I criticize Joe Biden’s foreign policy a lot. But give the guy credit: His decision to pull out all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11 is far-sighted, bold and risky. It’s risky because it means Americans may associate Biden with losing a war. Politically, it might have been safer for him to keep enough US troops in place to prop up the Afghan government for a few more years, thus deferring the moment of reckoning for his successors. Sure, lefties would have howled, and the Taliban might have resumed attacks. But that might have been less politically dangerous than presiding over a potential Taliban takeover of Kabul, let alone terrorist attacks from Afghan soil. It was once an axiom of American politics that Democratic presidents could not afford to “lose” countries. Lyndon Johnson believed that Harry Truman never recovered from allowing China to go communist, which was one reason LBJ was so determined to prop up South Vietnam. Joe Biden has now put that axiom to the test.
Why did he do it? One reason is Donald Trump. It wasn’t just that Trump had already promised to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. Trump also showed that conservative voters care far less about what happens in places like Afghanistan than do conservative foreign policy elites. Most conservative foreign policy elites are, to use an impolite word, imperialists. They believe that America should be globally dominant, should be able to freely violate the sovereignty of other nations, and should remain unbound by international law. Even when the US is not menaced by imminent threats, they want the US to patrol the world so that none arise. And they don’t worry much about the costs.
Most conservative voters, by contrast, are what Walter Russell Mead famously called “Jacksonian,” after President Andrew Jackson. They are militaristic isolationists. When convinced that American safety or honor are threatened, they demand ferocious responses. But when those threats recede, they quickly tire of the US spending its money in, and deploying its troops to, far-flung places.
In 2016, Trump recognized that the Jacksonians’ post-9/11 fervor had receded and they wanted US troops to come home. He made that impulse a theme of his rebellion against the GOP foreign policy establishment, and revealed how disconnected it was from its party base. In so doing, he showed Democrats like Biden that the old conventional wisdom about “losing” wars may no longer hold. Unless Afghanistan incubates another major attack on the US, most ordinary Republicans—as well as most Democrats—won’t blame Biden for leaving it to its fate.
But there’s another factor that helps explain Biden’s decision: China. One big difference between now and 2009, when Obama considered pulling out of Afghanistan but instead sent more troops, is that Democratic foreign policy types are now more determined to clear the deck so they can focus on Beijing. Where did Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin go on their first foreign trip? Asia. Who was the first foreign leader Biden entertained at the White House? The prime minister of Japan. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has reorganized the National Security Council so that more of its staffers are focused on Asia.
For the American military-industrial complex, Afghanistan was like a marriage gone bad. But military-industrial complexes, like individuals, often find it hard to move on until there’s a more attractive alternative. Great power competition with China is that alternative. It means that leaving Afghanistan won’t bring a decline in defense budgets. In China, the Pentagon has an even better rationale for keeping military spending high.
So focused are foreign policy elites on China that, in the years to come, I suspect many will frame the entire “war on terror” as a parenthesis between eras of great power competition, something for the US to do while waiting for the next cold war to come along. Of course, that wasn’t the way most foreign policy commentators (myself very much included, regrettably) talked while the “war on terror” was in full-swing. To the contrary, they (we) often described it as a world-historical struggle, World War III (or World War IV, depending on how you counted).
I worry that in describing the “war on terror” as a mere interregnum, today’s hawks are making the same mistake again. In denigrating the last big threat, they’re hyping the new one. Yes, Al Qaeda—let alone the Taliban or Saddam Hussein—was nowhere near as dangerous to the US as many argued in the George W. Bush years. But, militarily, China is nowhere near as dangerous as many argue now. (Fareed Zakaria has argued this case well). Moreover, the Soviet Union was nowhere near as dangerous as hawks claimed in the 1970s and 1980s.
So if the “war on terror” looks, in retrospect, like a parenthesis—an era in which the US faced no grave security threat from foreign powers—so was the era that preceded it. And so is the era we’re in now. We’ve been living in a parenthesis since 1945. For 75 years, the US has been a powerful country, safeguarded by nuclear weapons, blessed with weak and docile neighbors, and separated from its chief adversaries by vast oceans. That remained true when the cold war began in 1947; it remained true when the “war on terror” began in 2001, and it remains true today. Yes, China threatens America’s economic and technological dominance. It can challenge America’s dominance in East Asia. But it doesn’t threaten the lives of ordinary Americans—except to the degree that it disseminates viruses and greenhouse gasses.
So give Joe Biden credit for realizing that the US should worry less about terrorism, the threat that once terrified Washington. I just wish he’d realize that the US should also worry less about the threat that terrifies Washington now.
Last week I interviewed Suleiman Khatib and Penina Eilberg-Schwartz for the Foundation for Middle East Peace’s podcast about their new book, In This Place Together.
Jewish Currents investigated turmoil at the camp, Seeds of Peace. (Subscribe!)
I just finished Daniel Immerwahr’s book, How to Hide an Empire, which explains, among other things, why America’s first overseas conquests were motivated by the pursuit of bird poop. It’s not only the most revelatory book of American history I’ve read in ages. It’s also the most fun. I’m going to try to have him on a Friday Zoom call soon.
Speaking of which, become a paid subscriber and join us this coming Friday at Noon ET on Zoom. You’ll also get a video of last Friday’s terrific conversation about anti-Semitism with Kenneth Stern, Susan Neiman and Saree Makdisi.
Hope to see you on Friday,
I agree that pulling out of Afghanistan is ultimately the right call, but I wonder if you have any thoughts about the moral aspect of the decision? It seems that, as in many of our Middle East conflicts, Cold War era policies are directly responsible for the state the country is in now. If we created this mess, don't we have a responsibility to help the Afghan citizens, or at least acknowledge our mistake?
I would agree with this if I felt 3,500 troops was a massive drag on our resources and severely hampered our ability to focus on China. The United States has thousands of troops deployed throughout Europe, and many more elsewhere in Asia (and the Middle East).