President Biden has declared that his dishonorable surrender to the Taliban is an “extraordinary success” and, falling prey to the fallacy of the excluded middle (a use of false dichotomous logic that historian David Hackett Fischer singled out for “special condemnation” years ago), has suggested the only alternative to his shambolic and disorganized withdrawal was a massive escalation. This is the same false logic that he and President Barack Obama used during their administration to argue on behalf of the nuclear deal with Iran. The only alternative, they averred, was war with Iran—something that the Trump administration (for all its failings, including in Afghanistan) conclusively proved was false.
The Biden team’s shocking failure to consider even the direct consequences of its humiliating Afghanistan withdrawal—not to mention the second- and third-order effects—suggests that an urgent course correction is required to protect the nation’s ongoing national security interests. The national security team, largely recruited on the basis of its members’ closeness to the president, has turned out to be one of the most insular and cloistered teams in recent memory. It is not surprising that Biden’s advisers would so easily succumb to the kind of groupthink that seems to have marked their deliberations on Afghanistan. Since they face perhaps the most daunting set of foreign policy and security challenges in recent memory, it is worth outlining some of the snares and traps they might want to avoid and provide some suggestions they might want to consider as they move forward.
Iran: Just as the president said he would leave no one behind in Afghanistan, he has said that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon on his watch. But this commitment on Iran could well prove as empty as his commitment to those stranded Americans and Afghans who are now facing an uncertain future at the sufferance of the Taliban and al-Qaeda (as well as the murderous efforts of ISIS, which managed to kill 13 American soldiers and scores of Afghans as the U.S. exited). Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, newly installed President Ebrahim Raisi, and their henchmen have made clear that they take great comfort in the U.S. withdrawal from the neighborhood, knowing that their aggression in Syria, Yemen, and throughout the region is unlikely to be countered in any serious way by the Great Satan.
The administration’s declared determination to exit the region has also provided the Iranians with an opportunity to move forward with their nuclear weapons program. The steps they have taken in the open, including uranium enrichment to near weapons grade and the production of uranium metal, have cut the breakout time for Iran to race to a nuclear weapon to perhaps a few months. The steps they have taken covertly might well have reduced the timeline to as little as several weeks. And all the while, U.S. diplomats in Vienna appear to have been offering concession after concession if only Iran will return to compliance with a nuclear agreement that was having a diminishing impact on Iran’s program in any case. But Tehran’s maximalism, fed no doubt by the administration’s efforts to placate it, has led it to reportedly increase its demands with each session of talks, exposing again the paradox of the weak: the more concessions the U.S. makes, the more it feeds the appetite for additional demands.