the incoming Biden administration’s room to move on foreign policy.
In the space of four days, the US designated Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, declared Iran-linked Yemeni Houthis a terrorist organisation, risked inflaming US-China relations by ending limits on US diplomatic contacts with Taiwan and claimed al-Qaeda had set up a “new home base” in Iran.
One administration official said the flurry of measures was an effort to “blow off steam” in the waning days of the Trump administration. But critics said the efforts will complicate President-elect Joe Biden’s efforts to deliver on his promise to restore “respected American leadership” in the world — even as he contends with domestic crises at home.
Biden advisers claim the incoming administration can undo much of Mr Pompeo’s measures. But they will face an uphill climb and several parts of the outgoing president’s legacy are likely to stand.
Adam Smith, a former senior adviser in the Treasury’s sanctions office under Barack Obama’s administration, said none of the moves were impossible to reverse from a legal perspective, because doing so relied on executive decisions the president could take rather than legal or statutory measures.
But Mr Smith, who was also director for multilateral affairs in the Obama National Security Council and is now a partner at Gibson Dunn law firm, added that it would take time to go through potentially lengthy review processes before any reversals.
The Biden team could also balk at the domestic political implications of reversing some of Mr Pompeo’s actions. The president-elect scored poorly among Cuban voters in Florida in November’s election. Analysts say he may think twice before reversing the sanctions designation.
Mr Biden could also face congressional backlash over reimposing constraints on contacts with Taiwanese officials given the bipartisan support in Washington for a tougher stance against China, which views Taiwan as part of its territory.
The president-elect is himself aligned with some parts of Mr Trump’s foreign policy, such as ending America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan, where Mr Trump has ordered troop drawdowns, if more abruptly and abrasively than Mr Biden would have.
Mr Biden has also welcomed the string of agreements brokered by Mr Trump for Arab countries to normalise ties with Israel. One such deal with Morocco turned on a quid pro quo under which the US recognised Rabat’s claim of sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, breaking international norms.
While Mr Biden could theoretically “unrecognise” those claims, he is thought to be unlikely to do so, in part because of widespread support for Morocco in Congress. He is also not expected to relocate the US embassy in Israel from Jerusalem, a pledge Mr Trump realised in 2018, even though Mr Biden would never have undertaken such a move himself.
One of the new administration’s priorities will be delivering on Mr Biden’s promise to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal if Tehran returns to compliance. In the past week, Mr Pompeo has not only accused Iran of harbouring al-Qaeda, but the US has imposed tough sanctions on senior leaders and organisations, including entities allegedly controlled by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
A Trump administration official said the aim was to “amass more bargaining chips” for the incoming administration as it seeks to open negotiations with Iran, but others said the real intention was to put any deal beyond reach.
Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert at the Atlantic Council, said that Mr Pompeo’s actions made it clear the accusations and sanctions were political and so would be “easier to undo”.
“Of course Biden can return to the JCPOA,” she said, referring to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “Iran would sell out al-Qaeda in a heartbeat for the proper incentives — and al-Qaeda knows that.”
Ms Slavin added that the first step would be to get Iran’s nuclear programme back within limits set by the nuclear pact, which Iran has violated since Mr Trump left the deal. Mr Biden needed to put a cap on uranium enrichment to avoid being dragged into another unnecessary crisis, she said.
Karim Sadjadpour, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has worked with several members of Mr Biden’s national security team, argued that Iran’s sanction-hit economy and pursuit of nuclear progress only raised, rather than lowered, both countries’ motivation “to return fully or at least partially to the deal”.
Ayatollah Khamenei — whose approval is imperative for the resumption of any talks with the US — showed the first green light last month, saying “we should not have any delays even for one hour” if Iranian authorities could take measures to undo American sanctions.
More broadly, however, Biden aides know that Iran and other countries will be less eager to make new deals with the US, after Mr Trump showed how easily Washington’s word can be broken.
Mr Trump’s assault on “the deep state” has furthermore affected morale among career foreign service officers. Mr Trump recently appointed several loyalists to critical positions in the US bureaucracy, drawing criticism that he was seeking to politicise the civil service on his way out.
“They’re in a kind of nihilist mode,” said Daniel Fried, a former US ambassador who said the state department had “taken a lot of body blows”.
“It’s rebuildable, but it takes a while.”
Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr
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