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What The Exit From Afghanistan Tells Us About How Biden Sees The World

Foreign policy experts are asking how decades of foreign policy experience could have led President Biden to oversee such a chaotic withdrawal.
Anna Moneymaker
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Foreign policy experts are asking how decades of foreign policy experience could have led President Biden to oversee such a chaotic withdrawal.

Updated August 26, 2021 at 1:10 PM ET

In January 2002, when the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan reopened for the first time since 1989, Ambassador Ryan Crocker said the first member of Congress to visit him in Kabul was the then-senator from Delaware, Joe Biden.

"One of his really great qualities, I thought, was his driving need to see things for himself ... and I just really respected that," Crocker said, pointing out that Biden also visited Iraq many times.

Crocker had considered the president an old-school internationalist, in the vein of presidents going back to World War II who believed in U.S. leadership on the global stage and spearheaded large international organizations. But with the havoc unfolding in Afghanistan, Crocker says he can no longer make sense of the man he once thought would restore American credibility and international order after Donald Trump.

"What have they done with the real Joe Biden? And who is this guy up there now?" Crocker asked. "For me, there are kind of two sets of issues here: one of them is, what his international philosophy actually is, the other is, quite frankly, an issue of competence. I found both alarming."

Much of Biden's foreign policy is rooted in his years of firsthand experience as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice president. During the 2020 presidential campaign, he would often say that he had met every major world leader of the past few decades.

As president, he brought in a foreign policy team with years of diplomatic experience.

But that same team has overseen a chaotic withdrawal of U.S. citizens and Afghans who worked with the U.S. who now could be targeted by the Taliban. Thousands of Afghans have crowded outside the Kabul airport — the only part of Afghanistan under U.S. control — hoping to somehow get inside and then catch a U.S. plane out of the country. On Thursday, they faced deadly explosions. Others have been unable to reach the airport because of Taliban checkpoints.

Biden blamed the former Afghan government for pushing against an earlier start to evacuations. He defended the withdrawal last week, saying, "I am deeply saddened by the facts we now face, but I do not regret my decision."

It's not about whether to withdraw or not, it's about how it was done

For many foreign policy experts, the main question about Afghanistan isn't within the binary framework the White House seems to suggest — the issue isn't about staying or leaving, it's about how the exit has been handled.

"I am old enough to have been quite near the fall of Saigon [in 1975] ... I have that in my memory bank," said Gen. Jim Jones, who served as national security adviser under President Barack Obama. "And that was very painful to watch. This is, at least thus far, more painful."

Jones says this withdrawal seems to have taken place in reverse.

"When you do these kinds of things, however big or however small they are, the first thing you do is you get the civilians and families out, then you get the U.S. government personnel out if that's required. And then the last people to leave is generally the military who are providing the security for the orderly evacuation," Jones said. "It appears to me that we did this exactly backwards and I don't know why."

Another veteran of the Obama administration, Leon Panetta, former director of the CIA and secretary of defense, has compared the withdrawal to the "Bay of Pigs" — the botched 1961 invasion of Cuba under President John F. Kennedy.

The White House, he says, should have been better prepared to deal with the fall of Kabul.

Biden "has always had strong views about our role in Afghanistan," Panetta said. "But the issue that concerns me is that when the president does want to make a decision that you want to be able to implement that decision in the right way, which means that you have to look at all the contingencies, you have to look at all the possibilities that could develop."

Given his experience, the president is known to trust his own instincts.

"He's someone who feels that he's had a great deal of experience in dealing with the world. I think he does have a deep sense of confidence in his views," said Panetta.

Biden's foreign policy is about personal relationships

President Biden hosts Ashraf Ghani, who was Afghanistan's president at the time, at the White House on June 25 in Washington, D.C. Biden's foreign policy is based on personal relationships, experts say.
Pete Marovich/Pool / Getty Images
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President Biden hosts Ashraf Ghani, who was Afghanistan's president at the time, at the White House on June 25 in Washington, D.C. Biden's foreign policy is based on personal relationships, experts say.

There is a consensus in foreign policy circles that the president's worldview is shaped by policy, intuition and style.

And much of what people have observed about Biden's views jibe with how he has described them himself. He extensively outlined the so-called "Biden Doctrine" in a 2016 interview with The Atlantic magazine.

"He has said that all foreign policy can be boiled down to personal relationships," said Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security, and a former foreign policy adviser to the now-deceased GOP Sen. John McCain.

Leading up to the Taliban takeover, Biden publicly referred to commitments from Ashraf Ghani, the now-former president of Afghanistan.

"Mr. Ghani insisted the Afghan forces would fight," Biden said in remarks at the White House last week. "But obviously he was wrong."

"U.S. presidents, I believe, put too much stock in their ability to sway a foreign leader solely through force of personality," said Fontaine. "Countries have these things called national interests."

Fontaine says the desire to focus on persuasion and personal relationships is not unique to Biden. The more relevant factor in understanding Afghanistan, in his view, is how attitudes about military intervention have shifted. Biden supported military intervention on humanitarian grounds in the Balkans in the 1990s and initially supported both the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan.

"You fast-forward to 2003 in Iraq, which turned into an absolute debacle. We got involved in Libya, which turned into an absolute debacle. ... And I think the lesson for an entire generation of policymakers is not [that] it's inaction that we will regret later, but it's action that we will regret later because the costs of it are so high," Fontaine said.

Biden's mind is on China

As vice president, Biden met Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 in Beijing. Biden's foreign policy as president is focused on China.
Lintao Zhang / Getty Images
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As vice president, Biden met Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 in Beijing. Biden's foreign policy as president is focused on China.

Nowadays, Biden speaks about the most important global struggle as a battle between autocracies and democracies. And Afghanistan isn't part of that equation. He's laser-focused on China.

And compared to previous presidents, some say, he also seems to understand the limits of American foreign policy.

"It is, in my mind, reflecting the president's views: This is a world abroad to be managed, not transformed or redeemed," said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Biden's team often refers to this idea of creating a "foreign policy for the middle class" with a greater focus on how actions abroad will affect Americans at home, especially economically. Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told NPR in December that the Obama administration "did not elevate and center middle-class concerns in our foreign policy." Sullivan saw that disconnect as part of the reason for Hillary Clinton's 2016 loss to Trump and his "America First" nationalism.

"I think there's a recognition that so much of the way that foreign policy was talked about and made in Washington had become completely detached from the kind of lived experiences of Americans," said Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

"And Trump kind of effectively zeroed in on that disconnect in a really divisive and racist and disunifying way. But still, he identified something valid," Duss said.

Biden, like Trump, made a commitment to end the so-called forever wars, which meant retreating in some parts of the world, even as Biden promised to reengage with America's allies around the world.

"I think Joe Biden sees Afghanistan as a distraction from the defining fight that he's engaged in between democracy and autocracy," said Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. "Every day that we have thousands of troops and tens of thousands of contractors and trillions of dollars being spent in Afghanistan or Iraq is another day that we are not able to train the full foreign policy might of this country on the most important long-term threats that are presented to the United States, mostly emanating out of a place like China."

Murphy scoffs at the critics who say the Afghanistan exit is a knock on the president's foreign policy abilities. The Connecticut senator insists the chaos was inevitable and praises Biden for having "the guts" to pull the United States out of a "failed" enterprise, knowing it wouldn't be tidy.

A recent poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that roughly two-thirds of Americans did not think the Afghanistan war was worth fighting.

The president said he stands by his decision. He seems to be hoping that Americans will soon forget the chaos and desperation in Kabul and see it as a necessary consequence of ending the 20-year war.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.