The Obama and Trump presidencies re-exposed two old threads in American politics—the twin notions that America is either too good for the world or can do no good in the world. Even though their starting points are different, both of those threads are part of the tapestry of isolationism.
Early on, President Joe Biden’s rhetoric promised a rejection of isolationism and a return to engagement. Indeed, before the collapse of Kabul, Biden was fond of saying, “America is back”— back as the linchpin of NATO, back at the center of the world stage, back as a dependable ally and partner.
In his inaugural address, Biden assured the world, “We will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security.”
Biden unveiled plans for a Summit of Democracy to “rally the nations of the world to defend democracy globally” and “push back authoritarianism’s advance.” He reminded the American people that “for 70 years, the United States, under Democratic and Republican presidents, played a leading role in writing the rules, forging the agreements, and animating the institutions that guide relations among nations, and advance collective security and prosperity.” If America fails to play that role, he warned, “Either someone else will take the United States’ place, but not in a way that advances our interests and values, or no one will, and chaos will ensue.”
Those are powerful words. But actions always speak louder than words. And Biden’s actions in Afghanistan speak volumes.
As with President Barack Obama in Iraq, as with President Donald Trump in Syria and Afghanistan, Biden ignored the military’s advice and instead forged ahead with an unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Regardless of one’s view of America’s Afghanistan project, the badly botched pullout serves as a grim reminder that means are as important ends. American troops, American credibility, American allies, and uncounted Afghan innocents paid the price. The Biden-Trump pullout made a mockery of what was once known as Operation Enduring Freedom and then Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and then Operation Resolute Support: America’s support proved less than resolute. Without it, Afghanistan’s hard-fought freedom would not and could not endure. And freedom’s sentinel has been dimmed by the Kabul debacle. We can talk about the swift collapse of the Afghan military, but as Gen. H.R. McMaster explained and warned before the Taliban swept back into power, “The Afghan military was designed to have a very strong plug-in of US firepower… Without that, they’re in trouble.”
NATO allies were not consulted so much as they were notified that Biden was moving forward with Trump’s withdrawal plans. It pays to recall that NATO invoked its all-for-one collective defense clause—and went into Afghanistan—because America was attacked on 9/11. More than 1,140 allied troops were killed. And as Afghan operations came to a close this year—20 years after al-Qaeda’s attacks on America’s largest city and America’s military headquarters—74 percent of the foreign troops deployed in the country that spawned 9/11 were not American.
This explains why some worry that the US withdrawal—thoughtlessly negotiated by Trump and thoughtlessly executed by Biden—has done serious damage to NATO’s unity and credibility. “It is the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding,” concludes Armin Laschet, who is primed to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor of Germany.
The fact that Biden rejected strong pleas from America’s closest allies, led by Britain, to extend the humanitarian airlift beyond the arbitrary self-imposed deadline of August 31 serves only to exacerbate the self-inflicted wound. Biden’s refusal to budge and work with Britain led some in Parliament to declare, “The special relationship is very, very damaged.” One MP concluded, grimly, “Biden’s America seems to have chosen to back off just when it was obvious only they could step up.”
Rather than showing the world that “America is back,” Biden’s actions suggest that America is continuing to drift backward—backward to the post-Vietnam malaise years, or worse, the isolationist interwar years. His promise to “rally the nations of the world to defend democracy” and “push back authoritarianism’s advance” rings hollow after Kabul. After all, Afghanistan was a constitutional democracy, yet it was left to fend for itself, as Biden ordered democracy’s greatest defender to pull out in the dead of night.
What message does that send to democratic Taiwan, democratic India, democratic Ukraine, democratic Georgia, democratic Israel, democratic Iraq, and their authoritarian foes in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran?
The world has some unpleasant answers to that question. “The immediate message from Biden’s Afghanistan disaster is that US allies cannot count on America when the chips are down,” warns Indo-Pacific security expert Brahma Chellaney from his perch in New Delhi. “The damage to America’s reputation and credibility could potentially herald a paradigm shift in international geopolitics.”
China’s state-run media mouthpiece declares that Washington’s “desperate withdrawal plan shows the unreliability of US commitments.”
Iran’s president cheers the “military defeat” of America. His proxies in Hezbollah, with their 130,000 rockets and missiles, exult: “Let all the allies of America watch the fate of all those who put their faith in it.”
Make no mistake: the Obama-Trump-Biden era of retrenchment reflects the national mood. A world-weary America wanted to disengage from the world, and three successive presidents have obliged.
In 2013, Pew polling revealed that 52 percent of Americans wanted the United States to “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own”—up from 30 percent in 2002 and 20 percent in 1964. In 2015, 58 percent of Americans said the United States “should not take the leading role… in trying to solve international problems.” In 2003, 66 percent of Americans supported plans to expand the peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan beyond Kabul. But by mid-2021 69 percent of American voters supported pulling out of Afghanistan completely. We are left to conclude that just as Pearl Harbor shattered the pre-World War II consensus supporting US isolation, the “wars of 9/11” shattered the post-World War II consensus supporting US engagement.
Without question, engagement carries costs. The Cold War, for instance, cost Americans 104,000 military personnel and $6 trillion. The War on Terror has claimed 6,900 American personnel and devoured $2 trillion. Understandably burdened by those costs, the men who’ve lived in the White House since 2009 lament America’s “endless,” “forever,” “open-ended” military operations in Southwest Asia. But they seem to forget that US combat forces have been deployed in Germany since 1944, Japan since 1945, South Korea since 1950, Kuwait since 1991, Kosovo since 1999. The common denominator of this diverse group is that each is peaceful and stable.
US troops deployed to Afghanistan in October 2001 and withdrew in August 2021. Their presence and sacrifice did not make Afghanistan as peaceful or stable as those other countries, but Afghanistan was undeniably more peaceful and more stable when American troops were there than it was before they arrived—or after they departed.
That leads us to the benefits of engagement, which we take for granted: rescuing civilization during World War II; refashioning Japan and Germany into liberal democracies after World War II; preserving free governments and free markets during the Cold War; transforming Europe from an incubator of war into a partnership of peace and prosperity; preventing another 9/11; building a bridge back to civilization for Iraqis and Afghans. And we somehow forget about the costs of disengagement: Nanking, Pearl Harbor, and Auschwitz in the 1930s and 1940s; Korea in 1950; post-Soviet Afghanistan in the early 1990s, which gave rise to the Taliban, which provided safe haven to al-Qaeda, which maimed Manhattan; Iraq in 2011, which served as feedstock for ISIS. Doubtless, post-democratic Afghanistan, as it spawns new threats and new terrors, will soon be re-added to this list.
The underlying premise of the American public’s standoff approach to the world seems to be that US engagement causes more problems than it solves. In fact, US engagement is part of the solution to the problem of the world’s brokenness. The natural order of the world is not orderly. As the Providence declaration on faith and foreign policy explains, “most of the daily craft of foreign and defense policy involves the regular management and implementation of policies to preserve order… those of us who live in a powerful country have special stewardship responsibilities.” That translates into deterring aggression where possible, punishing and reversing aggression when necessary, and keeping the enemies of order (jihadists, cyber-soldiers, terrorists) and freedom (communists, fascists, business-suit autocracies) at bay. If America fails to play that role, to quote again from Biden’s words of warning, “Either someone else will take the United States’ place” (see China) “or no one will, and chaos will ensue” (see Kabul).
Right and Wrong
Remaining engaged in this broken world doesn’t mean trying to make the world “safe for democracy.” It means standing by existing democracies. Allowing Afghanistan, which held seven elections between 2001 and 2020, to fend for itself demoralized and doomed Afghanistan’s democracy.
It means having the resources to ensure that America’s democracy can deter the world’s autocracies. Sequestration reduced those resources, and Washington’s COVID19 stay-at-home relief programs threaten to consume them.
It means maintaining hard-earned gains by keeping our commitments. Pulling out of Iraq in 2011, erasing “red lines” in Syria in 2014, and quitting Afghanistan in 2021 jeopardized those gains.
It means leading the alliance system we built. Breaking our word to Poland and Czechoslovakia in 2009, trying to “lead from behind” in 2011, withdrawing deterrent assets from Europe in 2013, and calling into question security guarantees to NATO in 2017 represent the very opposite of leadership.
And it means understanding, as an American statesman warned in 2002, that “like it or not, our leadership role must include soldiers on the ground,” that “history will judge us harshly if we allow the hope of a liberated Afghanistan to evaporate because we failed to stay the course,” that “we should not shrink back from our unavoidable responsibility to bear the burden of international leadership,” and that “America’s engagement around the world is a long-term investment in our security.”
Senator Biden was right in 2002. President Biden was terribly wrong in 2021.