Erin Scott/The White House/AP
President Joe Biden speaks with his national security team during a briefing on the situation in Afghanistan, Aug. 22, 2021, in the White House Situation Room in Washington.

To pursue his global agenda, can Biden put Afghanistan behind him?

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For some foreign policy experts, the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan should not obscure the larger reality that getting out was a necessary part of reorienting America to today’s big challenges. Indeed, President Joe Biden’s two predecessors saw ending the war as a crucial part of shifting to confronting a rising China.

Yet for others, the botched departure has only deepened doubts about the United States as a global power.

Why We Wrote This

The withdrawal from Afghanistan has fueled U.S. allies’ doubts about America, but for how long? Is there a path to restore American moral authority and trustworthiness in a more skeptical world?

“The problem is not the withdrawal from Afghanistan but how we did it – and what that says to our allies and adversaries alike about our capabilities and credibility,” says Heather Conley at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

She says America’s allies – in particular those like the NATO partners that followed the U.S. into Afghanistan after 9/11 – had greeted Mr. Biden’s 2020 victory with “great hope and expectation.” But now what she is hearing is a “sense of betrayal and humiliation, really much stronger than anything I’ve heard before.”

“There’s a pervading sense in the administration that if we just clear out the old to-do list, then we can turn to what really counts,” adds Ms. Conley. “But that is a serious misreading and is not the way the world works.”

As President Joe Biden sought this week to defend his chaotic and much-criticized withdrawal from Afghanistan, he underscored how America must turn away from “forever wars” and yesterday’s foreign policy if it is to meet the “new challenges in the competition for the 21st  century.”

Out are nation building of the massive variety the United States pursued in Afghanistan for two decades, large-scale boots-on-the-ground missions to tackle a continuing but evolved terrorism threat, and neglecting needs at home to improve lives abroad, Mr. Biden said in an address Tuesday.

In, on the other hand, are confronting a rising China and a revanchist Russia “on multiple fronts,” addressing complex cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation, and acting to “shore up America’s competitiveness” to meet those new challenges.

Why We Wrote This

The withdrawal from Afghanistan has fueled U.S. allies’ doubts about America, but for how long? Is there a path to restore American moral authority and trustworthiness in a more skeptical world?

To which the president could have added “strengthening democracy to challenge rising authoritarianism and refurbishing America’s moral leadership” – key themes he has long included in his foreign policy to-do list for “a changing world,” but which have lost some of their resonance amid a wave of global doubts.

Few disagree with Mr. Biden over the need to reorient U.S. foreign policy toward the Indo-Pacific region and to address this century’s challenges. Indeed, his two predecessors saw ending the Afghanistan War as a crucial part of shifting to confront a rising China.

But at the same time, the barrage of criticism the president has come under over the course of a tumultuous and mission-not-accomplished Afghanistan withdrawal reflects deepening concerns about the administration’s – and indeed America’s – ability to address those challenges, and to organize and lead the world in taking them on.

For some foreign policy experts, the chaotic withdrawal should not obscure the larger reality that getting out of Afghanistan was a necessary part of reorienting America to today’s big challenges. In the long run, they say, President Biden will be proved right, and both the U.S. and its allies will be the beneficiaries of the departure, despite how messy it was.

Not the what, but the how

But for others, the botched departure has only deepened doubts about the U.S. as a global power that aren’t going away anytime soon.

“The problem is not the withdrawal from Afghanistan but how we did it – and what that says to our allies and adversaries alike about our capabilities and credibility going forward,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“There’s a pervading sense in the administration that if we just clear out the old to-do list, then we can turn to what really counts, China and the Indo-Pacific,” says Ms. Conley, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Eurasian affairs under the George W.  Bush administration. “But that is a serious misreading and is not the way the world works.”

America’s allies – in particular those like the NATO partners that followed the U.S. lead into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks – had greeted Mr. Biden’s 2020 victory with “great hope and expectation” after “the four bruising years of the Trump administration,” Ms. Conley says.

But she says what she is now hearing from European allies and above all the British – “with whom we were supposed to have a ‘special relationship’” – is a “sense of betrayal and humiliation really much stronger than anything I’ve heard before.” 

Reminders of “America First”

Moreover, the deep doubts the precipitous withdrawal has sown among allies are all the more troubling, she says, given President Biden’s pledges as recently as his June trip to Europe to consult allies and strengthen ties with them in order to tackle together challenges like China, Russia, and spreading authoritarianism.

The European allies “have been surprised that despite the rhetoric they are hearing, they are not seeing great differences from the ‘America First’ of the previous administration,” she says. The lack of consultation and disregard for allies’ concerns over the withdrawal “come on top of things like ‘foreign policy for the middle class’ and ‘buy American’ policies,” Ms. Conley adds, “and it starts to sound to them like in fact there’s going to be a lot of continuity.”

For years public opinion polls have shown Americans’ preference for ending the post-9/11 wars and redirecting attention to domestic issues. And as a Washington Post-ABC poll underscored this week, Americans remain very supportive of leaving Afghanistan – even as they disapprove strongly of the way the withdrawal was carried out.

Rahmat Gul/AP
A member of the Afghan security forces walks in the sprawling Bagram Airfield after the U.S. military's sudden departure, in Parwan province north of Kabul, Afghanistan, July 5, 2021. The chaotic U.S. withdrawal and subsequent collapse of the government in Kabul led to criticism from American allies.

Still, other analysts are adamant that, once the fog of the withdrawal lifts, the clear view will be of an America able to focus on today’s issues – and to lead allies and partners in meeting them.

“Certainly the photos out of Kabul were heartbreaking, and the very serious shortfalls in the withdrawal were disappointing,” says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow in transatlantic issues and security alliances at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “But in the long run, I think we’ll come to see that Biden made a tough choice that will leave the U.S. better positioned to [pursue] domestic and global well-being and prosperity.”

What the withdrawal finally does is to free up the U.S. “for more focus on great-power rivalry,” he adds, “and more focus on the domestic renewal that will be necessary to rebuilding Americans’ support for the country’s global engagement.”

Lessons of post-Vietnam era

Mr. Kupchan points out that today’s “overheated rhetoric” of America’s lost credibility and retreat as a global power echoes similar sentiments expressed in the wake of the U.S. evacuation from Saigon in 1975. Many at the time declared America’s international decline “irreversible,” he says, but in fact quitting a “losing war” allowed the U.S. to refocus on big-power rivalries and to remove a source of domestic conflict.

Within two decades, he adds, the Soviet Union had collapsed and the Cold War was over.

America’s allies are clearly “rattled” by how the Kabul evacuation was carried out, and Europeans in particular are worried about the potential for large refugee flows out of Afghanistan, says Mr. Kupchan, who served as senior director for European affairs in the Obama National Security Council.

But he deems “erroneous” the widespread conclusion that “because the U.S. is leaving Afghanistan, the Japanese and the Koreans and the Estonians should quake in their boots – that’s to say, the withdrawal demonstrates American unreliability and abandonment of allies.”

On the contrary, he says, “what we are seeing is the U.S. turning away from secondary problems to focus on the primary ones – and that means those allies are coming back into the strategic limelight.”

Even some critics who worry about the lingering repercussions of the Kabul evacuation say there were also aspects of American character on display that should be reassuring to both Americans and America’s friends.

“We also saw the best of America this week,” said Robert O’Brien, President Donald Trump’s last national security adviser, in an online conversation Tuesday sponsored by the Center for the National Interest in Washington.

The efforts of service members, diplomats, and individuals from the private sector who joined together to evacuate more than 100,000 Americans and endangered Afghans were a testament to American resolve that the world should also keep in mind, he said.

Shift in spending

But in Ambassador O’Brien’s view, the U.S. must now move quickly to put meat on the bones of a strategic shift to confronting China.

“We should take the $3 billion our military was spending in Afghanistan and rebuild the U.S. Navy,” he says. Other recommendations: Reposition troops pulled out of Afghanistan into the Indo-Pacific region, and expedite arms sales to Taiwan and to Poland.

“We need to show that America is still a leader, that we’re still in the game,” he says.

On the other hand, Mr. Kupchan says President Biden needs to make good first on rebuilding America if he wants Americans to again look outward with confidence and to support America’s global leadership role.

“Americans want to see schools being built in Kansas rather than in Kandahar,” he says. “If Biden really is committed to delivering a foreign policy for the middle class, that will mean responding to the electorate’s desire for spending time and money fixing problems at home over fixing problems abroad.”

For others, the shortfalls in American leadership exposed over recent weeks call for a period of humility and assessment that will include some hard discussions with allies and friends.

“Yes, we need to shift to a diplomatic response, as President Biden says, but to me that means really listening to our allies and working to reestablish trust,” says Ms. Conley. “If we don’t do better at demonstrating leadership,” she adds, “they won’t believe in our moral leadership.”

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