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After a year of compromises, Biden may soon have to make hard choices about the US's role in the world

Andrew Doris, Defense Priorities   

After a year of compromises, Biden may soon have to make hard choices about the US's role in the world
  • President Joe Biden began his term with moves that bucked establishment thinking on US foreign policy.
  • But that promising trend stalled in the final months of the year, and while Biden still has time to right the ship, there are hard choices ahead.

2021 began with promise for those hoping to demilitarize US engagement abroad. President Joe Biden's inaugural address promised "now was a time for boldness," not "to meet yesterday's challenges, but today's and tomorrow's."

And early months did tease an exciting break from the stale beltway playbook. A February speech pledged to "course-correct our foreign policy" with a "global posture review," floating a fundamental rethink of where US forces were stationed and why.

In the same speech, Biden promised to end American support for the Saudi war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales. He also extended the New START nuclear disarmament treaty, another signal that refreshing change was in the air.

As late as this summer, Biden backed his rhetoric with action. The difficult decision to withdraw from Afghanistan bravely and rightly bucked relentless hawks who would have stayed another 20 years. To be sure, officials overestimated how long the Ghani government could stand alone, and failed to evacuate thousands of vulnerable Afghans, including some to whom we owe heavy debts.

A painless withdrawal may not have been possible — but a better withdrawal was, and the buck stops with Biden for not achieving it. Nevertheless, it beat the alternative of endless war, and left the United States better positioned to focus on core security interests.

Sadly, the ugly press of the Kabul fiasco also appears to have tempered Biden's bucking of the foreign policy establishment. The final third of the year saw the return of depressingly familiar trends, which only accelerated this holiday season.

First, the military responded to horrific ISIS attacks at Kabul airport with yet another ill-conceived drone strike. Per usual, it took a damning press investigation of the strike for the military to admit it had not killed enemies but instead a family of innocents.

The Pentagon's internal investigation waited until the story had left the news cycle and then quietly declared itself not guilty, announcing this December that no one would be held accountable.

US policy toward Afghanistan has been no less heartless since. The economic upheaval of Taliban takeover — combined with severe drought — has produced a famine that threatens to plunge half the country into extreme hunger.

After 20 years of bloody, fruitless meddling in Afghan affairs, the least we owe these people now is to not purposely intensify their suffering. Yet that is exactly what we've done by freezing Afghan foreign reserves and maintaining rigid sanctions on the de facto government. As a result, many more Afghans may die this winter than in 20 years of war combined.

This, too, clings to cruel and discredited mindsets of yesteryear. Reflexively sanctioning illiberal governments in naïve hope of regime change usually hurts the innocent instead.

Even if sanctions succeed in ousting the Taliban, it would only renew civil war between factions (including ISIS) no more progressive or humane. Until we get fully out of the way, all of this hardship will be partly our doing.

Autumn was almost as frustrating in the bigger picture. In November, the promised posture review was announced (though not published) with a whimper, prompting widespread criticism. It ultimately concluded that no major strategic changes are needed — which is alarming, given how catastrophic US overextension has been in recent decades.

Finally, instead of reining in Trump-era increases to defense spending, Biden requested that Congress give the Pentagon another raise — and then Congress gave it $24 billion more than he requested. The extra money will go in part to buy dozens more ships and planes than the military says it needs.

In the process, Congress also scrapped bipartisan plans to repeal the 2002 Iraq War AUMF. This would have been largely symbolic (the 2001 AUMF is much broader) but nonetheless an important first step to restraining executive war-making. Sadly, even this proved too much to ask.

It's bad enough to not demand accountability for 20 years of failure. It's bad enough to be so in-denial about these failures that we'd rather let millions starve than admit the Taliban now govern Afghanistan.

But to actually pat ourselves on the back, with a posture review suggesting all we need to do is stay the course? To throw even more money at the security iron triangle? To not withdraw from Syria or Iraq, nor dare question what's gained from whack-a-mole air wars in dozens of countries? Reporter Matthew Petti put it well: "the Biden administration is filled with people who can explain the severe dangers of the status quo perfectly but have no sense of urgency to fix it."

This status quo is nobody's vision for corrective US strategy. It is rather a political compromise in the tug of war between advocates of more, and advocates of less. Biden took laudable initial steps in the right direction but now appears to have gotten cold feet.

There's still time to right the ship — but with tensions rising over Ukraine, he may have to make a firm choice soon. The chance of war with Russia is higher entering 2022 than at any time in recent memory. If the president wants a foreign policy legacy that truly transforms, he should avoid it and trust his initial restraining instincts moving forward.

Andrew Doris is a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities and an master's student at Yale's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Before coming to Yale, he served four years as a US Army officer, including two in South Korea. His article "Afghanistan Was Not Korea: Withdrawal Critics Understate the Costs of War" was recently published by the Yale Journal of International Affairs. He holds a bachelor's in political science from Johns Hopkins University.


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