Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Biden, Central America, Donald Trump, failed states, globalism, Immigration, migration, nation-building, Northern Triangle, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, terrorism, The National Interest, Vietnam War
Since just yesterday, two big articles in the Mainstream Media have told us that President Biden’s latest speech on America’s (going-going-gone?) military involvement in Afghanistan could usher in a new, more circumspect era for U.S. foreign policy. (See here and here.) Me, I’m not so sure, even though I’d like to see nothing better, since I’ve been calling for such changes for no fewer than 35 years.
In fact, it’s not even clear whether Mr. Biden’s decision to pull the plug on this longest of America’s wars will profoundly influence America’s approach to world affairs on the level of day-to-day operations. For example, the President has insisted that “I was not going to extend this forever war. And I was not extending a forever exit”; and that with the Al Qaeda threat to attack the U.S. homeland and American allies squelched; and that the United States has “no vital interest in Afghanistan.” Nonethless, he still declared that “We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries.”
Moreover, Mr. Biden acknowledged that the “over-the-horizon capabilities” that now enable attacks on “terrorists and targets” without fighting ground wars (through drone strikes and the like) will still require some “American boots on the ground.” That’s because you need some physical presence in order to identify and track the targets (which move around a lot), and because these forces need bases of some kind out of which to operate.
Further, the President claimed that “The terror threat has metastasized across the world, well beyond Afghanistan. We face threats from Al Shabab in Somalia, Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria and the Arabian Peninsula, and ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and establishing affiliates across Africa and Asia.”
Even if he thinks that those over-the-horizon capabilities can suddenly meet this challenge (and obviously, they can’t now, or else we’d have seen a lot more of them and a much faster Afghanistan troop pullout), we’re talking about a non-trivial number of American boots on the ground in a huge number of countries – including more than a few states as failed, or as always-mythical, as Afghanistan.
President Biden was also pretty emphatic about “moving on” from what he suggested was the post-September 11 mindset of nation-building in places like Afghanistan – where democracy and unity and even cohesion has “never” existed.
But take another look at his “Strategy to Address the Root Causes of Migration in Central America.” The idea is to turn El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras into places acceptable enough to live in to convince huge portions of their populations to remain there, rather than seek better lives in the United States. And to achieve this aim, the administration’s blueprint “identifies, prioritizes, and coordinates actions to improve security, governance, human rights, and economic conditions in the region.”
That sounds pretty nation building-y to me, even if you believe that, unlike Afghanistan, these “Northern Triangle” countries have ever deserved to be called “nations” to begin with – rather than simply relatively large groups of very poor people exploited by (rotating) smaller groups of people possessing enough money and guns to climb to and stay on top for a while.
And since all the countries and regions that Mr. Biden has identified as new sources of terrorism suffer many of the same problems, there’s no reason to rule out the administration eventually dreaming up similar plans for them. According to the President’s speech, that would certainly be preferable to putting more American military boots on the ground.
But there’s a more fundamental reason to doubt that the President will engineer a major shift even in nation-building-type policies, much less in American foreign policy’s broader direction: Although the label didn’t emerge until after the September 11 attacks, nation-building has always been a core precept of the globalist approach that American foreign policy has carried out since Pearl Harbor, and Mr. Biden is a long-time card-carrying globalist. That’s the “back” to which he so proudly proclaimed America would return during his presidency.
I explained what I mean by that most recently in a 2018 article for The National Interest. Globalism’s root assumption, I wrote, “has stemmed from the ostensibly timeless lessons of the nation’s 1930s indifference to aggression in Europe and Asia: that America’s security, freedom and prosperity are inseparable from the security, freedom and prosperity of a critical mass of the rest of the world in which trouble anywhere is sure to spread like wildfire unless checked.” And to prevent such contagions from emerging to begin with, “the entire global environment needed to be managed adequately” – including turning failed states and other breeding grounds for terrorism and all sorts of turmoil and instability into entities that are substantially better, or at least more tranquil.
That same article pointed out, however, that globalism’s grip on American foreign policy is so tight that even an avowed disrupter and America First champion like Donald Trump couldn’t shake it off completely – and even doubled down on some major globalist policies (like deepening America’s – nuclear – commitment to Europe’s security against Russian expansionism). Indeed, his Middle East and anti-terrorism policies were especially conflicted – as he himself admitted.
So the likeliest transformation I can envision for post-Afghanistan U.S. foreign policy is what I’ve called “globalism on the cheap” – retaining every ounce of this strategy’s grandiose objectives, but pretending that they can be pursued exclusively in neat, safe, and aesthetically appealing ways. In fact, this was the course chosen after another foreign policy debacle – the Vietnam War. And revealingly, Mr. Biden touted some of them yesterday: “diplomacy, economic tools, and rallying the rest of the world for support” (along with those over-the-horizon capabilities).
These and other tactics in principle can have their place in U.S. foreign policy, depending on circumstances. But calling them substitutes for major military deployments and operations in carrying out a globalist strategy is first-order misinformation spreading. And it makes me wonder just how damagingly globalism, on the cheap or otherwise, will need to fail before genuinely new foreign policy eras will begin.