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The Mess in Afghanistan Weakens Biden’s Push for Renewed US Leadership

A United States marine checks an Afghan through the evacuation control center at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Aug. 29, 2021. The chaotic withdrawal from the country has hurt the Biden administration’s goal to reinvigorate multilateralism after the Trump presidency rejected that approach to international relations. USMC

The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has weakened the Biden administration’s campaign to restore multilateralism as the touchstone of United States foreign policy, eroding international support for US global leadership.

Incidentally, Biden also came out sounding at times a lot more like Donald Trump than a bold campaigner for international cooperation.

Amid the botched evacuations as the US military departed, several of America’s closest allies openly criticized President Biden over how he brought down the curtain on the two-decades-old US initiative to transform Afghanistan into a functioning nation and prepare it for self-government.

Trump and his Republican Party also slammed Biden — even though Trump had been pushing for years to withdraw American troops from overseas stations. Trump had pledged to pull out US forces as early as his 2016 presidential campaign and reached a deal with the Taliban in February 2020, setting a May 1, 2021, deadline for a US withdrawal. That agreement emerged from US negotiations that excluded representatives of the internationally recognized Afghan government.

Biden, finding the deadline too soon upon taking office in January 2021, extended the pullout date to Aug. 31 and never considered delaying it further.

From the start, Biden bid good riddance to Trump’s America First approach, choosing instead to promote diplomacy, the value of alliances and the global multilateral system built up over the years after World War II, with the United Nations system as its centerpiece.

But then Kabul fell to the Taliban, far faster and well before Washington expected. Though more than 120,000 people were evacuated by the end of August, the US and its allies had hoped to safely get out many more, and to do so in a more orderly fashion over a longer period of time.

Rather than admit fault, Biden stuck with his decision to leave by Aug. 31. The evacuation had been an “extraordinary success,” he insisted, while also defending his decision not to extend the mission, adding, “I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces.”

Over 20 years, Washington spent more than $2.2 trillion on assistance, including the cost of waging war, military gear, humanitarian aid and development funding.

So with what words did Biden choose to cap this era?

“As we turn the page on the foreign policy that’s guided our nation the last two decades, we’ve got to learn from our mistakes,” he said in a televised speech to the nation on Aug. 31. One key mistake had been to allow the nation to get distracted from the basics, he said, adding: “[W]e must stay clearly focused on the fundamental national security interest of the United States of America.”

That language must have been a made-in-heaven moment for Trump, who — naturally — called for Biden’s impeachment or resignation.

Earlier in his term, Biden was boasting that “America is back” and eager to consult and cooperate with close partners spurned by Trump. “America’s back in the business of leading the world alongside nations who share our most deeply held values,” he said during a Group of 7 meeting in Cornwall, England, in mid-June.

But after Afghanistan, a number of world leaders began grumbling about the wisdom of continuing to rely heavily on leadership from Washington.

“Was our intelligence really so poor? Was our understanding of the Afghan government so weak? Was our knowledge on the ground so inadequate?” former British Prime Minister Theresa May rhetorically said in a parliamentary speech in late August. “Or did we just think we had to follow the United States and hope that on a wing and a prayer it would be all right on the night?”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was among those publicly pressing Biden to extend the evacuation to help more people escape from Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover. But Biden stood tough, even ignoring Johnson’s telephone calls for three days, the British daily Telegraph reported.

Trump’s secret pal, Russian President Vladimir Putin, took this opportunity to weigh in too.

“It is necessary to stop the irresponsible policy of imposing other people’s values from outside, the desire to build democracy in other countries, not taking into account either historical, national or religious characteristics, and completely ignoring the traditions by which people live,” Putin said in an Aug. 20 news conference. Many leaders are only now realizing that “you cannot impose your standards of political behavior or social organization on others, because others have their own religious and cultural specificities,” Putin said.

Trump and Mike Pompeo, his second secretary of state, had essentially called on world leaders to simply give up trying to work together to solve international problems. Instead, the pair argued that Washington was uniquely placed to set the course of global action, and that other countries should acknowledge this and fall in line behind it.

Pompeo, in a major 2018 address in Brussels that also took potshots at the European Union, the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, said: “The central question that we face is the question of whether the system as currently configured, as it exists today — does it work? Does it work for all the people of the world?”

Trump regularly railed against NATO and the UN, calling on other members to pick up more of the tab for their initiatives. In a cost-cutting spree at the UN, he cut back on US contributions to a number of its programs while withdrawing altogether from several of its agencies.

The chosen US role in the world has long centered on the concept of American exceptionalism — a fundamental belief that Washington is not bound by the rules that apply to every other country because of its special status and skills as an international leader in the pursuit of diplomacy, peace and prosperity.

The idea helped drive devastating American military interventions in Vietnam and Iraq as well as Afghanistan. These invasions relied heavily on the notion that such conflicts can over time evolve into nation-building exercises. Yet history shows that they generally fail in this regard.

How damaging will the Afghanistan debacle turn out for the US and its world leadership role over time? It is too early to tell. But enough doubts have surfaced to trigger actions by other nations that underline Washington’s new weakness.

North Korea, for example, appears to have chosen this moment to restart its plutonium-producing nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, reported on Aug. 30.

In another reflection of growing concern about the reliability of Washington’s word, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky was described by aides ahead of a meeting with Biden as nervous about the continued US commitment to protecting his country from possible Russian aggression.

At their meeting, which took place at the White House on Sept. 1, Biden sought to assuage Zelensky’s concerns by offering a powerful sign of continuity, saying he hoped to visit the country soon.

At the same time, Naftali Bennett must have been pleased by the fortuitous timing of his first Washington visit since becoming Israel’s prime minister. While Trump had lavishly rewarded Israel with strong support for all of its key policies, Biden has been less agreeable, opposing Bennett on three big Israeli issues: He favors the creation of a Palestinian state, he is trying to revive the Iran nuclear agreement, and he opposes continued expansions of Israel’s West Bank settlements.

A new poll by the Chicago Council on Public Affairs found that just 37 percent of Americans describe Israel as an ally, with another 29 percent calling it a necessary partner. This seemed to give Biden the upper hand in the meeting.

But neither Bennett nor Biden raised any of these big differences during their White House talks on Aug. 27, according to media reports.

Was Biden pulling his punches? “The US will always be there for Israel,” he gushed. “It’s an unshakable partnership between our two nations.”

That may well be what an American president would be expected to say after a meeting with a leader of Israel, a longtime special ally.

But other allies, wondering if Washington was getting weak in the knees, might have been hoping for something more skeptical.

The writer regularly provides an analysis of the US relationship with the UN for PassBlue. 

Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations. He also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.

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