The Biden Administration and the Paradox of the Weak
The Afghanistan debacle exposes a deficiency that will only embolden our adversaries.
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.
The president’s seeming commitment to previous stands suggests little chance that the U.S. will change course. Perhaps the Iranians (or more likely the Israelis) will save the administration from itself, but the administration would be well-advised to construct a coercive strategy that takes advantage of the lamentable state of the Iranian economy and the widespread popular discontent with the rule of the mullahs (including their egregious mishandling of the COVID pandemic) to set the stage for a different result—either a decisive turn away from pursuit of nuclear weapons or more likely a popular revolt against the corrupt and disruptive regime.
North Korea: While North Korea produces more and more fissile material for its growing nuclear and missile arsenal (the IAEA’s annual report has confirmed that the DPRK has restarted the Yongbyon reactor that fueled its initial efforts to build a weapon), the Biden team seems both impotent and reluctant to act. Its special envoy for talks with North Korea has traveled just about everywhere to talk with just about anyone other than North Korea. And his talking points are as embarrassing as the repeated rejections of his invitations to talk with Pyongyang. While the North threatens the U.S. and our regional allies and expands its nuclear force, his repeated refrain is that the U.S. is willing and eager to talk anywhere at any time. This fecklessness in the face of the North’s nuclear buildup only reinforces the conclusion that U.S. allies and adversaries have likely drawn from the “extraordinary success” in Afghanistan: The U.S. is in retreat and is no longer a credible partner and the nuclear guarantee that has long dissuaded Tokyo and Seoul from developing their own independent nuclear deterrents is also increasingly open to doubt.
Of great concern to our Asia-Pacific allies, the ongoing Nuclear Posture Review is reportedly giving serious consideration to adoption of a no first-use (or sole-use) pledge. This is a position long held by President Biden, and several of his longtime advisers, who unsuccessfully advocated its adoption during the Obama years. This position stands in stark contrast to the ongoing expansion and modernization of Russia and China’s nuclear arsenals. The administration may hope that by adopting “no first use” it would achieve another “extraordinary success” because it would show that the U.S. was leading by example, but the result would merely assist our adversaries in undermining U.S. extended nuclear deterrence in East Asia—a longtime objective of both Russia and the PRC. Trump’s coddling of Kim Jong-un was repulsive, but some coordination of economic and other pressures on Pyongyang will be necessary to try and turn the DPRK back to a course of “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.”
Russia: Of all world leaders, President Putin must be the most overjoyed with Biden’s “extraordinary success.” Russia’s No. 1 enemy has been humiliated and is widely perceived to be in full retreat. As a student of the Soviet failure in its own Afghan war, and as a believer in a zero-sum relationship with the United States, Putin is undoubtedly reveling in the U.S. loss. But personal satisfaction is less important than the opportunities that now seem open for achieving two of Russia’s most sought-after security goals—goals that were never before achievable but are now in play. The first is undermining the integrity of NATO. The Biden administration’s failures in Afghanistan, including the failure to consult with allies who had sacrificed lives and treasure alongside us for 20 years, has done more long-term harm to the cohesion of the alliance than all of the stupid bullying by President Trump in the previous four years. It is not an accident that multiple allies are comparing it to the disaster at Suez in the 1950s that marked a previous low point in U.S. alliance management.
Although it is true that most allies prefer Biden’s manners to Trump’s, they know their security is now more endangered by Biden’s unilateral retreat, leaving not only the U.S. but also our European allies more vulnerable to another 9/11 style mass casualty attack from terrorists based in Afghanistan. Europeans are also drawing the conclusion that three presidencies in a row have failed to provide strong international leadership and that this may be a permanent rather than a transient condition requiring greater European “strategic autonomy.” Although increased investment in defense capabilities by European allies would be a welcome development, the administration should be careful to avoid anything that would undermine NATO’s integrated military structure. In the wake of the “success” in Afghanistan, strengthening the alliance’s deterrent capability against potential Russian aggression and disinformation should be a priority.
The second Russian goal now on the negotiating table is to substantially constrain, if not prohibit, U.S. defenses to protect the American people from long range missile attack. This has been sought by Russian leaders going back to Gorbachev when President Reagan in Reykjavik soundly rejected any constraints on the strategic defense initiative. It is not a coincidence that Moscow this week announced that the next session of the strategic stability talks will be held this month and will include both offensive and defensive weapons. Every previous administration since the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in 2002 has rejected Russian calls for limits on our homeland missile defense capabilities. But the Biden administration seems to long for a return of the ABM prohibition on all defenses against missile attack on the homeland. They have resurfaced the false myths associated with strategic defenses, most prominently that defenses are “destabilizing” and the cause of offensive arms races. Echoing Russian propaganda, the massive Russian and Chinese nuclear buildups are said not to be the cause of strategic instability but rather the consequence of the U.S. missile defense program, a limited program designed to defend the continental U.S. from a small number of missiles from countries like North Korea or Iran. Here again, in the name of strategic stability, the Biden administration may well be prepared to claim another “extraordinary success” by giving Moscow what it has long sought. If the Russians succeed, North Korea, perhaps soon Iran and potentially other rogue states would once again be able to hold U.S. cities hostage to blackmail and destruction.
China: Finally, the administration has rightly cited China as the most serious, long-term national security challenge facing the U.S. But the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal has already clearly further emboldened the PRC’s leadership. One has only to peruse the gleeful editorials in the regime’s English-language propaganda outlet Global Times questioning whether the U.S. truly cares about the human rights of Hong Kong citizens or if the U.S. would actually defend Taiwan in extremis to get a sense of how much the credibility of the U.S. position in the Indo-Pacific has eroded. Sadly, this undoes much of what the Biden administration had accomplished by jointly sanctioning, in coordination with the EU, Chinese officials involved in the crackdown in Hong Kong as well some of those involved in violations of the human rights of the Uygur population. This had been one of the few positive spots in the Biden foreign policy. Concerns about human rights and democracy, powerful arrows in the U.S. quiver in the long-term strategic competition with China, will certainly ring hollow in the aftermath of the catastrophic exit from Afghanistan.
Biden’s decision, ironically, was justified (at least in part) by the argument that the U.S. needed to strengthen its deterrent posture vis-à-vis China by reallocating military resources from the Middle East to Asia. The colossal policy failure that was punctuated by the heroic efforts of U.S. military and diplomatic personnel to evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghan allies from Kabul will in fact make reposturing to deter China more difficult. It is likely that more military capability will now need to be devoted to the counterterrorism mission with a revivified global jidhadist movement highly motivated by its successful defeat of the United States. Whether the U.S. has the will to defend our East Asian allies will be a question mark at best for some time to come. Arming Taiwan to make it as unattractive a target for PRC opportunistic aggression should be high on the Biden team’s “to do” list.
Like any administration after a terrible policy failure, the Biden team would be wise to recalibrate its approach. The president and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have tried to spin the events of August as a transition from endless war to diplomacy. They would do well to dispense with what Tony Blair has rightly called “an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars’” and rather recall the wisdom of George Kennan, who noted in 1946 that, “You have no idea how much it contributes to the general politeness and pleasantness of diplomacy when you have a little quiet armed force in the background.”
Eric Edelman is counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and served as undersecretary of defense for policy from 2005 to 2009. Robert Joseph is a senior scholar at the National Institute for Public Policy and served as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security from 2005 to 2007.