Will Biden’s 2021 foreign policy failures reverberate in 2022?
From a national security perspective, Americans will not remember 2021 fondly. Self-inflicted wounds, delusional policy objectives, underestimated strategic menaces and impotence against immediate threats unfortunately characterized the Biden administration’s approach.
Good news was sparse. But continuing a 61-year bipartisan tradition, Congress passed this year’s $768-billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), $25 billion above the president’s request. Of course, we still need a comparable, full-year appropriations bill to avoid limping along with underfunded continuing resolutions. We also still need to overcome President Obama’s eight years of inadequate resources, and rising inflation, which is eroding this year’s small increase. Since it could be worse, just passing the NDAA warrants celebration.
Turning to the bad news, America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was a strategic debacle, a national embarrassment, a rolling catastrophe for the Afghan people, a tonic for our adversaries and a downer for our friends. Both Presidents Biden and Trump contributed to this blunder. Although the global humiliation of the decision’s bungled execution, watched live by hundreds of millions of people, is largely Biden’s to bear, Trump’s indefensible predicate deal with the Taliban meant the tragedy would likely have unfolded the same under either president.
White House sources anonymously hoped Americans would largely forget the shame and sadness. Unfortunately, however, the hits just keep on coming. The White House conceded just months after withdrawal that ISIS-K was capable of mounting terrorist attacks against the United States in 6-12 months, and al Qaeda in 12-24 months.
In early December, CENTCOM’s commander grudgingly acknowledged that, contrary to Taliban commitments and Biden administration assurances, al Qaeda’s support had “probably slightly increased” and that “we should expect a resurgent ISIS” in Afghanistan. Hundreds of U.S. citizens and over 60,000 Afghans who worked with America (not counting their families) still seek asylum. Humanitarian disaster looms.
Finally, the media report a large influx of Pakistani sympathizers to Afghanistan to join the Taliban, thereby inevitably raising the risks of Pakistan and its substantial stock of nuclear weapons also falling to terrorists.
Speaking of nuclear-proliferation failures, Iran and North Korea were 2021 standouts. Since his inauguration, Biden has abjectly pleaded with Iran to revitalize the 2015 nuclear deal. Leaving aside that the deal itself is hopelessly flawed, and even assuming, contrary to fact, that Iran strictly complied with its provisions, Biden has irretrievably lost nearly a full year pursuing an illusion.
Of course, Tehran wants release from U.S. economic pressure, as does Pyongyang, but neither wants it enough to make the strategic decision to abandon pursuing deliverable nuclear weapons.
Biden seems unable to absorb this point. After a year of frenetic diplomacy and public optimism on Iran, and a year of frenetically doing essentially nothing on North Korea, the result in both cases is identical. Tehran and Pyongyang are one year closer to perfecting their nuclear and ballistic-missile technology, and for North Korea perhaps hypersonic cruise missiles. Time is always on asset for the proliferator, needed to overcome the complex scientific and technological obstacles to becoming a nuclear-weapons state. Iran and North Korea have both made good use of 2021. The United States stood idly by.
Before Christmas, the media again speculated about a U.S.-Israeli “Plan B,” implying the use of force to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, presumably well above the low-level sabotage and disruption already inflicted on Tehran. Whether Israel has the will to use military force depends on its uneasy governing coalition, which clearly has the will to stay in office despite widespread policy differences.
Some coalition members seem unlikely ever to favor dispositive pre-emptive force against Iran, despite Israel facing what former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called a prospective “nuclear holocaust” launched by Tehran. As for America, its rhetoric and real deterrence capabilities seem less persuasive than ever. Iran likely believes it can defy the U.S. without consequences for at least three more years. Israel needs to act accordingly.
Which brings us to Russia and China, which appear to believe they either never lost parity with the U.S. or have now achieved it. Russian President Vladimir Putin had extensive discussions with Biden, including three hours in-person on June 17 in Geneva. By then, Biden had already gratuitously agreed to a five-year extension of the badly flawed New START nuclear-weapons agreement, wasting significant diplomatic leverage, since Putin had earlier been willing to accept a one-year increase.
Moreover, Biden had been rumored to be willing to concede that the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline was so close to completion that the U.S. would no longer try to stop it; an agreement with Germany to that effect was announced just a month after Geneva.
After the summit, Biden said “all foreign policy is a logical extension of personal relationships.” Amtrak Joe, like Donald Trump, may believe foreign policy is about personal relationships, but Putin knows it is about power, resolve and raison d’etat.
Putin has marked his man, and trouble lies ahead, most imminently in Ukraine. Biden’s reaction to the Kremlin’s pressure has been completely predictable: strong rhetoric about Russia’s belligerence, paeons to NATO’s importance, threats of economic sanctions and little else. Moscow has heard it all before and responded by formally annexing Crimea and taking effective control of substantial parts of eastern Ukraine.
If Biden has nothing new or different to offer, the crisis for Ukraine and other former USSR republics left in the “grey zone” between NATO and Russia will only grow in 2022. The risk of a Russian military incursion was unabated as 2021 ended.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s growing strategic threat should be paramount for Washington. Biden’s aimlessness on China is therefore not just troublesome, but dangerous. His lack of direction has one of two causes. Either he fails to understand the enormous scope of China’s threat, which spans the full spectrum of economic and politico-military affairs (which would be bad enough), or he is holding back, hoping desperately for Chinese cooperation on climate-change issues (which would be even worse).
Although Biden has not spoken definitively, at least some of his diplomacy is constructive. He has strengthened the nascent India-Japan-Australia-U.S. Quad, holding its first in-person summit and advancing a potentially critical strategic partnership. He agreed to the joint Australia-U.K.-U.S. effort to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, a major advance in allied military cooperation. And, mirroring a 2020 U.S.-Palau deal, the U.S., Australia and Japan agreed to finance undersea communications cables to three Pacific island states, countering China’s relentless efforts to extend its influence.
Whether these agreements are only sui generis or form elements of an urgently needed, long-term strategy is unclear. But they manifestly do not address more pressing Indo-Pacific problems. Despite tough 2020 campaign talk about China, which was popular across America’s political spectrum, Biden’s concrete follow-through has been noticeably lacking, especially regarding Taiwan.
The Afghan withdrawal and Biden’s emphasis on climate change reverberate worryingly in Taipei as signals of Washington’s willingness to abandon Taiwan or trade it for something Biden deems more worthwhile. Throughout the Indo-Pacific, Taiwan is seen as a synecdoche for regional security. If China prevails there, whether militarily or diplomatically, America’s position in this vast region will be irretrievably weakened.
America ends 2021 pointed in the wrong direction on national security. On this record, and given the rising challenges globally, 2022 could be grim indeed.
John Bolton was national security adviser to President Trump from 2018 to 2019, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2006 and held senior State Department posts in 2001-2005 and 1985-1989. His most recent book is “The Room Where It Happened” (2020). He is the founder of John Bolton Super PAC, a political action committee supporting candidates who believe in a strong U.S. foreign policy.