If you want to see what’s required to invade a foreign country, look no further than your garden: it contains everything you need to know about “grand strategy”.
Before planting a single bulb, you need time and patience to learn about the different types of terrain, shrubs and climates. Only after you have acquired that foundational knowledge can you decide what you wish to grow. But even then, it’s all too easy for the vagaries of the weather to wreak havoc on your plans, for you to lose faith and pull the plug. Yet failure isn’t guaranteed; with a bit of persistence, your original target could still be reached.
Consider the US government’s attitude towards Iraq and Afghanistan in the twenty years since 9/11. It has invested so much in terms of lives, injuries, morale and money on its campaigns in the Middle East. At the same time, paradoxically, it has learned an extraordinary amount. More was achieved than met the eye. But just as green shoots were beginning to emerge, America gave up.
Joe Biden appears to be pivoting away from almost every key decision made by his predecessor, for no other reason than the fact that he was a Republican. US foreign policy, which should be a long-term strategic investment, is falling victim to the perennial inter-party struggle between the Republican and the Democratic Parties.
It was not always like this. In the late 1940s — a period now so remote that few living Americans can remember it — the US was starting to face the full extent of the Soviet threat. The new President, Harry Truman, took a far harder line towards Stalin than his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt. But until the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991, both Democrat and Republican administrations opposed communism.
Yes, fellow-travellers and spies still existed. But largely there was a remarkable degree of bipartisanship, and its importance should not be overstated. Across the world, every political leader knew that the US would continue to pursue a consistent foreign policy, no matter who was in the White House. If the Soviet Union intervened anywhere, the United States would seek to thwart its efforts.
Intellectually, too, this bipartisan support for the broad contours of US foreign policy made it easier for those abroad — friend as well as foe — to predict how America would act in a given situation. This helped reduce the chance of a catastrophic miscalculation. Certainly, some presidents were “tougher” on communism than others, but a new administration did not rip up a previous administration’s policies out of spite.
So when did it all go wrong?
On the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama set a precedent when he declared his intention to reverse the key foreign policy decisions of the George W. Bush Administration, promising “to remove US combat troops [from Iraq] within 16 months, leaving behind a residual force with limited responsibilities”. The effects of this withdrawal are well-documented — the most serious being the rise of Isis.
Eight years later, Donald Trump responded by resolving to do all he could to “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran” — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — which was portrayed by top officials in the Obama Administration as their biggest diplomatic achievement. And four years after that, Joe Biden indicated he would reverse key foreign policy decisions of the Trump Administration, particularly with respect to Iran and Saudi-Arabia. The Biden Administration has also decided to not only pull out of Afghanistan — prioritising haste over competence — but also to resuscitate the Iranian JCPOA deal, despite unrelenting provocations by the Iranian regime.
Indeed, the end of bipartisanship was all but confirmed in May, when White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki delivered a scathing verdict on the Trump Administration’s efforts in the Middle East: “Aside from putting forward a peace proposal that was dead on arrival,” she said, “we don’t think they did anything constructive, really, to bring an end to the long-standing conflict in the Middle East.”
In reality, last August’s Abraham Peace Accords represented an extraordinary step forward for the Middle East. The UAE and Bahrain recognised Israel’s right to exist, and with it the need for Arabs and Jews to join forces against the existential threat posed by Iran.
As for this summer’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, it should be noted that the country was far from stable when it was handed over to the Biden administration — though it was certainly not so dire as to justify a hasty withdrawal of the remaining US troops. Indeed, far more concerning for America’s security is another development over the past decade, something rarely noted in the American media: that is, the discernible leadership change that has occurred within several countries of the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf States.
For a long time, America’s relationship with Middle Eastern countries centred around the question of oil — and the vast fortunes the West hoped to extract from it. But during this period, US diplomats had to negotiate with men who, after making assurances, would then go home and do nothing. Combined with a frequently oppressive treatment of women, and widespread anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda, the Arab status quo was more threatening to American interests than supportive of them. Later, when confronted with their financing of jihadist groups, these “diplomats” would deny any involvement, no matter how strong the evidence.
Today’s leaders in the Middle East are quite different, whether in the UAE, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. This is especially true when it comes to their key advisers, many of whom have been educated in Britain and America, and seek a future in which a more humanist, pluralistic Islam emerges to challenge the fundamentalists. Financing radical Islamist ideology abroad — to say nothing of jihad — is no longer on the agenda. Instead, the focus is on developing the framework of a modern economy.
But to do this, Middle Eastern governments are fighting a number of opposing power dynamics in their own societies, including jihadists, Wahhabis and traditional tribal interests. All of this takes time. Nevertheless, one can see that real change is happening, particularly in terms of the role of women.
All this and more is now being undone by the Biden administration — and the result will not be that Americans sleep more peacefully in our beds. Rather, if the jihadists regain control of Afghanistan, or if violence escalates in countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, neither Europe nor America will be spared the consequences. Any additional instability in the Middle East will produce an enormous refugee flow, as happened following the rise of Isis and the collapse of Libya following Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow.
How can this be avoided? Well, America’s eventual success in the Cold War surely proves that foreign policy needs to be a long-term effort. Strategy cannot be made on the campaign trail. If US policy is reversed every four or eight years, America is bound to lose — with the Chinese Communist Party being the main beneficiary. For in mixing elements of capitalist efficiency with authoritarianism, the CCP benefits from a long-term geopolitical outlook and strategy.
Beijing is already exploiting the power vacuum in Afghanistan, while in Pakistan Chinese influence has succeeded in pressuring the prime minister to downplay the horrific mistreatment of the Uighurs. In the Middle East, too, the CCP is wooing governments with the familiar offer of investment in infrastructure with no political strings attached.
Under such circumstances, what country in the world would decide in favour of a strategic alliance with the US? If every incoming American administration gleefully shreds the foreign policy of the Administration that preceded it, why would its strategic adversaries not exploit this vacillation to their advantage?
After forty long years, the consistency of Cold War containment ultimately brought victory. The subsequent inconsistency of America’s foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, is having the opposite effect. And under Biden, that shows no sign of changing.