Terry H. Schwadron
April 15, 2021
Normally, you wouldn’t put Joe Biden and Donald Trump on the same side of most issues — including foreign policy.
But while there are significant difference, Biden and Trump agree that we should wash our hands of involvement in Afghanistan and Syria, while continuing to push however differently against Iran’s nuclear plans, mostly just watch North Korea, and return the United States to a leadership role in the world.
Trump called his approach America First, pursued policies of isolationism and denied U.S. overseas responsibilities; Biden calls it working with allies and setting a more humanitarian example, and seems to be moving out the smaller conflicts for bigger showdowns with China and Russia. You could argue endlessly about whether the rhetoric matches the effect.
Trump wanted to achieve his ends by might and an overhyped view of his own often bullying personality, while Biden seems to want more cool, professional diplomacy, but on Afghanistan — and by extension other lasting conflicts — they are ending up supporting the same actions — with differing explanations. Trump courted Russia, and for a while China, while Biden is putting up harsher words — though actions are still all about economic sanctions, not bullets.
So far, it’s not clear that the immediate future feels a lot safer from conflicts under either version, and it leaves us in search of a Biden Doctrine.
As The Washington Post notes, in announcing that the United States will leave Afghanistan by the Sept. 11 (rather than Trump’s previously announced May 1), “Biden sees the war against the Taliban as a drag on the need to deal with bigger threats like China, climate change, the coronavirus pandemic — and even a terrorism menace that has mutated significantly in the two decades since the attacks that launched the Afghan war to begin with. He is also focused on threats from Russia and the decline of U.S. influence abroad.”
Danger signs abound: U.S. officials seem to be tightening a fist as Russia scrambles its military forces on the edges of Ukraine and challenges with violations of missile treaties, and have reacted to the increasing number of Chinese aggressive acts in the South China Sea. The United States either did not know or distanced themselves from Israeli acts to upset Iranian nuclear development with a bomb that sapped the main fuel processing plant of power, even while opening estranged diplomacy with Iran. The North Koreans are being openly taunting about launching more missiles, and there are skirmishes with U.S. interests in plenty of other places.
Even the withdrawals in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq all put at risk the degree to which abandoned campaigns will renew efforts to shield the next group of global terrorists from forming — as happened in withdrawing most troops from Iraq, though The New York Times quotes security experts as arguing we are better prepared to collect security information now than ever.
Talk aside, we’re facing more dangers of war and cyberconflict while announcing plans to do the opposite.
The Longest War
The Afghan has persisted through three presidencies, with military advisers insisting throughout that it would be more dangerous to leave than to stay. On Wednesday, Biden basically owned up to the fact that there is no military victory possible and that eventually presidents need to tell generals to stop. Biden had opposed advise from the military to surge troops in the beginning of the Obama years as one last shot to make things work there.
Instead, Biden wants important shifts in foreign policy to arenas like climate and economic security.
“The president deeply believes that in contending with the threats and challenges of 2021 — as opposed to those of 2001 — we need to be focusing our energy, our resources, our personnel, the time of our foreign policy and national security leadership on those threats and challenges that are most acute for the United States,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters.
That’s more than a hint about direction.
It means downgrading the ever-present concerns about the Middle East as a powder keg, for example, and turning more attention to Asia, hosting Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga this week and having invited Chinese leadership to Alaska for what turned into a bit of a verbal donnybrook meeting between diplomats over human rights. Now he is dispatching John F. Kerry as the first administration official to China, to talk climate rather than military aggressiveness, and has invited the Chinese and Russian leaders to a climate summit.
Still, we’re sort of guessing about what exactly a Biden world view is –other than the obvious breaks with Trump isolation. Despite decades of Biden chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and being vice president, we know little more than a foreign policy built around engagement with allies. He wants to define the issues for the world more around common concerns like climate, space, environment and the pandemic to protection and expansion of American security and economic issues than around conflict. American leadership in the Biden years has a lot to do with restoring faith in American democracy and inclusion, a focus that necessarily thrusts immigration, race and income inequities in the United States onto promote onto a world stage.
Biden v. Trump
We know Biden thinks Trump was wrong to seek embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin, to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and to play at diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, but in the case of Afghanistan, Biden shares the same goal of ending U.S. presence or finishing up what Trump had started to do.
Trump did the same with gut-inspired troop withdrawals in Syria, to the dismay of ally Kurds left to fend for themselves among Syrian, Turkish, Russian and remaining ISIS fighters.
The issues in Afghanistan have become muddled. We’re fighting the Taliban, a radical Muslim group that allowed foreign-born terrorists to train there rather than any longer fighting the terrorists themselves. We’ve tried supporting a succession of weak Afghan governments that cannot reach agreement with the Taliban. As advisers, U.S. troops have seemed more targets than an independent and effective fighting force.
As outlined, the drawdown of remaining troops will continue through the summer with the main difference being coordination with U.S. allies who also have troops in the region. This announced withdrawal eliminates the idea of reconsideration based on conditions on the ground, because, the White House explained, those conditions always support keeping U.S. troops there.
Of course, the loudest Senate Republican voices are criticizing Biden while they remained relatively quiet about Trump doing the same thing. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-SC, for example, said “A full withdrawal from Afghanistan is dumber than dirt and devilishly dangerous. President Biden will have, in essence, canceled an insurance policy against another 9/11.”
It’s a weird way to mark 20 years since Sept. 11. It is hard to quantify what has been gained, and easy to note that 2,300 U.S. troops died and 20,000 were wounded towards a circular end to this conflict. Weirder yet, we have agreement between sworn political opposites on this single goal of simply leaving.