The scuttle from Afghanistan is a humiliation for the US and its allies. It will embolden our enemies and demoralise our friends; it will revive al-Qaeda and provide it with a base; and it will result in a humanitarian disaster and a refugee crisis. The world is a more dangerous, less stable, crueller place as a consequence of President Biden’s reckless and unilateral decision to withdraw troops in the way that he did.
Matters are not made better by Biden’s blunt – some would say callous – defence of his actions. There is something admirable about a politician who is open with the public about the hard choices that have to be made, but his claim that it was either withdrawal or the pursuit of full-blown nation building is simply untrue. There was an option of limited engagement, providing air support to the Afghan army that could have kept the Taliban in check and allowed another generation of Afghans to escape oppression by a medieval theocracy.
[see also: The Taliban’s new reign of terror]
Not all the blame lies with Biden. It was Donald Trump who agreed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that set out a timetable for a withdrawal to be completed in May 2021, and began the collapse in the Afghan army’s morale. Trump can argue that this timetable was conditional, but it is hard to believe that he would have held the Taliban to its commitments. Biden, however, could have done so had he wanted. In any event, there is more than enough blame to allocate.
It is depressing for those of us who had higher hopes for Joe Biden. He is a better president and a much better man than his predecessor, but in all likelihood his time in office will be remembered for this appalling decision. He will deserve the notoriety.
His broad approach, however, should not come as a surprise. He made no secret of his desire to disengage from Afghanistan, not least because such a position is popular with the US public. Beginning with Barack Obama, accelerated by Trump and continued by Biden, the US has been retreating from much of the world. This process is not a consequence of the idiosyncrasies of these three presidents but a response to public opinion. Isolationism is back in fashion in both a Trump-shaped Republican Party and in the Democrats, where none of the recent presidential candidates argued for a more interventionist approach.
This is in part a response to previous military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is possible that the pendulum will swing back as the Afghan tragedy unfolds (although the dismal consequences of non-intervention in Syria have made no obvious difference to opinion).
There is another factor here that suggests such a change will not happen any time soon. The realignment of US politics away from the politics of economics towards the politics of culture means that the swing voters (which makes them the most contested and therefore the most influential) are insular and suspicious of expert opinion. They had generally voted Democrat until Trump won them over, and Biden was selected as the candidate to win them back.
These are voters sympathetic to an America First attitude. Wherever possible the Biden administration will prioritise what it sees as their preferences, and their preferences will be to oppose foreign entanglements. This matters for the world and it matters for the UK government.
It should now be obvious to all that the US will not perform the role of global policeman unless its narrow interests are threatened. When it comes to issues such as the migrant crises from Asia or Africa, the interests of European countries – including the UK – are much more closely aligned in this new environment than they are with the US.
The US’s behaviour strengthens the case for EU member states to be more engaged with the rest of the world and less reliant on the US. It is also clear that for the UK to make a difference on the world stage, we must work with others. In practice, this means working closely with the EU on foreign affairs. Brexit has made this much harder but, even outside the EU, there is an opportunity to rebuild this relationship if the UK can recover its reputation for reliability and acting in good faith.
Putting aside military action, we can expect a depressing degree of Trumpian behaviour from any US administration. Whether the issue is trade, Covid-19 or climate change, it would be naive to rely on the US to take anything other than a narrow interpretation of the national interest. For the foreseeable future, the voters that matter there won’t accept anything else.
As an admirer of the US, as someone who believes that America has contributed hugely to the benefit of the world in defeating tyranny and protecting liberty, this is a desperately sad state of affairs. But the reality is that the US is turning in on itself and there is little we can do about it (the president did not even speak to our Prime Minister about Afghanistan until Tuesday evening). We have our own political realignment under way which tends towards isolationism, but if “Global Britain” is to mean anything and not be mere bluster, we need to reset our expectations of the US and find good allies elsewhere – starting with the EU.