Since Afghanistan, the administration has been confronted with two new newly emboldened rivals in Russia and China
ast week marked the one-year anniversary of America’s final withdrawal from Afghanistan. That debacle presaged a long slide in approval ratings for President Joe Biden, but beyond that, America’s many global adversaries interpreted the hasty, chaotic pullout as a sign of weakness.
Perhaps in recognition of that, the administration has adopted a much tougher stance in the two international crises that presented themselves in the wake of the Afghanistan withdrawal — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and China’s intimidation of Taiwan — and in some quarters, at least, Washington has restored some of the lost respect.
The harrowing photos from the Kabul airport of thousands of US-allied Afghans trying to block planes on the runway in the hopes of getting aboard created a host of negative impressions. Aside from betraying the administration’s negligence in bugging out before a self-imposed September 11 deadline, allowing the Taliban to march on Kabul with only token resistance, Biden’s own intransigence in stiffly defending the withdrawal only created an image in Americans’ minds of a president in disconnect. Almost instantly, his polls began a yearlong collapse, falling from 52 percent approval on August 30, 2021, to 44 percent only a month later.
The withdrawal also sent a clear message that the administration was interested in backing away from the Middle East, setting off alarm bells in Jerusalem and the Gulf states, which fear Iran and need America’s back.
But since then, the administration has been confronted with two new newly emboldened rivals in Russia and China: Russian armor rumbled into Ukraine, and Chinese fighter jets began roaring through Taiwanese airspace. This time, Biden’s response has been very different. The United States led the West in sending massive economic and logistical aid to Ukraine on the one hand, while applying crippling sanctions on Russia on the other. And now, half a year after the outbreak of a war no one thought they could win, the Ukrainians have not only succeeded in containing the Russian offensive, but are launching counteroffensives of their own.
On the Chinese front, several US congressional delegations have visited Taiwan over the past few months, in what China sees as an assault on the “One China” policy and Beijing’s sovereignty over the island. The Americans have responded that Washington’s policy hasn’t changed, but just last Friday, the State Department approved a decision to sell military equipment to Taipei, in a move that only exacerbated the growing tensions between China and the US.
All this raises the question: is the Biden administration applying lessons learned from the Afghanistan fiasco to Russia and China? Has the White House shifted to a more forceful policy of deterrence to save its credibility? And what could this tell us about potential future conflicts — with Iran, say?
“I do think the abysmal performance of the US during the ill-conceived withdrawal from Afghanistan — demonstrating little to no flexibility in response to changing conditions on the ground, disregarding the interests and concerns of our allies and partners, and showing no commitment to the US role as a leader of the free world — has caused the administration to be more responsive to conditions on the ground in Ukraine, more steadfast in our cooperation with European allies, and more steadfast as the leader of the effort,” says Mark Montgomery, a retired US Navy rear admiral and currently senior director of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). “The US demonstrated no statesmanship while conducting the Afghan withdrawal, and that has improved in the Ukraine response.”
Amitav Acharya, who is Distinguished Professor of International Relations at American University, Washington, D.C., identifies an additional reason for Biden’s tougher posture. “The Biden administration inherited Obama’s intense dislike for Putin, and, combined with the Democrats’ post-Trump revived ideology of liberal interventionism, it was natural that Biden would respond forcefully to the Ukraine crisis,” he says. “There was also the need to compensate for the widely criticized — both at home and abroad — manner of withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
Montgomery and Acharya agree that Biden could do more to hasten the end of Russia’s war in Ukraine, already raging for six months — but they disagree on what those measures should entail. Montgomery, whose 32 years of naval service included nuclear training in surface warfare, thinks stronger deterrence beforehand would have prevented the invasion from ever happening. Not surprisingly, he views robust military aid to Kyiv as the best policy.
“[The Biden administration] had completely failed to provide the necessary assistance to Ukraine in 2021 that might have served to deter Russia, a failure shared by the Obama and Trump administrations as well, but the Biden administration has stepped up once the Ukraine invasion occurred,” Montgomery says. “We were all very fortunate that the mix of Ukrainian resolve and Russian incompetence gave the US and Europe the time needed to get meaningful support into Ukraine. The US should be providing significantly more long-range fire, specifically GMLRS rounds for the HIMARS launchers. These are the critical element right now as Ukraine seeks to defeat Russian war-fighting capabilities on Ukrainian soil.”
Professor Acharya, on the other hand, faults Biden for not doing more to pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis. “There has been no attempt at diplomatic prevention or solution of the Russia-Ukraine war,” he says. “It’s entirely focused on military involvement — doubling down on NATO expansion, refusal to acknowledge that it was part of the problem, despite warnings to the contrary from numerous realist thinkers, including the late George F. Kennan. It is geopolitically short-sighted.”
Still Weak on Iran
Washington has been taking a similarly tough line in the Pacific with China. The FDD’s Mark Montgomery, speaking about the US State Department’s decision to support Taiwan through approval of the arms sale, says he hopes this is a continued indication of US willingness to provide Taiwan with the weapons it needs “to defend itself from Chinese coercive actions.” And, he says, the US relationship with another ally could serve as the paradigm.
“This could be enhanced by the US providing military grant assistance similar to that given to Israel, another beleaguered democracy,” Montgomery points out.
I ask Montgomery whether there is a line connecting the US policies in Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Taiwan.
“Yes,” he says. “The US must make the necessary investments and commitments to be the leader of the free world, committed to protecting a transparent, rules-based order, and looking out for the beleaguered democracies under threat from authoritarian regimes.”
In the meantime, Biden’s approval rating has jumped in the last few months, from a record low of 37 percent to a stable 44 percent — still very low, but a far cry from his abysmal ratings earlier. And while this probably has more to do with domestic initiatives such as the Inflation Reduction Act and student debt forgiveness, there’s no question that the stabilization of the Ukraine situation and his firm stand on Taiwan have helped Biden efface the unpleasant impressions left by the Afghanistan withdrawal.
But it remains an open question why the administration is taking such a tough line toward China and Russia while showing endless patience in the interminable negotiations with Iran over a nuclear deal. That is, why did the West decide that with Putin dialogue isn’t an option and sanctions are the only solutions, while at the same time deciding that with Iran, sanctions aren’t an option and dialogue is the only solution?
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 927)
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