Is It Biden’s Turn to be Boxed In?

Photograph Source: U.S. Secretary of Defense – CC BY 2.0

In 2009, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his military brass were pushing for as many as 80,000 additional troops in Afghanistan, only Vice President Joe Biden tried to convince President Barack Obama that the Pentagon’s strategy would not succeed.  He was the administration’s only genuine skeptic regarding Gates’ recommendations for more force. In the Obama administration’s first White House meeting on the war, Biden shouted “We have not thought through our strategic goals.”  In private, Biden warned Obama not to get “boxed in” by Gates and the generals.

Obama’s memoir, “A Promised Land,” fails to fully credit Biden for his passionate and prophetic warnings.  Biden was the administration’s only consistent dissenting voice on Afghanistan.  His criticism of the military probably led him to appoint a four-star general, Lloyd Austin, as secretary of defense in order to mollify the Pentagon.

It was known as early as 2006 that additional troops would not make a difference; that the Afghan government would collapse without U.S. support; and that the Afghan government was a criminal syndicate.  In private meetings with Obama, Biden dismissed the intelligence community’s view of the Taliban as nothing more than a “new al Qaeda.” It wrongly predicted that the Taliban would project a “global jihadist ideology.”  The fact that Biden was so right 12 years ago probably explains his stubbornness in standing up to the Pentagon, which was still arguing for a “conditions based withdrawal.”  Biden was not going to allow the Pentagon to pursue its “forever war” any longer.

Nevertheless, in trying to recover from the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden has weakened his case for an anti-intervention and pro-alliance strategic posture by threatening an expanded global war on terror.  Biden’s national security team is currently preparing policy for striking terrorist targets with drones outside of any active war zone, which contradicts the president’s repeated statements that he wants to end the “forever wars.”  There is also the problem of allowing the Pentagon to make decisions regarding drone strikes without consulting the White House or the National Security Council.

The transatlantic alliance has not recovered from four years of Donald Trump, and Biden’s lack of consultation with NATO partners has weakened U.S. credibility in Europe and strengthened European efforts to avoid taking on risks created by U.S. militarization. Biden’s first diplomatic foray in June was designed to rebuild the transatlantic alliance, but whatever good will he accumulated in those talks was compromised by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, which seemed to come from Donald Trump’s “America First” playbook.  The withdrawal itself reignited the European debate over “strategic autonomy.”

At home, it will be more difficult to repeal Iraq-related authorizations from 1991, 2001, and 2002 to use force or to pare back the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East, especially Syria, and the Persian Gulf.  If anything, Congress is likely to move in an opposite direction in order to make it easier for a president to expand war-making authority against militia groups the world over.

Biden is being boxed in by his own political party, which favors increases in defense spending beyond the Pentagon’s requests let alone the president who favors holding defense spending at last year’s level ($715 billion).  In a closed-door vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee, only Senator Elizabeth Warren opposed increased defense spending.  In the House Armed Services Committee last week, moderate Democrats joined Republicans to approve additional spending for ships, aircraft, and combat vehicles.  The congressional majority is part of the current Cold War hysteria among politicians and pundits that the United States must increase spending to combat a “rising China and a re-emerging Russia.”

Biden’s initial foreign policy moves are contributing to the Cold War hysteria that will block his efforts to stop endless military deployments and turn to diplomacy, economic aid, and global alliances.  Biden’s used his meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last week to label Ukraine a “strategic partner” and promised a “stronger partnership.”  Zelensky was only the second European leader to visit Biden’s White House, and the Ukrainian leader expressed thanks for increased military aid that includes anti-armor missiles and other lethal weaponry.  The Obama administration opposed the transfer of lethal weapons to Ukraine; the Biden administration is working on a new strategic defense framework for Ukraine that could lead to Kiev’s association with NATO.  These moves will significantly complicate relations with Russia, and worsen East-West relations.

Biden’s policy moves toward China continue the confrontational policies of his predecessor.  Import duties still exist on more than $360 billion worth of Chinese goods, and almost all of the exemptions that shielded several thousand products from tariffs have expired, according to the New York Times.  Biden’s team has expanded the list of sanctioned Chinese officials as well as Chinese firms that cannot receive U.S. investment funds.  There is no difference between Trump’s trade war and Biden’s, and the policy of dual containment against both Russia and China is becoming a geopolitical nightmare. Even Democratic moderates such as Senator Chris Murphy (CT) are emphasizing the importance of “negotiating from a position of strength with China,” which is a non-starter.  Biden’s emphasis on countering China has led to additional European anxiety about the tone and tenor of U.S. decision making.

Biden’s meeting with Israeli President Naftali Bennett produced no pressure on moving Israel toward negotiations or discussions with the Palestinian leadership.  Biden stated that he is “ready to turn to other options” if diplomatic efforts fail to revive the Iran nuclear accord, which could include military pressure.  Previous joint planning with Israel led to the cyber attack against Iran’s centrifuge system ten years ago, the first international act of cyber war.

Biden cannot stop the “forever wars” without taking on the huge U.S. military presence the world over; the global commitment to fighting terror; and the reliance on the exaggerated role of the military in U.S. decision making.  The CIA’s role in fighting terror will strengthen the intelligence agency as a paramilitary organization, leading the struggle in such remote arenas as Somalia and Yemen.  Meanwhile, the United States is losing virtually all of its geopolitical battles, particularly covid; the climate; nuclear proliferation; and a worsened refugee situation.

Biden acknowledged some of the hard truths of the military failure in Afghanistan, but he strengthened the commitment to the global war on terror, particularly against Al Shabab in Somalia; al Qaeda affiliates in Syria and the Arabian Peninsula; and ISIS affiliates in Africa and Asia.  The Economist reports that Somalia is internationally recognized as the world’s most corrupt state (Afghanistan redux).  The United States built a huge airbase in Niger to deal with jihadist insurgents in the Sahel, particularly Burkina Fasso, Chad, and Mauritania.  These states lack the political institutions to deal with their insurgencies, and U.S. air power will be no more successful in the Sahel than it was in Vietnam or Afghanistan.

We cannot defeat violent jihadist fundamentalism throughout South, Southeast and Southwest Asia; the Middle East; and the African Sahel. This violence preceded the Taliban and al Qaeda, and our mindless intervention in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion was a major predicate.  The 9/11 attacks led to two decades of war against the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11.  The ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates in Africa and the Middle East have nothing to do with Afghanistan.

Biden believes that our military adventures in the Third World have been a disaster, and now he needs to ignore the criticism from the so-called foreign policy elite such as the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, who blames Biden for taking us into an “era of under-reach.”  Biden courageously took on the foreign policy establishment in withdrawing from Afghanistan.  But he will have to be equally courageous in taking on a military-industrial-congressional establishment that was wrong about Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and now wants to pursue a dangerous policy of double containment against Russia and China.  The establishment is already making false claims about U.S. loss of credibility (Vietnam redux) and “strategic patience.”  The New York Times has proclaimed that our Afghan “withdrawal allows the United States to direct its planning and material toward countering Chinese power across Asia.”  Thus far, the Biden national security team seems to agree.


Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for