Opinion | Can the Foreign Policy Elites Survive Biden’s Rejection?

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When President Joe Biden followed through on former President Donald Trump’s Afghanistan surrender plan last month with his complete military withdrawal, he also jettisoned the band of analysts, diplomats and advisers who got us waist-deep in the big sandy: the foreign policy elite.

“This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” Biden said on Aug. 31. Shattered and scattered by Biden’s refusal to stay the Afghanistan course for another year, another five years, another 20, elements from the foreign policy establishment have denounced the president for ending that trillion-dollar program of nation building and deep-dish military intervention. Council on Foreign Relations President Richard N. Haass, the de facto leader of the American foreign policy elite, led the pack by dramatically calling the pullout “both a major intelligence & policy failure with tragic consequences.”

Other longtime foreign policy influencers adopted the Haass stance. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the New York TimesMark Landler reports, has ripped Biden’s opposition to “the forever wars” as an “imbecilic political slogan.” Former German ambassador to the United States Wolfgang Ischinger says the president’s lack of consultation with NATO allies presented a “serious loss of trust, and that will require a significant reassurance effort by Washington.” Other foreign policy mavens who have backed the 20 Years War have burst blood vessels with indignation. As Kabul was falling, five former U.S. ambassadors called for one more push to victory. Deflecting blame for the Afghanistan disaster from themselves, Tom Nichols, Max Boot, and P. Michael McKinley literally blamed you and me for the mess. Former Trump administration national security adviser H.R. McMaster, one of the architects of our Afghanistan policy, urged Biden to “reverse course” by putting boots back on the ground and letting the bombs fly once again. Other prominent Afghanistan interventionists — such as John Bolton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus — filled the airwaves with their lamentations over the Biden policy.

Why does it matter that so many from the foreign policy elites have converged on Biden’s policy with such furor? It signals the president’s official repudiation of the Blob — Obama aide Ben Rhodes’ nickname for the transpartisan American internationalists behind our foreign policy since World War II — in a stinging and apparently irreversible fashion. In his speeches, Biden has de-anchored our foreign policy from its permanent war footing and its hot pursuit of anti-America jihadists everywhere and all the time. Biden’s new guiding principle, repeated again and again in his Aug. 31 speech, is that American intervention would be limited to where it contributes to our “vital national interest.” This can be viewed as a repudiation of aggressive war-making everywhere, which would be a major course correction if implemented, or a loophole that would allow him to declare a vital national interest and intervene again at his first impulse. If he means what he’s been saying, that it was a mistake to attempt nation building in Afghanistan and that a more modest mission of counter-insurgency should be adopted to protect the U.S. from terrorism, that shifts the foreign policy elite’s stock from a majority share to a minority. “I will not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past. The mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States, of doubling down on a civil war in a foreign country,” Biden said. Presumably, Biden’s rhetoric leaves unspoiled the U.S. positions on China and Russia, where the vitality of national interest is gargantuan.

Sensing that they been routed by Biden and the Afghanistan drubbing, the foreign policy elite has sought to bargain its way back into the administration’s good graces by arguing that foreign policy wizards like Hall of Fame baseball pitchers have a few bad outings. “Even if they made the wrong calls,” Max Boot writes of the foreign policy elite, “how do we know that other decisions would have worked out any better?” Playing the same game was Haass. “We got it wrong in Libya, we got it wrong in Vietnam,” he conceded. “But over the last 75 years, the foreign policy establishment has gotten most things right.” Writer Luppe B. Luppen (aka @nycsouthpaw) had a gas with that line, quipping in mock agreement with the A+ Haass had just given the Blob. “Just look at how well we have done in South America since 1946, or the Horn of Africa, or the Caribbean,” Luppen wrote.

The Haass confession indicates that the foreign policy elite might not have deserved the reverence — or at least the respect — they garnered from so many in the press corps for so long. If the consensus view on foreign policy is only 30 percent or 40 percent right as Haass suggests, why did reporters so faithfully seek their views when reporting on foreign affairs? It’s not that dissenting voice on foreign policy go completely unheard but that the illusion of consensus the Blob has formed looms so large that dissenters are easily marginalized or ignored. The natural time for a full-throated Blob defense of its Afghanistan policy — or heightened press coverage of a withdrawal — should have been during the Trump-Biden campaign, when the two candidates assumed withdrawal stances so similar that a Council on Foreign Relations October 2020 piece noted they were “in the same area code, if not the same zip code, on the issue.” Even if you believe in the Blob’s omnipotence — I don’t — the press could have covered the Trump-Biden break from the consensus more closely. And if not during the campaign, then why not in March, when Biden was telling NATO withdrawal was proceeding? It’s not like the press had to go searching for top sources saying the war was doomed: The two contenders for the presidency were on record saying they’d end it. It’s almost as if the press believes the forever war was destined to last forever.

Now that we’ve checked out of Afghanistan, the press could acknowledge that it was a mistake to quote the elite so faithfully when flipping a coin might have produced a better answer. If the foreign policy elite failed us, surely journalists should have been more skeptical of their pronouncements. At the very least, in the post-Afghanistan period journalists would be wise to broaden their call lists to include doubters and naysayers and other noninterventionists.

Haass deserves singling out not because he’s any more responsible for Afghanistan policy but because he’s its most candid advocate. In another tweet, Haass attempted to justify the U.S. “open-ended presence” in Afghanistan because it was not an occupation but like the missions in South Korea, Germany and Japan where the U.S. had been “invited.” In so far as the comparison was accurate, it described places where the U.S. had helped create governments that “invited” them in, not independent nations that had put out the welcome mat. This unwillingness to put Afghanistan in the U.S. “loss” column with Libya and Vietnam says more about the foreign policy elite’s diminution than several special issues of Foreign Affairs ever could.

The Afghanistan surrender differs from the Vietnam surrender in one important way. The Afghanistan surrender has come packaged with a presidential epilogue that says we won’t do this again. That nation building is a mistake. That the war was not vital to our national interest. In Vietnam, there was no such spoken presidential epilogue and President Richard Nixon’s Vietnam mastermind, Henry Kissinger, continued to lead American foreign policy under Nixon’s successor, President Gerald Ford, without once admitting his errors. Some people on the right lamented the “Vietnam syndrome” — a sensible reluctance to enter foreign wars — but the foreign policy standards for intervention remained. In the Vietnam example, the Blob not only survived its failure, it thrived in its wake.

Whether or not Biden sticks to his new principles or not, what we’re currently witnessing through the Afghanistan lens is the crackup of a foreign policy elite that has held sway for 75 years. You can rightly say Trump weakened the foreign policy elite by setting his timetable for the Afghanistan withdrawal and that Biden deserves credit for dealing that policy the last blow. It may be too early to say Biden has dethroned the foreign policy elite — his secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is as Blob as they come. But Biden has established a new standard for intervention, and as long as he and it prevail, policy merchants will work to incorporate it into their platforms. The Blob never disappears, it always adapts.

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Who should be the new foreign policy king? Send nominations to [email protected]. My email alerts were for the Iraq War before they were against it. My Twitter feed believes in multipolarity. My RSS feed is very busy right now with a foreign affair of its own.

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