Where is Joe Biden’s ‘red line’?
President Biden’s dogged determination to get out of Afghanistan, consequences be damned, raises the inevitable question: What strategic commitments would he defend? Is there a “red line”?
Biden’s lieutenants and many in the political class have framed the Afghanistan disaster as an unfortunate episode in a larger project of strategic retrenchment, appropriately concentrating on “great power competition” and particularly China’s emerging hegemonic drive while avoiding the “forever wars” of the greater Middle East.
In this reckoning, Biden is reanimating the Obama administration’s “Pacific pivot.”
This might be credible except for two reasons. First, even as the chaotic evacuation from Kabul continues, the administration is moving to contract its commitments elsewhere. Second, the pattern of “rebalancing” has been apparent for more than a decade. Retreat was also the policy of the Obama and Trump administrations; Biden has merely picked up the pace, not changed direction.
The next stage in America’s strategic “downsizing” is playing out in Eastern Europe, and particularly in Ukraine. This very week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky convened a “Crimea Platform” summit to rally international support for the return of Crimea, invaded by Russia in 2014. The subsequent “annexation” is not legally recognized, but the tepid Western response did little to deter another invasion, of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, later that year.
While the summit drew a gaggle of European representatives who spoke bold words, Zelensky’s effort was rebuffed by the Biden administration, represented only by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also gave the summit a pass.
The summit squib is a symbolic reprise of the more severe blow Biden and Merkel dealt to Zelensky’s position in recent months with the embrace of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, intended to bring Russian gas to Europe via a Baltic Sea route rather than via Ukraine.
This not only deprives Kyiv of much-needed transit fees but will allow Moscow to withhold gas supplies from Eastern Europe. Along with Ukraine, the Baltic states and Poland have fiercely opposed the Nord Stream 2 deal. Former Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski compared the pipeline agreement to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which divided Poland between Berlin and Moscow and set the stage for World War II.
Eastern Europeans have had increasing doubts about American strategy for the continent since the end of the Cold War. Though the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations successfully negotiated NATO expansion (though Ukraine and Georgia still await admission), it was at the cost of limiting force deployments along NATO’s “eastern front.”
This, inevitably, invited Russian revanche, with overt attacks in Georgia and Ukraine but also cyberattacks and political warfare from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Though the Obama and Trump administrations have made small, showy troop deployments to the east and even established a small permanent garrison in Poland, these do not begin to compare to the overall reduction in U.S. European posture, strategic ambition or diplomatic attention.
Indeed, the retreat from Eastern Europe seems but a half-step behind that from the greater Middle East. In this regard, the paradigm shift from engagement to withdrawal was President Obama’s insistence – loudly cheered by Vice President Joe Biden – on abandoning Iraq. Compared to the humiliation of the bungled retreat from Kabul, the withdrawal from Iraq was thought to be a model of good order — time has blurred the catastrophic brutality of the ISIS caliphate.
But there can be no doubt that the Iraq bug-out was of larger consequence; not only is the strategic centrality of Baghdad greater than that of Kabul, but the “surge” of the late Bush years had been a clear military success, a counterinsurgency that had begun to create a new and more legitimate Iraqi state.
It’s increasingly difficult to portray this decades-long pattern as a “pivot” or realist’s rebalancing of America’s strategic portfolio. The administration’s performance in Afghanistan has not passed unnoticed in East Asia, alarming allies – particularly India and the Muslim-majority states of Southeast Asia – and incentivizing adversaries.
Chinese propagandists are delighted, not least by Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s supplication for help in creating a “soft landing” for Afghanistan under the Taliban. “After the fall of the Kabul regime, the Taiwan authorities must be trembling,” tweeted Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times (the English-language equivalent of the People’s Daily) “Don’t look…to the U.S. to protect them.” Napoleon got it backwards: The world will shake as America sleeps.
Giselle Donnelly is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Iulia Ioja is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.