Biden Should Stick to Afghanistan Withdrawal Timetable


NATO member states claim their troops will remain in Afghanistan regardless of whether President Biden honors the U.S.-Taliban agreement to withdraw all U.S. troops by May 1.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby warned that unless the Taliban reduces violence, it is “hard to see a specific way forward” on fulfilling the deal’s stipulation for a full U.S. troop withdrawal. A new report from the Afghanistan Study Group, commissioned by Congress, also recommends postponing the U.S. withdrawal. These statements ignore a painful truth: NATO’s nearly 20-year effort in Afghanistan has proven that this war is unwinnable, at least at a cost the alliance is willing to pay. Continuing to fight is thus illogical, unwise, and immoral.

The U.S. military is the most powerful in the world. Yet, despite all of its drones, missiles, satellites, and special operators, it has proved unable to subdue a force of rural sneaker-clad insurgents in one of the poorest countries on earth. The two of us have a combined four combat deployments to Afghanistan since 2005. We have observed the Afghan war firsthand, at every level from theater headquarters down to infantry foot patrols. We have served when troop numbers and casualty levels were low and during the height of the 2010–2011 troop surge, when 150,000 U.S. and NATO troops were in Afghanistan. Through it all, no change in troop levels, tactics, or strategy has brought more than fleeting success. As much we wish to see the U.S. military succeed in Afghanistan, there are realities that render the U.S. effort futile.

The most fundamental challenge is that this war is primarily a civil war between several domestic Afghan factions and not a conventional fight between opposing armies. The U.S. military is very good at fighting identifiable uniformed opponents. It vanquished the Iraqi Army in 1991 and 2003, and it overthrew the Taliban regime at minimal cost. However, when the enemy is an insurgent, conventional U.S. military power is far less effective. America’s key military advantages are power projection, situational awareness via technology, and firepower. A grinding war among the people blunts all of these tools.

There are two basic routes to success in a counterinsurgency. The first is hyperviolent suppression, as Bashar Assad did in Syria and the Russians in Chechnya. As was said of the Romans, they “made a desert and called it peace.” The second is patient, methodical “population-centric counterinsurgency.” This is what NATO has claimed to be practicing in Afghanistan, drawing on (disputed) lessons from post-colonial campaigns in British Malaya, French Algeria, and elsewhere. The U.S., thankfully, has no stomach for the former course of action, and it lacks the patience, expertise, and will for the latter option. Put simply, victory over the Taliban is not in the cards.

The other critical factor is the battlefield situation in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have the wind at their backs. They control or contest more territory today than at any time since 2001. They continue to receive covert support from Pakistan. And both sides remain miles apart on even the items to be discussed, much less on finding solutions.

The Biden administration has a golden opportunity to conclude U.S. participation in the Afghan civil war. We are not delusional. We recognize that the Doha agreement with the Taliban is unlikely to end Afghanistan’s misery. But it does provide a “decent interval” for U.S. withdrawal. After 20 years of sunk costs and missed opportunities, that is the least bad outcome for the United States. America’s only vital interest in Afghanistan is preventing it from becoming a haven for international terrorism. The Taliban has pledged that they will not allow this. If they renege on this promise, the U.S. can punish and deter them, with means ranging from standoff missile strikes to a full-fledged punitive expedition.

Remaining engaged in combat operations as now will result in more needless casualties, cost billions of dollars, and will distract decision-makers from far more important threats to American security and prosperity. Let’s stick to the May 1 timetable.

Gil Barndollar is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities and served as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps, deploying to Afghanistan twice. Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.

Article originally published at the Washington Examiner.

The Erosion of America’s Professional Officer Corps

By William S. Smith • February 2, 2021

The politicization of many retired military officers is a sign that the healthy American tradition of a professional military officer corps is breaking down. For decades, the elite members of the officer corps generally avoided politics unless they were voicing their opinion on military matters as part of the normal political process of deciding national security policy. In recent years, however, retired senior officers have seen fit to voice their opinions on a host of partisan and divisive issues, placing civilian-military relations into uncharted waters.

The U.S. Constitution contains many provisions that have stood the test of time. There seems little doubt, for example, that the separation of powers doctrine, when properly enforced, is one of the bulwarks of liberty. One aspect of the Constitution, however, that achieved obsolescence in the nineteenth century were its provisions on civilian-military relations. As Samuel Huntington has pointed out, the Framers of the American Constitution did not envision the need for strong constitutional provisions for “civilian control of the military” because the military was not a professional force but a militia, composed entirely of civilians. When the nation needed to conduct military actions, prominent civilians would be installed as officers, and the militia would be called up from the civilian population. Early in the life of the Republic, it would not have been considered odd if the president, as Commander-in-Chief, were to have accepted military command of a unit in battle. The military were civilians, so there was no need to clarify a chain of command.

The result of this constitutional omission is that, while the president is Commander-in-Chief and the Congress can structure and fund the armed forces, there is no clear provision establishing “civilian control” of the military, even though both Article I and Article II imply some congressional and executive oversight of the military. This is because the Framers of the Constitution did not envision the rise of a highly professional military and a huge standing army.

However, as the national security apparatus grew, the United States did develop a salutary political tradition that the professional military, especially the elite officer corps, would eschew partisan politics and stay safely in their lane by providing honest advice to the civilian leadership on how to protect the nation. This tradition was a healthy one because, historically, from Imperial Roman to Napoleon, when professional military officers become politically active, republics tend not to survive.

We should concede that senior military officers must, to some degree, become involved in politics as they report to both the president and the Congress, two separate branches of government that do not always agree on national security issues. Therefore, the officer corps must make political judgments about securing the best policies in a government that may be divided. So, for example, if the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is testifying in front of Congress, how frank should he be in voicing his concerns about a provision in the president’s proposed defense budget request? This is a political judgment that must be exercised by the military.

Yet, the best American military leaders seem to have met this challenge by avoiding any hint of partisanship and giving all questioners their frank and honest judgments on national security issues. This healthy political tradition was embodied best in General George C. Marshall who, when asked his political affiliation, often replied that his father was a Democrat, his mother was a Republican, and “I am an Episcopalian.”

Wait a minute, you say, have not former generals run for the Presidency and, by definition, become involved in partisan politics? This is undoubtedly true, but there is a difference between war heroes, such as Eisenhower or Grant, who were drafted to run for office by acclamation because of their success on the battlefield versus military officers and former officers who scheme in favor or against politicians in the same way political operatives would. Moreover, in the past, many former officers were drawn into politics, such as Douglas MacArthur and George McClellan, because they had specific criticisms of the president’s military policies.

America is now developing a politicized officer corps, one that is becoming involved in partisan politics in the way that rank political operatives would. The concern about politicized military elites has come from both the left and the right. Jim Golby, a former defense official and advisor to then-Vice President Biden, wrote a thoughtful piece in Foreign Policy expressing concern about previous senior military leaders who had become involved in partisan politics, such as: former Joint Chiefs Chairman William Crowe who endorsed Bill Clinton’s election; former Marine General John Allen who criticized Donald Trump during a speech at the Democratic Convention; and, former General Michael Flynn who led chants of “lock her up” against Hillary Clinton. What prompted Golby’s concern was Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley’s appearance at a Trump photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in which Trump seemed to be taking a political victory lap against violent protestors who had occupied Lafayette Park the night before. (Milley has since apologized.)

Golby points out that it has become quite commonplace in American politics for former flag officers “to publicly criticize the President of the United States,” sometimes as “analysts” on cable news shows. Golby’s concerns cannot be characterized as mere anecdotes as one can cite retired Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli who organized a letter signed by 780 retired high-ranking officers, including 22 retired four-star generals and admirals, that criticized then-President Trump and endorsed Joe Biden.

On the right, pro-Trump conservatives have pointed to the egregious conduct of retired General Stanley McChrystal who not only publicly endorsed Biden on Morning Joe, but was paid to deploy an Artificial Intelligence technology, developed to target terrorists, that was used to blunt candidate Trump’s messaging. McChrystal even compared Trump supporters to Klansmen and Al Qaeda.

Some on the right point can even point to active-duty officers, such as Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who schemed with highly partisan advocates for Trump’s impeachment while he was serving on the president’s National Security Council staff. And, in a full-frontal political assault on Trump, in 2019, former Admiral William McCraven made the ludicrous assertion that Trump was a greater threat to America’s national security than terrorist groups; McCraven’s criticism can only be considered a partisan attack, not a serious statement of his national security policy concerns.

As with the now-discarded tradition that former presidents should generally avoid partisan politics, it is now clear that a certain professional culture that had previously been embraced by military leaders is also breaking down. For George Marshall, it was always understood that choosing a military career meant keeping silent on your political views and offering, to the greatest degree possible, only your best military judgment.

There is something troubling about the current culture of America’s elite officer corps, not simply in their politicization but also in their now routine acceptance of a revolving door onto the boards of defense contractors, security companies, and others vying for government contracts. The healthy tradition of a separate and professional officer corps who would give their unvarnished and unbiased opinions to America’s civilian leaders is breaking down; many retired military leaders are now both partisan and display huge financial conflicts of interest.

No one wants to place a hard ban preventing retired military officers from becoming involved in politics; retired military officers do have First Amendment rights. However, the nation is clearly poorer without senior military officers of the caliber of George Marshall, who probably had strong political views but, for the sake of the country, he approached his First Amendment rights with restraint, discretion, and professionalism.

William S. Smith is Senior Research Fellow and Managing Director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. His recent book is Democracy and Imperialism from the University of Michigan Press.

This article originally appeared in The National Interest.

So Much for Diplomacy


The Biden critique of the Trump foreign policy is twofold. The policy complaint is that an ‘America First’ foreign policy is a selfish foreign policy and ignores pressing global issues, such as climate change and women’s rights, that are threats to all humanity. The president is not the leader of only the United States, Biden insisted, but the leader of the whole world. The second complaint was about process, i.e. Trump did not consult closely with allies before pressing forward; he made erratic and unilateral decisions that harmed our alliances. Yet with Biden’s snap decision to terminate the Keystone XL pipeline project, Biden has sent a clear signal that ‘leading the world’ may be more important than ‘consulting with allies’.

From a policy perspective, revoking the permit for Keystone has many drawbacks, not least of which is the loss of 11,000 well-paying blue-collar jobs for Americans and Canadians. Given these layoffs, Biden’s famous argument in a recent Foreign Affairs article that the United States needed a ‘foreign policy for the middle class’ is tragically laughable. Killing the pipeline is of course not a national but a globalist priority. It makes America less energy independent and has obvious adverse foreign policy consequences for the US given recent Middle East wars (fought by America’s middle class).

Republican critics of the President will undoubtedly make these policy arguments, so there is no need to belabor them. What has gone unremarked about the decision, however, is the poor process: Biden unilaterally torpedoed the pipeline without so much as a phone call to our Canadian ally which views the pipeline as a very important joint US-Canadian initiative. Biden called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after the Keystone decision had been announced. Alberta premier Jason Kenney called the decision ‘an insult directed at the United States’s most important ally and trading partner’. Kenney was also dismayed that the US did not even consult with Canada before making such an important decision. Prime Minister Trudeau also expressed his ‘disappointment’ about the decision.

Of course, the mainstream media will fail to notice that, for all of Biden’s complaints about Trump’s lack of diplomacy, the new White House throttled arguably our best ally on the first day of his presidency with zero diplomatic consultation. Many will rationalize this as the need for a new administration to ‘hit the ground running’ and, they will assure us, diplomacy will take center stage when the administration finds its sea legs. After all, didn’t Biden promise to ‘elevate diplomacy to the United States’s principal tool of foreign policy’?

The Keystone decision is a window into the boastful philosophical assumptions of Biden’s foreign-policy views. There is therefore good reason to be skeptical about his commitment to diplomacy.

There is an inherent contradiction in the hubristic assertion that the United States is the world’s chief protector of universal values and global concerns, and the belief that this mighty and virtuous emperor will take seriously the opinions of other nations. After all, when the imperial project of ‘taking on’ climate change was threatened by a pipeline, who really cares what Canada thinks?

With the Biden foreign policy, we are returning to George W. Bush’s swaggering view that the United States is the indispensable nation, the model of universal values to which all other nations should aspire. As Biden wrote, ‘It falls to the United States to lead the way. No other nation has that capacity. No other nation was built on that idea.’ To ‘champion liberty and democracy’ and to ‘take on the existential threat’ of climate change — these are imperial projects and, given their importance, we will see Biden reserve the right act unilaterally. As the empire propagates the world’s only true values, other nations will quickly discover that we don’t really care about their views — unless they happen to agree with us.

The Biden critique of Trump’s lack of diplomacy is, in theory, a valid one. The problem is that Biden has embraced a view of America as a global empire of unmatched virtue, and such empires tend to eschew genuine diplomacy. Diplomacy can only be effective when leaders approach it with a certain humility, i.e. ‘maybe I am not right about everything, so I should consult with others’. As we again hubristically embrace America as ‘the indispensable nation’, others will discover, as the Canadians have, that braggarts don’t do diplomacy.

William S. Smith is Senior Research Fellow and Managing Director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America. His recent book is Democracy and Imperialism from the University of Michigan Press. 

When ‘Human Rights’ Become a Menace


Political commentators, left and right, are urging the Biden administration to move away from the nationalistic realism of Donald Trump and to place “human rights” front and center in American foreign policy. It is certainly painful to watch an American president performing a sword dance with Saudi princes only a year before those same princes ordered a journalist literally carved up by hitmen. That said, we should also recognize that advocates of human rights sometimes have a very simplistic notion of how those human rights actually flourish.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example, was justified by many because of the terrible human rights record of Saddam Hussein. In order to build support for the invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush asserted in his State of the Union address: ”The dictator who is assembling the world’s most dangerous weapons has already used them on whole villages, leaving thousands of his own citizens dead, blind or disfigured.”

While Saddam was unquestionably brutal, there’s also little doubt that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a human rights disaster for the Iraqi people. Brown University estimatesthat 200,000 civilians were killed in the Iraq war. Over the years, Saddam himself killed tens of thousands of innocents in his wars upon his Kurdish and Shia foes, but one cannot say that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a neat solution to the problem of human rights abuses in Iraq. In short, those who held out regime change as an opportunity to put human rights “at the center” of Western foreign policy were gravely mistaken.

So, then, where do human rights come from? Let’s first ask why the United States has long been considered a beacon of liberty and human rights. Because Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence? Obviously it is more complicated than that.

The rights and liberties of the American people are an inheritance that we were gifted by the great American and British constitutional traditions going back before even the Magna Carta. Our liberties and rights do not exist because we declared them in a document in 1776, but because our ancestors did the work necessary to make them a reality. And a great part of that work was restraining their own passions by avoiding physical attacks upon their political competitors, operating with good will toward those who disagreed, and respecting the parameters of the Constitution. America has certainly had its share of vitriolic politics, but we have generally avoided murdering our political opponents. The success of the American polity is not due to paper documents, but a constitutional culture that sets rough boundaries of restrained behavior upon our leaders. If that culture and tradition break down, no paper document will save us.

It was Martin Luther King who insisted in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that the American culture of freedom and liberty was a tradition and African Americans had earned the right to be a part of it. “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights,” said King. “We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” King was successful because his restrained and dignified example pointed out that it was men like Bull Connor who were violating our sacred constitutional heritage, not the marchers in Birmingham.

Civil liberty is a tradition, a “sacred heritage” that is earned over many generations by those who approach politics with restraint and good will rather than an arbitrary will to power. A certain moderate way of acting in politics gives birth to human rights. The danger in declaring that human rights are a free gift of nature is that it ignores the reality that rights emerge only when citizens and leaders restrain their own behavior. When citizens are well-ordered, there is no need for government to impose order, and liberty blossoms; when leaders are restrained, they are no threat to their citizens.

It is, of course, particularly important that leaders feel constrained by a tradition of moderation and restraint as they possess the actual power to violate human rights. The citizens of Hong Kong and the Uighurs regularly have their human rights violated because the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have largely jettisoned the rich Confucian tradition of restraint. They feel no cultural, constitutional, or religious checks upon their will to power.

‘The Battle of the Classics’ Reviewed

The Battle of the Classics: How a Nineteenth-Century Debate Can Save the Humanities Today
by Eric Adler
Oxford University Press, pp.272, $35.00

Reviewed by WILLIAM S. SMITH

In a plea for vocational education, Sen. Marco Rubio famously remarked that we could use ‘more welders and less philosophers’. Doesn’t everyone know that ‘skills pay the bills’?

If things weren’t bad enough, the rise of deconstruction and critical theory has created a generation of humanities scholars who themselves see little value in the works they study, insisting that famous art and literature emerged from racist and sexist power structures.

What sensible young person would borrow $100,000 to be educated in these pointless disciplines? Eric Adler, a classicist at the University of Maryland, has the answer: anyone who wants to understand his own humanity. Adler’s invaluable survey not only defends the humanities: it even lays out how their allies have fallen short.

Adler first points to Aristotle, who argued in the Politics that the liberal arts were essential for freeborn citizens. Cicero later defended the right of the Greek poet Archias to be recognized as a Roman citizen: Rome could only thrive if the learned were permitted to ‘speak a bit more freely about the studies of civilization and literature’. Early Renaissance scholars such as Petrarch also elevated the humanities above vocational disciplines: ‘Petrarch turned to ancient Roman examples of heroism in order to achieve what Italian humanists saw as education’s primary goal — the strengthening of character.’

This is the great theme of Adler’s important book: the only battlefield upon which the humanities can be successfully defended is the constant human struggle to improve character. For young people, this cannot be done through moralistic sermons, but by transmitting valuable content with imaginative histories that stir them toward a more virtuous way of living.

Yet the defense of content is precisely the battlefield that has been avoided by many of the humanities’ defenders. After Petrarch, many Renaissance scholars began to stress the mental rigor of ‘logic and linguistic analysis’. From their earliest days, therefore, many European universities adopted a careerist curriculum, emphasizing subjects such as ‘civil and canon law, theology and medicine’.

This debate came to a head in the late 19th century. As science and Darwinism advanced, their supporters began to attack the value of the humanities. The German research university, with its model of specialization, increasingly became the model — to the detriment of the English Oxbridge model with its emphasis upon the classics.

Adler cleverly crystallizes the entire 19th century debate into one Phi Beta Kappa address given by Charles Adams at Harvard in 1883. Adams, the great-grandson of John Adams, blasted Harvard for its classics requirement, calling it a ‘Fetich’. That the bluest of blue bloods would call knowledge of Greek ‘a positive educational wrong’ sent shock waves through the classicist community.

Adams’s speech provoked numerous inadequate defenses of the classics. Greek was needed to study the Bible, some classicists insisted. The scientists retorted: why do we need to read pagans to understand the Bible? Others argued that the classics instilled ‘mental discipline’, to which the scientists replied that math and science were far more rigorous.

Adler finds a most robust defense of the humanities in Irving Babbitt, Harvard’s famous professor of French. For Babbitt, Adler writes, the content of the humanities matters most because ‘profound works of art, philosophy, religion, and literature at their best encapsulate the wisdom of the past, which can compel the young to determine a sound philosophy of life’. When Babbitt learned of Harvard president Charles Eliot’s decision to drop the classics requirement and institute a system of electives, he remarked that ‘the wisdom of the ages is to be naught compared with the inclination of a sophomore’. Babbitt despised the German university’s goal of discovering something ‘new’ in ancient works: this specialization produced doctoral dissertations that explored ‘the ancient horse-bridle and the Roman doorknob’, a mountain of trivia that is peripheral to human experience. Babbitt insisted education had only two goals: wisdom and character.

Adler concludes with a surprise. He accepts the argument of the multiculturalists that many cultures have things to teach — but he then insists that only ‘masterworks’ should be included in the curriculum. The Battle of the Classics is not your typical call to restore the western canon to the center of the university curriculum; in his closing pages, Adler even recommends a wide-ranging set of masterworks from diverse cultures. Adler wants universities to include culturally diverse works into the curriculum, but he insists they avoid shallow texts that lead to a ‘tokenizing pursuit of representativeness for its own sake’. Select only those works that enlighten students about the human condition and ‘elevate and enrich their souls’. For supporters and skeptics of the humanities, The Battle of the Classics is essential reading.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2021 US edition.

NATO’s New Purpose: An Alliance Reborn to Take on China?



Will it soon be springtime for NATO? After four years of a suddenly mercurial American partner, European foreign and defense ministers seem relieved, if not giddy, at the prospect of president-elect Joe Biden’s promised foreign policy restoration. Yet the seventy-one-year-old alliance’s “brain death,” to quote French President Emmanuel Macron, needs stronger medicine than a mere return to the status quo. A new study, commissioned by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, calls for both renewal and reform, highlighted by a new focus on the challenge of China.

With 138 specific recommendations in less than 70 pages, the independent Reflection Group’s report, “NATO 2030: United for a New Era,” is light on detailed planning for implementation. Its China prescriptions range from countering disinformation to strengthening ties with Asian partners.

Some of these recommendations are no-brainers and some are predictably vague. But NATO members should resist any attempt to substantially reorient the alliance on countering China. NATO lacks the military tools, the societal will, and the strategic imperative to cast its gaze east of Suez.

NATO’s navies are not up to the task. True, Britain has spent (some would argue misspent) an enormous chunk of its defense budget on a pair of catapult-less conventional aircraft carriers and the F-35Bs to go with them. Germany’s Deutsche Marine may be in scandalous shape, but many other NATO navies have high standards, reputations for excellent seamanship, and capable, cost-effective ships.

Unfortunately, while the skill is there, the capacity is not. The Royal Navy boasts just 23 surface combatants – and is unable to fully man even this small fleet. In the critical (and eponymous) North Atlantic, NATO can sortie just six attack submarines. Though the situation has improved slightly since then, in 2018 the alliance could count on just a single constant maritime patrol aircraft over the North Atlantic. This is inadequate to contain the declining Russian Navy, never mind the PLAN.

NATO has also repeatedly shown that it doesn’t do “out of area” missions well. The much-lauded two-decade commitment to Afghanistan is a case in point. Though some NATO forces (the British, Canadians, Danes, and French among them) fought with valor and verve, mainly contingents were hamstrung by risk aversion and national caveats that prevented them from accomplishing much. The Times of London reported in 2009 that Italy actually paid off the Taliban to prevent its troops from being molested.

Even in nearby Libya, NATO struggled to prosecute a limited air war. Only eight of the then-28 member states in 2011 chose to participate – and most of them ran out of either ammunition or spare parts. NATO members refused to do the hard work of peacekeeping after Muamar Qaddafi was overthrown. Libya is now embroiled in a civil war and remains a security ulcer on Europe’s doorstep.

The other elephant in the room is even larger: the lack of European will to confront China. Leaders like Stoltenberg may announce that “China does not share our values,” but aside from this boilerplate rhetoric, there is little evidence that European NATO members have any enthusiasm for a clash with Beijing.

Italy is a participant in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, while several alliance members benefit from Chinese infrastructure investments in the Balkans. A September 2019 poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) found just 10 percent of Germans thought their country should side with America in the event of a U.S. – China war. Over 70 percent thought Germany should stay neutral. The thirteen other European countries surveyed displayed similar sentiments.\

Europe has belatedly awoken to the dangers of relying on Huawei’s 5G network, and the coronavirus has increased European suspicion of China. But neither development is likely to generate substantially greater enthusiasm for confrontation.

Instead of dragging Europe into a competition with China for which it lacks both the means and the motivation, NATO would best serve all of its members, including the United States, by maintaining a laser focus on the security threats facing Europe.

Russia remains foremost among these challenges. Many American foreign policy realists pine for a reset and a new modus vivendi with Russia, in order to reduce tensions, free up resources to confront China, and enable the United States to get its own house in order. This goal is understandable and perhaps achievable, but it takes two to tango. Extending New START, returning to the Open Skies Treaty, and other diplomatic overtures could cool tensions and restore some measure of trust. But the West may still be stuck reacting to Russian provocations and disruption in Europe.

Mediterranean NATO members like France and Italy are increasingly inclined to put terrorism and mass migration higher than Russian revanchism on their list of security priorities. French troops conduct a grinding counterinsurgency campaign in Mali while a host of NATO countries provided troops, aircraft, and resources to the now-curtailed counter-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria.

The Reflection Group makes mention of China’s increasing presence in Africa (and Russia’s far more militarized approach to the continent). But neither the PLAN’s Djibouti naval base nor Chinese lingerie vendors in Upper Egypt are a threat to Europe. Indeed, Chinese infrastructure investments and other commercial ventures almost certainly aid Europe’s overriding African security goal: minimizing the flow of refugees and economic migrants to the Mediterranean and then into Europe. Increased Chinese influence and power in what the Reflection Group dubs “NATO’s ‘South’” is more likely to arouse European applause than concern.

Europe has taken a lengthy holiday from history; many Europeans thought they had moved beyond serious armed conflict after the end of the Cold War. Russia’s occupation of Crimea has only partly broken this spell. Non-NATO member Sweden has reintroduced conscription and recently increased defense spending by a whopping 40 percent, but Germany and other alliance freeriders have made only tepid commitments to raise their defense spending. Even in comparatively strong Britain, which substantially increased its defense budget last month, the former Chief of Defence Staff felt compelled to warn in 2018 that “US observers have come to realize we are living a lie.”

European weakness is manifest in something as basic as mustering combat-ready ground forces. A 2017 RAND report found that NATO’s European big three – France, Britain, and Germany – could collectively mobilize just a single armored battalion in a week and fewer than three armored brigades in a month. For an alliance worried about Russian faits accompli, this is wholly inadequate. It has also resulted in an annual price tag of $6.5 billion for the U.S.’s European Defense Initiative – money could instead help to pay the U.S. Navy’s enormous nuclear deterrent recapitalization bills.

Instead of becoming a half-hearted American auxiliary in Asia, NATO can best contribute to checking China by focusing on Russia. If Russia and China continue to draw closer and become actual allies, the United States is unlikely to have the resources to compete with both. Estimates of Russian and Chinese defense expenditures are frequently much lower than they should be, due to the mistaken use of market exchange rate–based estimates instead of purchasing power parity (PPP) estimates.

The rise of anti-access/area denial technology further impedes America’s ability to contribute to European security. The U.S. Army’s new conceptual framework for major warfighting, Multi-Domain Operations, cautions that America will not be able to easily reinforce troops in a theater of near-peer war. That leaves two options: a major increase in U.S. forces in Europe or European NATO members taking on most of the burden of checking Russian forces. The former is highly unlikely, while the latter would greatly enhance America’s ability to compete with China. At least one prominent U.S. senator has stated publicly that if forced to choose, the United States will forsake European security commitments for competition in Asia.

The Reflection Group is right that NATO’s European members need to recommit to collective security and rebuild hard power capacity. The alliance doesn’t need to look any further than its own neighborhood, however. NATO can best serve its allies, and global security, by remaining focused on the security of Europe.

Gil Barndollar is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

Article originally published at the National Interest.

What Will a Biden Administration Do? Ask Rousseau


There is an endless stream of commentary on what a Biden administration will do in foreign and domestic policy. Some writers seem prescient, others seem like gossip and speculation. However, you need not be a Beltway policy wonk to understand the moral, spiritual and ethical outlook of the Establishment elites who will be on Biden’s staff — and therefore to know what their policy prescriptions will entail.

Classical political philosophy understood that all political problems are downstream from moral and spiritual problems. And, in the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau destroyed the West’s understanding of morality and spirituality, setting the stage for our current confusions.

For thousands of years, in both East and West, virtue was understood as the personal struggle to overcome the passions within oneself or, quite simply, to exert control over one’s impulses and desires. Rousseau turned this outlook on its head and insisted that virtue did not involve personal moral character but was instead indistinguishable from ‘sympathy’ for various social causes. Rousseau replaced personal virtue and moral character with ‘humanitarianism’.

This Rousseauistic outlook is precisely what drives the world view of our contemporary elites. In fact, the more highly educated they are, the more likely they are to associate strong moral character with people who simply support the correct humanitarian causes, not with people who display impeccable personal probity. The Harvard-educated elites who will staff the Biden administration are, first and foremost, secular humanitarians who do not believe that the most important goal in life is to set oneself right; they believe the goal of life is to set the world right.

It is quite easy to predict the policy prescriptions of secular humanitarians. An older understanding of human nature made leaders acutely aware that society is the soul written in larger letters — and therefore the goal of civilization is to create good people. That is, if you have rotten people, you will have a rotten society.

Humanitarians do not believe this. In their view, domestic problems are not driven by selfish people shirking their personal responsibilities to their offspring or treating others shabbily. Instead, domestic disorder is driven by the failure of the government, most always the distant federal government, to provide robust social programs. For people with this outlook, the panoply of humanitarian projects is limitless, and you assume the mantle of virtue by proposing and constructing them. To oppose these projects is to oppose virtue itself. Selfishness is not a personal vice; it is a policy position in opposition to humanitarian social programs.

In domestic policy, Biden’s humanitarian projects will inevitably slow economic growth, incentivize greater family and community breakdown and subject citizens to more faceless and remote bureaucracy. But it is on the foreign policy stage that the humanitarian outlook becomes most dangerous for, in world affairs, humanitarianism is indistinguishable from brutal imperialism and can cause major wars. Virtually all post-Cold War US foreign policy disasters — from Mogadishu to Iraq to Libya — were launched on humanitarian grounds. Afghanistan became a fiasco because our elites converted it from a fully justified national security action to a never-ending humanitarian quest for women’s rights and Afghani healthcare.

Biden’s foreign policy team will inevitably return to the pre-Trumpian belief that virtue in foreign policy is tightly bound up with crusades for democracy, human rights and a new world order. This outlook invites disaster, as we have seen.

As the great Harvard professor Irving Babbitt wrote in 1925: ‘The humanitarian would, of course, have us meddle in foreign affairs as part of his program of world service. Unfortunately, it is more difficult than he supposes to engage in such a program without getting involved in a program of world empire.’

So we know the moral outlook of those who will drive the Biden foreign policy: they will be meddling humanitarians on the world stage, always ready to condescend to, or even wage war upon, those who do not possess their understanding of a ‘virtuous’ foreign policy. As part of their program of world service, they will of course seek to ‘strengthen alliances’ and ‘support multilateral organizations’ but, as we have seen from our foreign policy establishment for decades, those nations who are intransigent about these humanitarian causes will face the barrel of a gun. It has long been clear that our humanitarian foreign policy is an imperial project, and we are about to return to this project.

Our political difficulties are not driven by our failure to arrive at the best ‘policy’ options. Our politics are broken because our elites possess an ersatz morality through their association of virtue with humanitarianism. The term ‘virtue-signaling’ is in such common parlance precisely because people intuit that when you define morality as support for various social causes, this is a form of easy and phony virtue, not virtue itself. Our leaders, even some of our religious leaders, no longer understand that good societies emerge when they create good people — not from a proliferation of humanitarian crusades.

William S. Smith is senior research fellow and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America. His recent book is Democracy and Imperialism from the University of Michigan Press. 

How a ‘Rapid Withdrawal’ from Afghanistan is Logistically Possible



Like many of Donald Trump’s tweets, the president’s October 7 declaration on withdrawing from Afghanistan was swiftly dismissed by most observers.

While Trump initiated a substantial drawdown — 2,000 troops before his term is up— the goal of a full withdrawal was attacked across the political spectrum. News anchors and senators raised the specter of Saigon and helicopters on rooftops. Trump’s own national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, publicly described his boss’s diktat as aspirational. But could the United States bring all its troops in Afghanistan home by Christmas?

Past pullouts, such as the 2013–2014 withdrawal of U.S. Marines from Helmand Province, were a lengthy and deliberate process run by units like R4OG, the Redeployment and Retrograde in Support of Reset and Reconstitution Operations Group. Tens of thousands of principal end items (vehicles, weapons, and other significant gear) were pulled back to major bases, cleaned, inventoried, and either shipped back to the United States or destroyed. From 2012 to 2014, the Marine Corps alone sent home well over one billion dollars of equipment. Tens of thousands of other items, from Humvees to hammocks, were given to Afghan security forces, as were 50 miles of bottled water. Sprawling Hesco hubs like Camp Leatherneck, once a garrison city of nearly 30,000 inhabitants, were rapidly shrunk before being turned over to Afghan soldiers.

A final withdrawal would be a far simpler affair. Assuming former ambassador James Jeffrey is a one-off and the publicly available numbers are relatively honest, there are currently about 4,500 U.S. troops, 8,500 NATO troops, 22,500 contractors, and 600 Department of Defense civilians supporting the coalition mission in Afghanistan. Five thousand of those contractors are Afghan nationals. As CNA’s Jonathan Schroden noted recently, at 200 people per Air Force C-17 and with the expectation of using Kabul International Airport for expatriating many of the contractors, all coalition forces could be out of Afghanistan in a few weeks.

As those of us who have experienced previous U.S. drawdowns in Afghanistan can attest, the Taliban have little interest in attacking withdrawing foreign forces, especially at this stage of the war. Far from a Saigon scenario, the insurgents will probably do everything short of escorting U.S. troops to their terminal.

Could is not should, of course. But the relative ease with which U.S. forces could be withdrawn speaks to their limited impact on the civil war engulfing Afghanistan. The latest quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko, underscores this fact. Sopko’s team noted that in the last quarter, even the most elite Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) strike teams conducted 96 percent of their ground operations independently — nearly quintuple the rate of a year ago — a result of both COVID restrictions on U.S. troops and the U.S.–Taliban deal. Outside of these units, the vast majority of Afghan soldiers and policemen have been operating unpartnered for nearly a decade. After years of “green-on-blue” insider attacks, the limited conventional coalition military advising element that remains is focused almost exclusively on staff work at higher echelons, corps and above.

What is maintaining a semblance of battlefield equilibrium between ANSF and insurgent forces is not U.S. troops or advice but U.S. firepower. In the violent southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, police commanders have stated that only U.S. air strikes kept the Taliban from penetrating their respective provincial capitals this fall. The classification of airstrike data in February leaves us with no concrete metrics, but it seems clear that aerial reconnaissance and fire support is the key U.S. contribution to limiting Taliban gains.

If U.S. commanders and diplomats have serious concerns about the resilience of ANSF units after a U.S. pullout, continued air support can provide a short-term “decent interval.” This does not require a U.S. ground presence, beyond contracted airport security. A small cell at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul could coordinate supporting fires for frontline Afghan troops. As Wesley Morgan, author of a forthcoming book about the war in eastern Afghanistan’s Pech Valley, told me: “The whole kind of war by WhatsApp is what we’re already doing.”

Indeed, even this minimal level of coordination is probably unnecessary. As Morgan related in the Washington Post on October 22, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) became the unofficial “Taliban air force” in 2019 as part of the fight against the Islamic State’s Afghanistan affiliate, Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K). Using signals intelligence capabilities honed over the previous 15 years of counter-terrorism missions, JSOC monitored the radios of Taliban units fighting IS-K and tasked air and drone strikes to support them. The same could be done for ANSF if required.

Beyond the immediate battlefield imperatives, a sudden U.S. pullout would have a host of other consequences. A certain amount of equipment would have to be given to Afghan forces or destroyed. Helicopters could be flown out, and any sensitive intelligence or surveillance systems would be retrograded or destroyed.

The remaining U.S. bases, around 10 in number, would have to be hastily transferred to ANSF units. Without sufficient engineering work to make their defense more manageable, some might be abandoned or lost to the Taliban.

Afghans who have faithfully served the United States — interpreters foremost among them — will be even more vulnerable to Taliban retaliation with U.S. forces gone. This could be mitigated by dramatically expanding and expediting the criminally slow Special Immigrant Visa program.

And of course, the counter-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan would look very different without U.S. troops on the ground. The United States, however, retains its fleet of drones, long-range bombers, and an unparalleled global manhunting machine. Shelter in jihadi-controlled Idlib did not save Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Even for those who don’t dismiss the safe haven argument as a myth, U.S. intelligence, reconnaissance, and surgical strike capabilities should enable Americans to sleep soundly at night.

The wisdom of an immediate and complete withdrawal from Afghanistan is debatable. But the feasibility of a total pullout is not. The U.S. military logistics system that can create iron mountains in the desert can also wind up our longest war in a matter of weeks.

Article originally published at Responsible Statecraft.

The Foreign Policy Choice This November



Grappling with a pandemic, recession, and nationwide protests, most Americans are understandably focused on their own country as they prepare to vote. Foreign policy ranked a distant sixth among the top concerns of registered voters, according to an August survey by the Pew Research Center. In the wake of President Trump’s hospitalization for COVID-19, it is unclear whether the American people will even have the chance to see the two presidential candidates debate foreign policy face-to-face. Few seem to care.

Yet the coming decade will likely be as pivotal for America abroad as it promises to be at home. China is soon to pass the United States economically and is flexing its muscles all over the world, from Himalayan peaks to Silicon Valley startups. The Middle East remains aflame, while America’s southern neighbors simmer. To paraphrase Trotsky: Americans may not be interested in foreign policy, but foreign policy is interested in Americans.

Presidential administrations set America’s foreign policy agenda, regardless of whether they end up with a “doctrine” to their name. The Constitution gives the president wide latitude in his conduct of foreign policy, even in the face of a divided Congress. Rhetorically, Donald Trump and Joe Biden offer starkly different visions of the world and America’s place in it. Biden promises restoration, while Trump offers further disruption. But talk is cheap. How are Trump and Biden likely to tackle America’s foreign policy challenges in 2021 and beyond?

Forever Wars?

The seminal moment of the 2016 Republican primary may well have been the South Carolina debate, where Trump decisively repudiated the previously sacrosanct Bush legacy. A decade after the darkest days of the Iraq war—and long after most of the country had recognized the invasion for the unadulterated disaster it was—Trump finally broke the GOP’s vow of silence on the subject. Calling Iraq “a big fat mistake” and reminding voters that the Twin Towers fell on Bush’s watch, Trump was attacked by the Bush dynasty’s last entrant and a succession of fawning epigones like Marco Rubio. The audience booed him but Trump cruised to an easy victory in the critical Palmetto State primary and established his bona fides as a man who would break with his party’s intellectually bankrupt foreign policy establishment.

Against Hillary Clinton, Trump’s forever war apostasy may have been equally salient. A pair of academics, Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen, have persuasively argued that a “casualty gap” explains Trump’s excess votes over Mitt Romney in the key states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. At a minimum, it seems clear that Trump neutralized the foreign policy credentials of Clinton, a former senator and secretary of state.

Yet Trump’s record since then is decidedly mixed. Supporters will note that he is the first president in 40 years not to get the United States into a new war. But he also hasn’t ended any of the interventions he inherited. Indeed, there are more U.S. servicemen in the Persian Gulf now than when Trump took office. U.S. soldiers still defend dusty outposts from the Levant to the Hindu Kush and occasionally find themselves in combat. America has also sponsored and enabled one of the region’s nastiest conflicts, the disastrous Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. Most recently, Trump helped ratify an emerging entente by midwifing the Israeli-Emirati Abraham Accords. Regardless of the latest tweet, a few thousand U.S. troops are still likely to be in Afghanistan in January.

Trump’s Iran policy, a dangerous seesaw between bellicosity and restraint, has been the most concerning element of the administration’s Middle East agenda. Despite walking away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, subsequently attempting to strangle Iran through economic warfare, and incinerating Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Major General Qassem Soleimani, Trump has repeatedly stepped back when on the brink of war.

The president openly pines for a “better deal” with the theocracy, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued Iran a list of preconditions that amount to surrender. When faced with non-lethal sabotage of oil tankers, the downing of an American drone, and even an unprecedented attack on Saudi oil refineries, Trump declined to strike the Islamic Republic. His defenders argue that he has cannily gone where others wouldn’t, cowing the Iranians and setting the conditions for an American drawdown in the region. More terrestrial thinkers, unaccustomed to this 10-dimensional chess, might retort that those who play with fire tend to get burned.

Trump’s greatest virtue with regard to the world’s most volatile region has been his instinctive realism. He has grasped that it is neither 1938 nor 1979, and that a continued American security guarantee for oil now mostly flowing east (albeit to both American friends and foes) is unnecessary. His willingness to accept the stark facts on the ground and negotiate with the Taliban comes from the same place. Trump has yet to show either the conviction or the competence needed to extricate American forces from the Middle East morass he regularly denounces.

What of Biden? Is he a committed forever warrior, as eager as Hillary to plant American flags in the back of beyond? His nearly 50-year career indicates otherwise. Biden voted against the first Iraq war and for the second one, regretting both votes. He opposed both the Iraq and Afghan surges, and though he dutifully carried water for the Obama administration at the time, Biden maintains that he opposed the Libyan intervention that has left that country broken and still at war. He pledges to return the United States to a nuclear deal with Iran, although that is likely to be far more easily said than done.

Biden’s long Middle East record, like Trump’s shorter one, is at best a mixed bag. Like Trump, he is free of the most dangerous American impulse, crusading. Biden’s judgment may be questionable but he seems to recognize the clear limits of what American bombs can accomplish. Nation building is not high on his agenda. In 2010, Biden told Afghanistan envoy Richard Holbrooke, that late, lionized legate of the liberal internationalists: “I’m not sending my boy [Biden’s late son Beau] back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights.” Last year, he stood his ground when CBS News’ Margaret Brennan questioned him about the exchange. Speaking with uncharacteristic clarity, the former vice president explained:

What I meant was there’s a thousand places we could go to deal with injustice. I can think of 10 countries where women and or children and or people are being – are being persecuted or being hurt. But the idea of us going to be able to use our armed forces to solve every single internal problem that exists throughout the world is not within our capacity. The question is is America’s vital self-interest at stake or the vital self-interest of one of our allies at stake?

Biden’s preferred Middle East military policy of counterterrorism amounts to a reluctant acceptance of low intensity attrition warfare, with little end in sight. But hubris, at least, is absent. As the University of Birmingham’s Patrick Porter noted recently, “There is a prudent Biden who occasionally peers through the fog.”

Both men fail the best current foreign policy litmus test: Syria. The counter-ISIS campaign in Syria spanned both the Obama and Trump administrations. The Islamic State’s last sanctuary, Baghouz, fell in March 2019. Yet U.S. troops remain in Syria today, ostensibly to keep Syria’s meager oil supplies from the hands of jihadist dead-enders. Syria is shattered and U.S. troops are bystanders for the closing act of a civil war—with Russian and Turkish forces also uncomfortably close.  Both Trump and Biden have committed to this most irrational of campaigns, maintaining an ineffectual Syrian expedition that is an invitation to a future crisis. For good measure, both men support the Caesar Act sanctions, the latest attempt to induce Syrian regime change by other means—actual Syrians be damned.


China has been President Trump’s signature foreign policy issue and the place where he has made the most consequential impact on America’s trajectory. Repudiating both the unthinking bipartisan free trade consensus and the even more utopian belief that prosperity would beget liberalism in the People’s Republic, Trump put China front and center upon assuming the presidency. He reoriented the Department of Defense on great power competition, initiated a trade war, and strengthened American relations with traditionally neutral India. In attempting to marshal the world against Huawei’s 5G rollout, the Trump administration is trying at the eleventh hour to prevent what author and analyst David Goldman has described as a looming “digital Pearl Harbor.” Even the president’s critics will concede that he has accelerated America’s turn away from China, provoking an extremely belated recognition of China’s growing power and challenge to American hegemony.

Biden, who went to China in 1979 as part of the first congressional delegation to visit after normalization, can claim no such clarity. As a senator and vice president, he sat firmly in the bipartisan consensus on China: the PRC was largely a responsible partner, increasingly critical to the U.S. economy but not to be feared, let alone provoked. Speaking at Sichuan University in 2011, Biden gently chided his hosts on intellectual property theft and human rights but embraced the ethos of “Chimerica”: the world’s two biggest economies bound together in a mostly benign mutual interdependence.

He is singing a very different tune now. Both in advertisements and in person, Biden argues that it is Trump who is weak on China. He unabashedly asserts that “China is an authoritarian dictatorship.” It seems unlikely that a Biden administration would pursue a Russia-style reset with China, button or no. The consensus has shifted, thanks both to Trump and to China’s increasingly aggressive actions on a myriad of issues, a “wolf warrior diplomacy” that appears to be self-defeating. Biden’s closest advisors readily admit their own errors in ignoring or even enabling China’s rise.

Biden would seek to reenergize the fraying “liberal international order” and attempt to use existing multilateral institutions and non-governmental organizations to constrain China. Trump scoffs at these and has instead leaned on Japan, Australia, India, and even Europe as partners in containing and confronting China.

Neither Trump nor Biden is likely to have the stomach for meaningful economic decoupling and an end to the Chimerica bind that has defined the global economy for the past three decades. One man hangs his hat on the stock market above all other metrics of presidential success while the other blithely promised Wall Street that “nothing will fundamentally change” with him in the White House. Even absent the distracting corruption of their scions, neither man seems willing to confront big business in order to hamstring China.

The proposed TikTok deal is the latest evidence. Should Oracle (or Walmart, or some other American goliath) gain a partnership with the social media phenomenon, there is scant evidence that the new U.S.-based entity would have control over TikTok’s all-important algorithm, never mind control over parent company ByteDance. While India has banned the app, America’s TikTok response has been transparent theater.

Biden purports to take a hard line on Big Tech, dismissing some of its executives as “little creeps.” His anger toward Facebook, increasingly the bete noire of Democrats, seems real enough. But Biden spent eight years in the Obama administration, where Google may as well have kept an office. Many of his future staffers have taken the revolving door to Silicon Valley and back. Biden’s willingness to give Big Tech any kind of ultimatum is an open question.

Europe and Russia

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization celebrated its 70th birthday last spring, an occasion marked with at least as much consternation as pride. President Trump has frequently made the alliance his whipping boy, lambasting the Europeans as free riders on American security. Though his math may be fuzzy, the president’s basic critique goes back as far as the Kennedy administration. Having begun his term openly questioning Article 5’s vague collective security guarantee, Trump is ending it by pulling thousands of U.S. troops out of Germany.

Yet Trump is not the main cause of the alliance’s increasing irrelevance. The President has certainly been loath to offer the requisite rote paeans to the alliance. But on his watch NATO has maintained its zombie inertia (adding security clients Montenegro and Northern Macedonia) even as its internal fissures and seeming obsolescence become ever more apparent.

French President Emmanuel Macron was condemned for describing NATO as “brain dead” a year ago. Today, France confronts NATO ally Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean and in Libya, the British are discussing cutting their paltry land forces yet again, and three U.S. senators are threatening to crush a German Baltic port for attempting to spurn American “freedom gas” in favor of the much closer Russian supply. Efforts to drag fence-sitting Europeans into an American confrontation with China continue apace. Brain dead might be an understatement.

Neither Trump’s seeming fondness for Vladimir Putin nor the sordid machinations in Ukraine should obscure the administration’s actual Russia policy, which has been more hawkish than that of its predecessor. At the behest of one hawkish national security advisor after another, the United States has shipped Javelin anti-tank missiles to the Ukrainians and withdrawn from accords like the Open Skies Treaty.

In the face of Trump’s halfhearted attacks on the alliance, Biden promises a full restoration of NATO prerogatives. Enamored of quaint references to “the Free World,” he seems eager to return to the status quo ante in Europe. Biden also has a curious and perhaps revealing tic: he often invokes Vladimir Putin as the final word on Trump, whether speaking to Washington policy wonks or a New Hampshire union hall. Biden seems to view Russia as an outright enemy, in contrast to the Chinese competitor. Russia is one area where Biden’s advisors and surrogates seldom equivocate.

Both Trump’s incoherence and Biden’s intransigence on NATO and Russia promise to be a hindrance to a sound American grand strategy. One can regard Putin as the opportunistic gangster he is while still seeking a modus vivendi that benefits America. Both Biden and Trump are wisely seeking an extension of New START and a broader nuclear framework with Russia. Both candidates would be wiser still to consistently seek to create daylight between Russia and China. The junior and senior partner are now reversed, but just as in the Cold War, a Russia—China alliance would be a grave challenge to the United States. Preventing this axis from solidifying should be among the foremost goals of American statecraft.

Looking South

Even more than America’s failed wars in the Greater Middle East, immigration was critical to Trump’s primary and general election success in 2016. The Republican base’s fury about unstaunched illegal immigration paved the way for Trump’s triumph. The Wall would go up and all would be well.

Four years later, the Wall remains unbuilt and a broader Latin America policy is missing in action. Despite the supposed centrality of immigration to American economic equality, national security, and even culture, Trump’s State Department has all but ignored Latin America. It has cracked down on unfriendly regimes, renewing sanctions on Cuba and making a shambolic attempt at regime change in Venezuela. Meanwhile, the authoritarianism of friendly governments in Brazil and El Salvador is ignored.

The result of this neglect is a festering problem, if not a ticking time bomb. Latin America’s trajectory looks bad: corruption and violence remain endemic while climate change is affecting crop yields and promising further chaos. COVID has become the fourth horseman, casting millions of newly middle-class Central and South Americans back into poverty and worsening inequality in the most unequal continent on earth.

The supposed Soros-funded migrant caravan menace of the 2018 midterms was an ugly chimera, and judging by the election’s results, not a very convincing one. But the migration issue is very real. Fifty percent of residents of the Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—fear that they will be murdered in the next year. The world’s 10 most violent cities are all in Latin America, half of them in Mexico. El Salvador is the most violent country on earth.

There are currently five million Venezuelan refugees, a total second only to Syria’s. As COVID continues and climate change advances, a tidal wave of refugees flooding America’s southern border is not a fringe nativist nightmare; it is an increasingly safe bet.

Guided by a leadership that considers the very idea of a border wall “immoral,” there is no indication that the Democrats have become any more serious about border security since 2016. But Biden can credibly claim to offer a far more comprehensive vision for Latin America than his opponent. In 2009, Latin America was one of those leftover issues that tend to land in an American vice president’s lap. Biden steered the Obama administration’s Central America Strategy, an attempt to address the root causes of the region’s dysfunction: poverty, corruption, and violent crime. Biden advisors now speak of an additional wrinkle: attempting to reshore some supply chains from China to Latin America, thereby securing key production vulnerabilities from China while also promoting economic growth in the region.

Biden’s focus on root causes may prove inadequate in the face of potentially catastrophic climate change and Latin America’s longstanding man-made woes. It at least promises long-overdue attention to the region. Paired with robust border security, a renewed Central America Strategy could offer the United States some hope of managing a future refugee crisis. Yet it appears that American voters can’t get both security and strategy.

For advocates of American foreign policy realism and non-interventionism, neither Trump nor Biden offers a satisfying choice. One talks the talk but neither consistently walks the walk. Whether possessing four or 40 years of foreign policy experience, neither septuagenarian is apt to reorient America’s role in the world, regardless of what the voters want.

Of course, maybe Trump or Biden will surprise us. Perhaps a true America First administration is about to break through the neoconservative topsoil next spring, or a Biden Doctrine of surprising realism is in the offing. In the meantime, American voters should be clear-eyed about the foreign policy records of their presidential options and the limits of the choice at hand.

Gil Barndollar is a Senior Research Fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

U.S. Foreign Policy: Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing



Trump’s biggest foreign policy accomplishment has been to reorient America’s China policy, discarding the three preceding administrations’ naivete in favor of a clear-headed evaluation of China as a competitor and threat. This belated shift was probably inevitable, but Trump accelerated the end of America’s embrace of China as a purported partner in prosperity.

It won’t get any easier from here. China has both economic tailwinds and demographic headwinds. The latter is a far larger factor – “demographics are destiny” – but perhaps somewhat mitigated in an age of automation and artificial intelligence. The United States, meanwhile, is confronting massive debts, internal disunity, and the looming “Terrible Twenties” of major naval recapitalization that analysts have long warned about.

Despite the uncertainty, his erratic tweets breed, President Trump has actually strengthened many of America’s partnerships in Asia. The other members of the Quad – Japan, Australia, and India – are critical to the region and vital U.S. national interests. They are likely to be America’s most important twenty-first century partners.

Biden sounds committed to continued strategic ambiguity on Taiwan. This is probably prudent, but it is no barrier to arming Taiwan to the teeth and helping it become a “porcupine nation” that can make China think twice about invading. The Taiwanese commitment to their own defense, however, is in question.

Asian allies are key, and a 500-ship navy would be nice, but the Sino-American competition’s critical arena is likely to be economic and technological. The next administration must put America’s long-term trajectory ahead of Wall Street’s quarterly earnings calls and restore key industries and supply chains to at least the Western Hemisphere, if not to the United States itself. The COVID pandemic and America’s initial shameful lack of capacity to make even basic personal protective equipment (PPE) should have been the needed wake-up call.

Perhaps U.S. – China technological separation can be limited, “small plots with high walls,” as tech billionaires like Eric Schmidt prefer. A broader decoupling and a de facto two internets may be where we end up. Regardless, both its 5G failure and the recent TikTok fiasco show that the United States has yet to get serious about its growing tech vulnerabilities.

Realism on Russia

Russia, that other remixed Cold War threat, is increasingly adjacent to China in American strategists’ eyes. Yet Russia is a distinct and far lesser security challenge than China. President Obama’s dismissing Russia as “a regional power” may not have been sound messaging to Americans or Russians. Still, it remains a more accurate assessment than the Russian hysteria that has gripped much of the American body politic for the last four years.

The past decade has shown that Russia remains a great power, albeit one with clear limits. The massive Red Army is long gone, replaced by a more proficient and agile Russian military that gets a maximum return on limited interventions like Syria. Russia has achieved many of its aims in its near abroad and has become an influential actor in the Middle East and North Africa. The Russians have assassinated spies and dissidents in Europe with little regard for the headlines. And while Russian interference in U.S. elections does not seem to have moved many votes, it has likely succeeded beyond its authors’ wildest dreams in disrupting and delegitimizing American politics.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is America’s adversary, not an outright enemy. The United States must not let Russia fall into China’s camp. Whether one hearkens to Halford Mackinder’s Heartland Theory or simply does the math on defense spending, the power of a Russo-Chinese alliance is clear.

It is in America’s national interest to get past Russian provocations and our own politics and find a modus vivendi, however uncomfortable, with Putin’s Russia. Remaining in the Open Skies Treaty and renewing New START are good first steps. A broad nuclear framework and an accord on mutual political non-interference are potential long-term goals. America’s European allies will have their say, but most will probably welcome a lowering of tensions.

Some theorists argue that structural factors will prevent Russia and China from being more than partners of convenience. Perhaps. Even a limited attempt at an American reset with Russia could fail as completely as the last effort – though hopefully without a goofy prop. Nonetheless, the next administration should at least keep its options open and remain realist in its approach to Russia.

Diplomacy and Demilitarization

“Ending endless wars” has become a trope in American politics, thanks to Donald Trump. But the campaign promises of 2016 remain unfulfilled, with U.S. troops still in Afghanistan, Iraq, and a handful of other low-intensity wars across the Greater Middle East. Like Trump, Biden increasingly speaks of a smaller footprint and limited counterterrorism aims. A broader demilitarization of American foreign policy and restoration of the declining State Department should be among the next president’s foremost foreign policy goals.

Both the hapless Rex Tillerson and the swaggering Mike Pompeo gutted the State Department, presiding over a 16-month hiring freeze, plummeting morale, and an unprecedented politicization of the department. Morale at State is 13th out of the 17 large federal agencies, and vacancies are endemic, both overseas and in key positions at Foggy Bottom. In an increasingly multipolar world, the decline of American diplomacy is a critical vulnerability.

The U.S. military has, for decades now, filled the vacuum that the State Department has left. America’s senior generals have become proconsuls while her junior officers are told that they are diplomats too. One wonders why America hasn’t won a war in thirty years.

A Foreign Service ROTC program is overdue. America’s diplomats are every bit as important as her soldiers. As foreign service officers sometimes like to note, since Vietnam, the United States has had more ambassadors than generals killed in the line of duty. If Biden wants to be bold, he can take a page from Elizabeth Warren and end America’s archaic, corrupt practice of giving ambassadorships to campaign donors and other amateurs.

The ends, ways, and means of U.S. foreign policy are all in need of serious reappraisal and reform. The State Department is a good place for the next administration to start.

Gil Barndollar is a Senior Fellow at Defense Priorities and a Senior Research Fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

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