Biden Insiders: Our Afghanistan Exit Is a Part of a Much Bigger Reset
Biden and his team have clearer memories of the long litany of egregious and crippling missteps America’s leaders made during the first years of this century than do their critics.
In world affairs, first impressions can be misleading. Soviet and American generals were photographed toasting the triumph of a great alliance in 1945 but in the blinking of an eye the Cold War was underway and we were great enemies. Crowds pressed against the U.S. embassy gates as Saigon fell and America lost a long, bloody war mere decades before Vietnam embraced a market economy and became a top tourist destination for Americans.
Statues are toppled, regimes collapse, city squares are thronged with tens of thousands of people demanding change, “Mission Accomplished” moments occur, and yet what follows is not what the pundits caught up in the drama and imagery of individual events predict. With time, members of the Biden administration anticipate, we will come to see the events of the past week very differently.
In fact, with perspective, we may well come to see their exit from Afghanistan as part of a major, generational, foreign policy reset. In fact, if events unfold consistent with the president’s vision, this moment will be seen as a watershed in a return to American global leadership after two decades of misguided, erratic, damaging foreign policy in the wake of 9/11.
In other words, we are likely to come to see the events of the past week not only very differently but in the opposite light of that depicted by many commentators who, understandably but at the expense of the long view, were reacting to the horror of what we all saw happen in the streets of Kabul.
What is more, even as the talking heads and the Twitterverse and the editorial writers and the political opportunists were decrying the process by which the decision to leave was made, questioning the judgment of Biden and his team, the departure from Afghanistan, even if it unfolded badly, was actually the product of a laser-like focus on the big picture and the long-term interests of the United States on the part of the president and his top advisers.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the administration’s reasoning to me as follows: “The investment we made in Afghanistan over the course of 20 years was enormous. Two decades, one trillion dollars, 2,300 lives lost, thousands more with visible and invisible wounds. It’s no secret that our strategic competitors would like nothing more than for America to be bogged down in conflict for another two years—or two decades. The only element that rivaled the cost of this conflict was the opportunity cost. The president concluded it was time for us to end this war.”
A senior White House aide put it this way: “The president firmly believes that leaving Afghanistan improves our ability to be a stronger world leader, more engaged with allies, and more effective internationally.” The aide went on to echo Blinken, thus underscoring the centrality of the idea of returning our focus to great power competition for Biden and his team, saying, “As the president has said repeatedly, there is nothing that Russia or China would like to see more than the U.S. tied down in an endless war in Afghanistan. This is especially true as the terrorist threat grows in other places, and the geopolitical challenges elsewhere mount.”
Senior aides to the president repeatedly stressed to me that the actions in Afghanistan are all part of a much broader, carefully considered strategic shift for the United States. It will mean nothing less than finally bringing an end to the post-9/11 era. It will close the books on the recklessness and excesses of the war on terror, an end to the dangerous delusions of American exceptionalism and hubris-infused unilateralism.
The Biden team view is based on the idea that becoming bogged down in a 20-year war with an unclear mission that drained our resources and distracted us from our priorities made us weaker, that entering Iraq without justification made us weaker, that retreat in the wake of the calamities of Bush foreign policy made us weaker, that Trump attacking our alliances and undermining the rule of law at home made us weaker. The gross failure of leadership in managing COVID made us weaker. A president inciting an attempted coup made us much, much weaker.
President Biden, recognizing all this, is seeking to systematically, comprehensively, and irreversibly undo that damage and to strengthen America, preparing us to lead in the decades ahead. As much as it means ending America’s longest war, it also means shifting the trillions spent on fighting to investing in ourselves, our infrastructure, our schools, and our health care system. Build Back Better is not simply a big domestic program in the eyes of the administration. It is, as was the interstate highway system to Dwight Eisenhower, an investment in our security and our competitiveness. Proposed major initiatives in cyber security, power grid resiliency, expanding broadband, and combating climate change make that crystal clear.
The effort also turns on efforts to undo the damage to our international standing done by unilateralism, contempt for the rule of law, attacks on democracy here at home, and the rise of domestic violent extremists who today pose a greater risk than overseas terror cells. Elements of the effort have included re-entering the Paris Climate Accords and rejoining the WHO, leading the way on vaccine diplomacy, recommitting ourselves to strengthening international institutions and our alliances, seeking to negotiate a re-entry of the U.S. into the Iran nuclear deal, and, perhaps above all else, preparing for the challenges and opportunities of the rest of the 21st Century. A shift in our focus and the deployment of our resources from the Greater Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region is another key part of that.
The critics who have emerged in the past week have often been as misguided and unappreciative of the bigger picture as they have been scathing. One top European foreign policy expert said America had “cut and run”—pretty preposterous after 20 years of engagement, roughly 19 years too many. One right-wing American pundit called the exit from Kabul “the worst presidential dereliction in memory” which, I hope, has his friends and family getting him the counsel of a good neurologist as he clearly is suffering from severe short-term memory loss. One member of Britain’s Parliament suggested the U.S. was returning to “isolationism” which is, again, pretty ludicrous given that our exit comes at the end of the longest war in our history. It seems the honorable gentleman thinks the permanent engagement of colonialism is the desirable opposite of isolationism.
There were certainly mistakes made in planning and executing the U.S. pullout of Afghanistan—although many observers understate the responsibility the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the Afghan military have for the horrific scenes we witnessed. But even at the end of just one week, thanks to the fast action of the president and the U.S. military, the picture is very different. Evacuations are proceeding at a remarkable pace. The military side of the Kabul airfield has stabilized and is orderly. Our embassy team and the diplomats of our allies are safe. The U.S. has demonstrated its commitment to getting American citizens, allies, and as many Afghans who worked with the U.S. as possible out and doing so swiftly.
The events of the past week have been harrowing. They should not be minimized. America should actively work to find places within our borders and worldwide with our friends and allies for every Afghan who seeks refugee status. We are already beginning the work of finding other mechanisms—diplomatic, political, and economic—to foster security and justice to the extent possible within Afghanistan. But the administration also recognizes that many other nations suffer as do the Afghans (the people of Haiti, Myanmar, Ethiopia, and oppressed women in societies worldwide all wish they could get the calls for aiding them that have come this week for the people of Afghanistan) and that the most important thing the U.S. can do to influence good outcomes worldwide is to restore our standing, restore our vitality at home, strengthen the international system, consistently let our values lead us, and start again to lead by example.
We have ignored much of that work during the past 20 years, a period that is likely to go down in history as among the worst ever for U.S. foreign policy. President Biden and his team have had the courage to recognize that to lead again as we once did, to lead to our full potential, we must have the courage to acknowledge and correct errors like the war in Afghanistan. Indeed, they seem to have clearer memories of the long litany of often egregious, sometimes crippling missteps America’s leaders have made during the first years of this century than do their critics. Fortunately for all of us, they also appear to have a much clearer understanding of what must be done if the U.S. is to finally put those errors and misspent years behind us and attend as we urgently must to the challenges and opportunities of the decades ahead.