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With Afghan retreat, Biden bucks foreign policy elite

Obama famously once said he was not opposed to all wars, just “dumb wars"
Last Updated : 02 September 2021, 02:45 IST
Last Updated : 02 September 2021, 02:45 IST

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When President Joe Biden served as Barack Obama’s vice president, he was often a lonely dissenter in White House debates about military intervention, never more so than on Afghanistan, where he strongly opposed the Pentagon’s 2009 troop surge and was overruled by Obama and his generals.

Now, Biden is commander in chief, and in pressing to conclude the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, even at the price of a frantic, bloodstained evacuation, he has put himself at odds with much of the foreign policy establishment, on the right and left, in Washington and across Europe.

Critics have piled on Biden, not just for the messiness of the departure but also for his repudiation of the principles that drove the mission in Afghanistan. While the president sees the United States belatedly ending “an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” as he put it Tuesday in a defiant defense of his decision, critics see a dangerous US retrenchment that could leave the world in deeper disarray.

“This was a political decision, pure and simple,” said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Biden, he said, “ignored the advice of his own top generals and his own intelligence community.”

Even Biden’s fellow Democrats have delivered harsh assessments, whether about the failure to foresee the swift collapse of the Afghan Army — which led Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., to call for congressional hearings — or about the evacuation, which Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., called “a disaster of epic proportions,” leaving some Americans and Afghan allies behind.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote that Biden’s decision to withdraw was a cynical political calculation, driven by an “imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars,’ as if our engagement in 2021 was remotely comparable to our commitment 20 or even 10 years ago.”

But it is precisely the long-standing, deep-rooted nature of the beliefs that Biden is challenging, analysts said, that has made the backlash against him so ferocious.

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the doctrine of an aggressive, expeditionary foreign policy — in which all options, including military force, are invariably on the table — has become a bipartisan article of faith in Washington. The news media, which covered those wars, played a significant role in amplifying these ideas.

NATO allies, which fought alongside the United States in Afghanistan, went along, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Blair, a Labour Party leader, backed a Republican president, George W. Bush, in invading Iraq.

Obama, who famously once said he was not opposed to all wars, just “dumb wars,” stopped short of pulling troops out of Afghanistan long after he concluded that the mission — to transform the country into a stable democracy — was a futile effort. Even President Donald Trump, who made a career of thumbing his nose at the foreign policy establishment, deferred to his generals when they warned him not to withdraw all US forces.

“You have a president who is willing to stand up to the Washington foreign policy establishment in a way that Trump or Obama or George W. Bush were not,” said Vali R. Nasr, a former Obama administration official who teaches at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “To me, that does require introspection on the part of the foreign policy establishment.”

While Biden may have antagonised foreign policy elites, his determination to extricate the United States from costly entanglements overseas plays better with average Americans. The harrowing images of the evacuation have damaged his approval ratings, but polls suggest that many, if not most, share his conviction that the country does not have a compelling reason to stay in Afghanistan.

Biden is an unlikely insurgent. A longtime senator who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee, he embraced the post-World War II vision of a globally active United States. He prized his Rolodex of world leaders and relishes mingling at elite gatherings, like the Munich Security Conference. He also voted for the Iraq War.

Yet in his years as vice president, Biden’s disenchantment with military adventures emerged as one of his core beliefs. In addition to opposing the Afghanistan surge, he resisted the NATO intervention in Libya and advised Obama to hold off on the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden. (He later changed his story to suggest he was privately supportive.)

“Biden was really the lone dissenting voice on Afghanistan, not just at the table but in the foreign-policy establishment, of which he was clearly a member,” said Ben Rhodes, who served as a deputy national security adviser to Obama. “He wasn’t just some knee-jerk progressive.”

For all their differences, Nasr said there was a thread of skepticism about military intervention that connected Obama’s reluctance to deploy troops, Trump’s isolationist slogan, “America First,” and Biden’s blunt declaration that helping the Afghan people was not a vital national security interest of the United States.

The president, Nasr said, has also shown a willingness to disregard the views of European allies, a factor that helps account for the frustration in London, Berlin and other capitals, where Biden’s election had been celebrated after Trump’s browbeating. The NATO campaign in Afghanistan was a credit to the solidarity of the alliance, which made Biden’s lack of consultation all the more stinging.

“There is serious loss of trust, and that will require a significant reassurance effort by Washington,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States who chairs the Munich Security Conference.

He likened the messy evacuation from Kabul to Obama’s drawing of a “red line” in Syria if President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons — a threat that Obama failed to carry out. It does not pose an existential threat to the alliance, Ischinger said, but it raises doubts about America’s credibility.

Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative lawmaker in Britain who has been sharply critical of Biden, said the US retreat from Afghanistan was a propaganda victory for the Chinese, who brandished it against an insecure Taiwan, suggesting the United States could not be trusted to uphold its security commitments. It could also embolden extremist forces in Africa and other “contested spaces,” he said.

“If we don’t make clear we have the strategic patience to endure,” Tugendhat said, “we could see others fail.”

At home, foreign policy experts criticised Biden for presenting a false choice when he said the United States could redirect the resources spent in Afghanistan to the geopolitical competition with China and Russia. The challenge posed by those rivals, they said, is not going to be overcome by pulling 2,500 troops out of Kabul.

While America’s serial failures in Iraq and Afghanistan raise legitimate questions about the foreign policy establishment — some have taken to calling this loose confederation of think tank experts, former officials and commentators “the Blob” — experts warned there was a danger of overcorrecting.

“The foreign policy establishment did get it wrong in Iraq, where the US overreached,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “We got it wrong in Libya, we got it wrong in Vietnam. But over the last 75 years, the foreign policy establishment has gotten most things right.”

“My biggest concern is that the United States may now be entering an era of underreach,” said Haass, who served in the George W. Bush administration. “History suggests there’s just as much risk in underreaching as overreaching.”

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Published 02 September 2021, 02:45 IST

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