WASHINGTON — In the chaotic finale of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, a Biden doctrine emerges: a foreign policy that avoids the aggressive tactics of perpetual wars and nation-building, while uniting allies against the authoritarianism of emerging powers.
President Biden began defining this doctrine Tuesday when he announced the end of “an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” offering what he said was a better way to protect American interests around the world through diplomacy, the targeted counter-terrorism of the army. skills and strong action when needed.
But the war’s disorderly end has exposed the tensions inherent in Mr Biden’s foreign policy, which calls for a return to protecting human rights and promoting democracy, but only if consistent with US policy. goals. The president’s withdrawal from Afghanistan makes it clear that he no longer saw risking more American lives there in America’s national interest.
“On some level, he seems to be applying a standard of if I didn’t send my child to this war, then as president I shouldn’t ask anyone else to send their children,” said Michèle A. Flournoy, a former deputy secretary of state. Defense during the Obama administration. “Honestly, that’s a standard we should expect from any president.”
But, she added, “It is important to distinguish between his appetite for nation-building, which is essentially nil, and his appetite for the use of force when it is necessary to defend American national security. which I think remains quite strong.”
The Biden Doctrine views China as America’s existential competitor, Russia as a disrupter, Iran and North Korea as nuclear proliferators, cyber threats as constantly evolving, and terrorism as spreading far beyond Afghanistan.
At White House meetings on many of those issues, the president has indicated that he is comfortable with the idea of backing US diplomacy with a brawny military stance, administration officials said. He would like to remind Iran of America’s offensive capabilities, as he did last week when he said in public remarks during a meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of Israel that if diplomacy could not curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he was “ready to other options.”
But such threats only work if opponents believe he will continue.
Biden has ordered military strikes in Syria against Iran-backed Shia militias that shot down US troops in Iraq and, more recently, in Afghanistan against Islamic State after the group took responsibility for a suicide bombing at the airport from Kabul. But those attacks were retaliation against non-state actors and were not intended to be tracked by US troops on the ground.
After clearly delineating his aversion to US military involvement abroad, “no one believes the Biden administration is going to attack Iran’s nuclear program,” said Kori Schake, who leads foreign and military policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and filed the Pentagon under President George W. Bush. “That would have had military ramifications.”
Mr Biden’s aversion to long-term nation-building efforts is not new. As a senator, he voted for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but soon soured from the efforts. As vice president in the Obama administration, he strongly urged the United States to withdraw troops.
With the exception of the Pentagon, where officials argued against Mr. Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the president has surrounded himself with longtime national security officials who have helped shape his vision of advancing American interests abroad. Antony J. Blinken, now Secretary of State, was on his staff when he was both a senator and vice president. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, also counseled Mr. Biden in the Obama administration. Even Colin H. Kahl, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for policy, is a former hand of Biden; he too had a stint as national security adviser to Mr Biden when he was vice president.
The result, critics say, is that Mr. Biden’s doctrine is shaped by a group of like-minded officials, most of whom are largely on the same page as their bosses. That unity means that it is more difficult for allies and adversaries to exploit differences in governance. But it also means the president may not be testing his doctrine during internal White House meetings.
Nowhere will a stress test be more necessary than on China, which poses a military, economic and technological challenge. The government is trying to counter the story of a growing power and a declining America by demonstrating an American economic recovery. For that to work, Mr. Biden must contain the coronavirus pandemic, but without the authoritarian tools at Beijing’s disposal.
Last month, Mr Blinken warned that China and Russia “are arguing publicly and privately that the United States is in decline – so it is better to cast your fate with their authoritarian visions for the world than with our democratic ”.
A strong economic recovery in the United States could help, but the president is also trying to stave off Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, where Beijing has militarized a number of disputed islands.
And then there’s Taiwan, the issue on which government officials and national security experts agree is most likely to tip the scales from power struggle to military conflict. At the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, officials are trying to figure out whether the old US policy of “strategic ambiguity” – providing political and military support to Taiwan, without explicitly promising to defend it against a Chinese attack – has go ahead. Pentagon officials say the case could come to a head in six years.
On Russia, Mr. Biden will certainly be tougher than his predecessor, President Donald J. Trump, who renounced President Vladimir V. Putin on several fronts. In particular, Mr Biden raised the issue of Russia’s meddling in the US election, warning in a July speech that cyberattacks from Russia could lead to a “real gun war with a great power”.
He has also taken a harder line than Mr Trump in backing allies against Russia. But again, Mr. Biden has set a stage for diplomacy, backed by potential US power.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky finally got the Oval Office visit he’d wanted so badly on Wednesday after his efforts to secure such a meeting with Mr. Trump became entangled in an episode that led to the first impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump.
Mr. Biden assured Mr. Zelensky that the United States remains opposed to Russian aggression in the region. However, the messy exit from Afghanistan has scared Ukraine and other European allies that their reliance on US power is misplaced.
Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s head of foreign policy, described the departure as “a catastrophe for the Afghan people, for Western values and credibility and for the development of international relations”.
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What is not lost on America’s allies is the fact that, despite all the criticism Biden has received over the Afghan withdrawal, the American public still supported it.
“Whether it’s a Republican or Democratic president, as we saw with Trump, there’s this exhaustion with big missions that put large numbers of troops on the ground and have ambitions to remake the governments in countries,” said Lisa Curtis, who oversaw policy for Afghanistan and elsewhere in Central and South Asia on the National Security Council during the Trump administration.
She said Mr Biden was “well in line with the American public.”
One place Mr. Biden has indicated that he will use the military vigorously and quickly is in the counter-terrorism area. “We will track you down and make you pay,” he vowed last Thursday after a suicide bombing at Kabul airport that killed more than 170 people, including 13 US servicemen.
Hours later, a US drone hit a vehicle in Nangarhar province, killing two Islamic State agents. Two days later, another US airstrike knocked out a vehicle and its driver, who the Pentagon said was planning another attack on Kabul airport. As many as 10 civilians may also have been killed in that attack, an Afghan family said.
Twenty years of military action by the United States and its international partners have taken a heavy toll on Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, killing many of their fighters and leaders and largely preventing them from conquering territory. But both groups have proven adaptable, terrorism experts say, and have evolved into more diffuse organizations.
Mr. Biden’s doctrine calls for operations against the groups from afar, or “over the horizon.” That means fewer American servicemen will die in the process, the Pentagon hopes.
But that also means there are fewer Americans on the ground to gather intelligence and call in such strikes.
Vali R. Nasr, a senior State Department policy adviser during the Obama administration, said there was no reason to believe the president would oppose sending US troops into conflict when warranted.
“I don’t read this as Biden saying we will never go to war,” he said.
Still: “I think to him that the idea of the eternal war, of these wars in the Middle East, where we basically go down a rabbit hole behind the target without really accomplishing much, will lock us up and deprive us of the opportunity to address other sets of problems,” said Mr Nasr.
But the first test of the Biden doctrine may yet be Afghanistan, as terrorists from around the world are likely to feel safe moving to a country “where their brothers in arms” are in charge, Ms Curtis said.
Mr Biden “was very clear that he did not believe that we needed a foothold to protect US counter-terrorism interests,” she said. But, she added, “the war on terror has not ended.”