In the Afghan withdrawal, a Biden doctrine emerges

WASHINGTON – In the chaotic finale of the United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan, a Biden doctrine emerges: a foreign policy that avoids the aggressive tactics of eternal wars and nation-building, while uniting allies against the authoritarianism of the rising powers.

President Biden began defining this doctrine on Tuesday when he declared the end of “an era of major military operations to remake other countries”, offering what he said was a better way to protect interests Americans around the world through diplomacy, the military’s targeted counterterrorism. capacities and forceful action when necessary.

But the disorderly end of the war has exposed the tensions inherent in Biden’s foreign policy, which calls for a return to the protection of human rights and the promotion of democracy, but only when is compatible with American objectives. The president’s withdrawal from Afghanistan makes it clear that he considered risking more American lives there no longer in America’s national interest.

“At some level, he seems to enforce a standard that if I didn’t send my child to this war, then as president I shouldn’t ask anyone else to send their children,” Michele said. A. Flournoy, a former Under Secretary of Defense under the Obama administration. “Frankly, this is a standard that we should expect every president to uphold.”

But, she added, “it is important to distinguish between her appetite for nation building, which is essentially zero, and her appetite for the use of force if it is necessary to defend security. national level, which I think remains quite strong. “

The Biden Doctrine sees China as America’s existential competitor, Russia as a disruptor, Iran and North Korea as nuclear proliferators, cyber threats as ever-evolving, and terrorism as spreading far beyond. from Afghanistan.

During White House meetings on many of these issues, the president has indicated he is comfortable with supporting U.S. diplomacy with a tough military posture, administration officials said. He is eager to remind Iran of America’s strike capabilities, as he did last week when he said in a public address at a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that if diplomacy failed to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it was “ready to look to other options.”

But such threats only work if opponents believe he will follow.

Mr Biden ordered military strikes in Syria against Iranian-backed Shiite militias that launched rockets against US troops in Iraq and, more recently, in Afghanistan against Islamic State after the group took responsibility suicide bombing at Kabul airport. But these attacks were retaliation against non-state actors and were not intended to be followed by US troops on the ground.

After the president clearly demarcated his distaste for US military involvement abroad, “no one believes the Biden administration is going to attack Iran‘s nuclear program,” said Kori Schake, who heads foreign policy studies and military at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and served in the Pentagon under President George W. Bush. “It would have had lasting military ramifications. “

Mr. Biden’s aversion to protracted nation-building efforts is not new. As a senator, he voted in favor of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but quickly deteriorated on the efforts. As vice president of the Obama administration, he lobbied forcefully for the United States to withdraw its troops.

With the exception of the Pentagon, where officials have spoken out against Mr. Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the president has surrounded himself with long-standing national security aides who have helped shape his vision of how to advance American interests abroad. Antony J. Blinken, now Secretary of State, was part of his team when he was a senator as well as when he was vice-president. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, also advised Mr. Biden in the Obama administration. Even Colin H. Kahl, the Pentagon’s Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, is a Biden alumnus; he, too, was Mr. Biden’s national security adviser when he was vice president.

The result, critics say, is that Mr. Biden’s doctrine is formed by a group of like-minded officials, most of whom are largely on the same page as their boss. This unity means that it is more difficult for allies and adversaries to exploit differences in administration. But it also means the president may not be putting his doctrine to the test in internal White House meetings.

Nowhere will a stress test be necessary more than in China, which represents a military, economic and technological challenge. The administration seeks to counter the narrative of a growing power and a declining America by presenting an American economic recovery. For this to work, Mr Biden must curb the coronavirus pandemic, but without the authoritarian tools Beijing has at its disposal.

Last month, Mr. Blinken warned that China and Russia “were arguing in public and in private that the United States is in decline – so you better share your plight with their authoritarian worldviews than with our democratic view.”

A strong economic recovery in the United States can help, but the president is also seeking to repel Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, where Beijing has militarized a number of disputed islands.

And then there’s Taiwan, the question that administration officials and national security experts agree to tip the scales from the power struggle to the military one. At the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, officials are trying to determine whether the long-standing US policy of “strategic ambiguity” – providing political and military support to Taiwan, while not explicitly promising to do so. defend against a Chinese attack – to run its course. Pentagon officials say the affair could peak within six years.

On Russia, Mr. Biden will certainly be tougher than his predecessor, President Donald J. Trump, who has caved in to President Vladimir V. Putin on several fronts. In particular, Mr Biden insisted on the issue of Russian interference in the US elections and warned in a speech in July that cyber attacks emanating from Russia could lead to a “real gun war with great power. “.

He has also taken a tougher line than Mr. Trump in supporting his allies against Russia. But then again, Mr. Biden paved the way for diplomacy enhanced by a potential US force.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky finally got the Oval Office visit he wanted on Wednesday, after his efforts to secure such a meeting with Mr. Trump became entangled in an episode that led to Mr. Trump’s first impeachment trial .

Mr. Biden assured Mr. Zelensky that the United States remains opposed to Russian aggression in the region. The disorderly exit from Afghanistan, however, left Ukraine and other European allies concerned that their dependence on American power would be misplaced.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, called this departure “a catastrophe for the Afghan people, for Western values ​​and credibility and for the development of international relations”.

What is not lost on America’s allies is the fact that, despite all the criticism Mr. Biden has received for the Afghan withdrawal, the American public has always supported him.

“Whether it is a Republican or Democratic president, as we have seen with Trump, there is this exhaustion with large-scale missions that put a large number of troops on the ground and have the ambition to remake governments in countries, ”said Lisa Curtis, who oversaw policy. for Afghanistan and elsewhere in Central and South Asia to the National Security Council during the Trump administration.

She said Mr. Biden was “well aligned with the American public.”

One place Mr. Biden has indicated he will use the military forcefully and quickly is the fight against terrorism. “We will hunt you down and make you pay,” he promised last Thursday after a suicide bombing at Kabul airport killed more than 170 people, including 13 US soldiers.

Hours later, an American drone struck a vehicle in Nangarhar province, killing two ISIS operatives. Two days later, another US airstrike took a vehicle and its driver, which the Pentagon said intended to carry out another attack on Kabul airport. Up to 10 civilians could also have been killed in the strike, 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 detaining territory. But both groups have proven able to adapt, say terrorism experts, evolving into more diffuse organizations.

Mr. Biden’s doctrine calls for operations against groups at a distance, or “on the horizon.” That means fewer US servicemen killed in the process, the Pentagon hopes.

But it also means fewer Americans on the ground to gather intelligence and launch such strikes.

Vali R. Nasr, senior policy adviser to the State Department during the Obama administration, said there was no reason to believe the president would resist sending US troops into the conflict when warranted. .

“I don’t read this like Biden saying we’re never going to war at all,” he said.

Still, “I think for him the idea of ​​eternal war, of those wars in the Middle East where we basically go down a rabbit hole after the target without really hitting much, is going to lock us in and take away our ability to tackle other sets of problems, ”said Mr. Nasr.

But the first test of the Biden Doctrine could still be Afghanistan, as terrorists around the world are likely to feel safe and secure settling in a country “where their brothers in arms” are in command, Curtis said.

Mr. Biden “was very clear that he didn’t believe we needed boots on the ground to protect US counterterrorism interests,” she said. But, she added, “the war on terrorism is not over.”

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