In Afghan Withdrawal, a Biden Doctrine Surfaces

The messy ending to the war has underscored President Biden’s discomfort with prolonged military engagements, even as the United States faces complex new threats.

By Helene Cooper, Lara Jakes, Michael D. Shear and Michael Crowley

WASHINGTON — In the chaotic finale of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, a Biden Doctrine is emerging: a foreign policy that avoids the aggressive tactics of forever wars and nation building, while uniting allies against the authoritarianism of rising powers.

President Biden began to define this doctrine on Tuesday when he declared the end of “an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” offering what he said was a better way to protect American interests around the world through diplomacy, the military’s targeted antiterrorism abilities and forceful action when necessary.

But the disordered ending to the war has laid bare the strains inherent in Mr. Biden’s foreign policy, which calls for a return to protecting human rights and promoting democracy, but only when consistent with U.S. goals. The president’s withdrawal from Afghanistan makes clear that he saw risking more American lives there as no longer in America’s national interest.

“At some level, he seems to be applying a standard of if I wouldn’t send my child to this war, then as president I shouldn’t be asking anyone else to send their children,” said Michèle A. Flournoy, a former under secretary of defense during the Obama administration. “Frankly, that’s a standard we should expect every president to apply.”

But, she added, “It’s important to draw a distinction between his appetite for nation-building, which is essentially nil, versus his appetite for using force if it’s necessary to defend U.S. national security, which I believe remains quite strong.”

The Biden Doctrine sees China as America’s existential competitor, Russia as a disrupter, Iran and North Korea as nuclear proliferators, cyberthreats as ever-evolving and terrorism as spreading far beyond Afghanistan.

In White House meetings on many of those issues, the president has indicated that he is comfortable with the idea of backing American diplomacy with a muscular military posture, administration officials said. He is eager to remind Iran of America’s strike abilities, as he did last week when he said in public remarks during a meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of Israel that if diplomacy failed to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he was “ready to turn to other options.”

But such threats only work if adversaries believe he will follow through.

Mr. Biden has ordered military strikes in Syria against Iranian-backed Shiite militias that rocketed U.S. troops in Iraq, and, more recently, in Afghanistan against the Islamic State after the group took responsibility for a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport. But those attacks were retaliation against nonstate actors and not intended to be followed by American troops on the ground.

After the president’s clear delineation of his distaste for American military involvement overseas, “nobody believes that the Biden administration is going to attack the Iranian nuclear program,” said Kori Schake, who directs foreign and military policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and served in the Pentagon under President George W. Bush. “That would have sustained military ramifications.”

Mr. Biden’s aversion to protracted nation-building efforts is not new. As a senator, he voted in favor of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, but soon soured on the endeavors. As vice president in the Obama administration, he pressed forcefully for the United States to draw down troops.

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