The deeper crisis behind the Afghan rout
The good news for the Biden administration is that the latest NBC News poll reports 25% approval of how President Biden is handling the situation in Afghanistan. Foreign support is even harder to find. North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies are horrified and Greece has completed a border wall to prevent the expected influx of refugees. Arab countries are worried, India and Israel depressed. China and Russia are contemptuous.
This is not a conventional credibility crisis like the one President Obama faced when he backed down from his Syrian red line. America demonstrated its commitment to Afghanistan for 20 years and had no treaty obligation to defend the former Afghan government. A skillfully executed withdrawal could have bolstered US credibility with some Pacific allies, especially if it were accompanied by clear steps to bolster US forces in East Asia.
The Afghan debacle does not create a crisis of belief in American military credibility. Knowledgeable global observers do not doubt our willingness to retaliate in the event of an attack. The debacle is fueling something much more serious and more difficult to repair: the belief that the United States cannot develop and stick to policies that work.
Neither the allies nor the adversaries expected perfection in Afghanistan. Mr Biden was right that the end of a war will inevitably bring some chaos, and world leaders probably did not anticipate a smooth transition. They expected, however, that after two decades of intimate cooperation with Afghan political and military forces, the United States would not be caught off guard by a national collapse. They didn’t think Washington would fall into a massive, messy evacuation crisis without a shadow of a plan. They didn’t expect Team Biden to beg the Taliban to help get the Americans out.
All of this is fueling fears that the United States will be unable to develop persistent and competent policies in a way that will be difficult to reverse. It seems increasingly evident that despite, or perhaps because of, all the accredited bureaucrats and elaborate planning processes of the Washington political machine, the US government is not good at producing foreign policy. “Dumkirk,” as the New York Post called the withdrawal, follows 20 years of inconsistent Afghan politics. Neither the past two decades nor the past two weeks demonstrate American wisdom or the effectiveness of the Byzantine bureaucratic ballet from which American politics emerges.