The limits of Biden’s foreign-policy conversion

The president did the right thing in Afghanistan, but that doesn’t mean he’ll abandon his long-standing support for American interventionism.

No single figure personifies the Washington foreign-policy mainstream more fully than Joe Biden. During his decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he accepted millions of dollars in campaign contributions from arms makers, faithfully voted for bloated military budgets, and preached the gospel of American supremacy. He promoted the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia during the 1990s and strongly supported the US invasion of Iraq. Since becoming president, he has reaffirmed long-standing American policies in countries from Taiwan to Cuba to Israel. In his lack of imagination — his willingness to accept conventional wisdom without questioning it — he resembles most shapers of American foreign policy.

At least, that’s the way it seemed until the Afghanistan thunderbolt. By ordering a full withdrawal of American troops this summer and then vigorously defending his decision even at the worst moments, Biden broke sharply with the Washington consensus. After a long career cheerleading for foreign intervention, he reversed course and ended a war. He is the unlikeliest of rebels. What led him to it? And perhaps more important: Is ending the Afghan war just a one-off or is Biden about to make deep changes in the way the United States approaches the rest of the world?

Biden’s conversion was gradual rather than sudden. As vice president, he twice found himself arguing unsuccessfully against military action. In 2009 he urged President Obama not to “surge” American troop strength in Afghanistan. Two years later he opposed the bombing of Libya. The surge only prolonged the Afghan war, and the Libya bombing turned a prosperous country into a failed state. Biden left office knowing he had been right in both cases.

Both of Biden’s predecessors in the White House announced their determination to withdraw from Afghanistan. Both changed course after generals spooked them with grave warnings about threats that would follow. Unlike Trump and Obama, however, Biden has spent a great amount of time with generals. He has heard them give much advice that turned out to be bad. This has made him less vulnerable to their importuning. Unlike most past presidents, Biden feels he has the experience and stature to ignore or overrule military commanders.

This self-confidence has led Biden to take the shaping of American foreign policy into his own hands. His secretary of state and national security adviser are second-tier figures who have advanced through Biden’s patronage and Democratic Party politics. The rest of his team is notably weak in diplomatic experience. These are not the kind of people to advise a president as he makes earth-shaking choices.

During his campaign, Biden said he would adopt “a foreign policy for the middle class.” He clearly sees the link between massive spending on foreign wars and the lack of money available for urgent projects at home — a link American politicians are loath to mention. In one of his recent speeches, he cited a staggering statistic from the Costs of War Project at Brown University: The Afghan war cost the United States $300 million per day for 20 years. Biden has outsized domestic ambitions. Saving money to pay for them is another reason he cut the cord in Afghanistan.

Biden must be pleasantly surprised at the resounding support for his decision shown in public opinion surveys. Even at the height of the frantic withdrawal from Kabul, Americans said by heavy margins that they favored it. It turns out that few outside Washington share the Pentagon’s appetite for intervention, overseas bases, and foreign wars. This should encourage Biden to apply the logic of withdrawal to other places.

He has suggested that he will do so. “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan,” he said in another recent speech. “It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” That sounds too good to be true — and it is. Biden took a highly positive step by ending the Afghan war. He may go further, perhaps bringing some troops and equipment home from Saudi Arabia or pulling the Fifth Fleet out of Bahrain, where it has been based since 1995. Biden has made clear, however, that he is not expecting a world of lower tensions, much less one in which great powers collaborate to face common threats. He is lightening America’s heavy footprint in the Middle East and Central Asia so that he can focus more intently on competition with China and Russia. Whenever he defends his decision to quit Afghanistan, he frames it as a choice that will free the United States to hunt bigger targets.

“We’re engaged in a serious competition with China,” he said. “We’re dealing with the challenges on multiple fronts with Russia. And there’s nothing China or Russia would rather have, would want more in this competition, than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan.”

By withdrawing from Afghanistan so that he can confront China and Russia more vigorously, Biden is doing the right thing for the wrong reason. He has pledged to “reimagine American foreign policy and national security for the next generation” — but moving our geopolitical spotlight from one set of enemies to another is not a true reimagining. Ending the Afghan war could be a first step away from the paradigm of global conflict and big-power competition and toward a recognition that the greatest threats we face are common to all humanity. Biden has not yet shown interest in taking that path.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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