President Joe Biden’s address to the American public Thursday in the wake of the suicide bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed at least 13 U.S. service members and scores of Afghan civilians, could’ve been filled with rage and bravado, or signaled reconsideration of his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the country by month’s end.
But it wasn’t. It was mournful and restrained, with the president declaring a firm commitment to carry on with the withdrawal of troops as planned.
“We will not be deterred by terrorists. We will not let them stop our mission. We will continue the evacuation,” he said, in a somber tone that felt appropriate for a funeral.
While Biden is far from a dove, there is something remarkable about seeing his tangible move away from a hawkish foreign policy style that has caused such tremendous suffering.
Biden’s brief remarks were the latest sign that decades after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States' outlook on the war on terror has substantively shifted away from the Bush era. Combined with his last speech, in which he rebuffed strident criticism from the national security establishment and the media on how he’s handled his withdrawal, Biden is pivoting away from nation-building and toward a narrower realist vision for pursuing American security.
It’s an encouraging development. While Biden is far from a dove, there is something remarkable about seeing his tangible move away from a hawkish foreign policy style that has caused such tremendous suffering — and obliterated the right to self-determination — for so many across the Middle East and Central Asia.
During his remarks, Biden delivered firm words for ISIS-K, the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State terror group, saying, "We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay." But just a little later, he said, "We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose and the moment of our choosing." In other words, the United States' retaliation is meant to be a targeted strike, perhaps using special forces — not a pretext for prolonging the U.S. occupation.
During the Bush era, terrorist attacks became the basis for, among many other things, launching two major wars and occupations; by contrast, Biden framed the U.S. getting out of war as a sign of American strength in the face of terrorist attacks.
“These ISIS terrorists will not win. We will rescue the Americans who are there. We will get our Afghan allies out, and our mission will go on,” he said. “America will not be intimidated.”
The president’s remarks built upon a broader Biden doctrine that we glimpsed when he spoke earlier in August, right after the Taliban captured Kabul at a jaw-dropping speed. During that speech, Biden staunchly doubled down on the wisdom of withdrawal, arguing that “Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building” and spoke about operations in Afghanistan as meant only for preventing future terrorist attacks.
During that speech he did not discuss Afghan human rights, exporting democracy or building a new Afghan state, as neoconservatives on the right and liberal internationalists spanning the political spectrum did during the Bush era, and through the Obama administration. Instead, Biden spoke only of the importance of pursuing America’s “national interests” and the “cold reality” of either withdrawing or perpetual warfare in Afghanistan. Gone was the sweeping post-9/11 rhetoric we’ve seen from both Republicans and Democrats about remaking the Muslim world; what Biden presented was an acknowledgement of the limits of American power.
“After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” Biden said with the kind of humility that seemed unimaginable during the peak of the war on terror.
Between Trump's and Biden's actions on Afghanistan, there’s been a new bipartisan shift away from the old consensus on nation-building interventionism.
Biden is not the first president to step toward a more realist paradigm — former President Donald Trump negotiated the withdrawal deal with the Taliban and drew down troop levels in Afghanistan before Biden entered office. And Trump’s "America First" rhetoric always slammed forever wars as a waste of American resources. But Biden’s position is in some ways more striking precisely because he had promised a restoration of traditional American foreign policy on the presidential campaign trail. Between Trump's and Biden's actions on Afghanistan, there’s been a new bipartisan shift away from the old consensus on nation-building interventionism.
None of this means Biden is a dyed-in-the-wool anti-war president — what we know so far is that he wants more narrowly defined national security objectives, and is skeptical of the idea that democracy can be achieved through the barrel of a gun. And he’s offered no critique of the bedrock assumptions of the national security establishment that the U.S. should always be projecting its power around the globe without regard for the sovereignty of other nations.
But there’s something to be said for celebrating a real step away from a mode of militarism that has wreaked havoc on the lives of so many in the Middle East and Central Asia. If the U.S. finally stops believing it has the right or the capacity to remold other nations as it wishes to — and without regard for mass casualties and trauma among the very people it claims to be helping — that’s a good thing.