As the US completes its retreat from Afghanistan, the alliances President Biden promised to rebuild are perhaps more strained than ever. The optimism of his inauguration and first international address have been replaced by blame and bickering with key allies like Britain and France openly berating the President and planning their own course in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
On February 19, newly minted President Joe Biden addressed the Munich Security Conference to declare that “America is back, the transatlantic alliance is back.” In this first speech as President to a global audience, he bemoaned Trump’s time in office and committed to being a better partner. “I know the past few years have strained and tested the transatlantic relationship. The United States is determined to reengage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trusted leadership.” The speech went on to cover a wide range of issues facing both Europe and the US, including the coronavirus pandemic, an increasingly aggressive Russia and China, even terrorism and Afghanistan.
Throughout, the President spoke clearly and forcefully, “let me erase any lingering doubt: The United States will work closely with our European Union partners and the capitals across the continent — from Rome to Riga — to meet the range of shared challenges we face.” He reiterated this point specifically in relation to Afghanistan and the pending withdrawal, saying he was “committed to consulting closely with our NATO Allies and partners on the way forward in Afghanistan. My administration strongly supports the diplomatic process that’s underway and to bring an end to this war that is closing out 20 years. We remain committed to ensuring that Afghanistan never again provides a base for terrorist attacks against the United States and our partners and our interests.”
At the time, a naive-in-hindsight European audience seemed thrilled at the prospect, charmed by what would soon turn out to be nothing more than empty slogans. “Welcome back, America,” proclaimed European Council President Charles Michel. The Associated Press claimed this statement “effectively” summed up the mood of the entire conference, a message that was “warmly received” in contrast to “four years of a Trump administration that flaunted its foreign policy through an ‘America First’ lens.” Even the normally skeptical German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was impressed. “Things are looking a great deal better for multilateralism this year than two years ago, and that has a lot to do with Joe Biden having become the president of the United States of America,” she said. “His speech just now, but also his administration’s first announcements, have convinced us that this is not just talk but action.”
The welcome was so enthusiastic that European leaders even alluded to Biden’s own campaign theme in their joint statement, claiming all the world leaders had agreed to “work together to beat COVID-19 and build back better.”
Barely six months later, however, and the catastrophe in Afghanistan has ripped the pleasant veneer from Biden’s rosy words and shown how little he means what he says, plus how little competence and skill he has to make any of the happy talk come to fruition. European leaders that praised him in comparison to Trump and warmly welcomed a new America are now actively distancing themselves from us. In Britain, Members of Parliament have taken to the floor of the House of Commons to trash the United States. Tory MP, Tom Tugendhat, a former soldier in the British Army, said, “Like many veterans, this last week has seen me struggle through anger, grief and rage — through the feeling of abandonment of not just a country, but the sacrifice that my friends made.” He continued, “Those who have never fought for the colours they fly should be careful about criticising those who have. So let us stop talking about forever wars. Let us recognise that forever peace is bought, not cheaply, but hard, through determination and the will to endure. The tragedy of Afghanistan is that we are swapping that patient achievement for a second fire and a second war.”
Nor was he the lone critical voice in Britain. Former Prime Minister and staunch US ally, Tony Blair, claimed Biden’s decision has “every Jihadist group round the world cheering.” “The abandonment of Afghanistan and its people is tragic, dangerous, unnecessary, not in their interests and not in ours,” he explained. “The world is now uncertain of where the West stands because it is so obvious that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in this way was driven not by grand strategy but by politics.” Prime Minister Blair concluded that Biden was acting “in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars’, as if our engagement in 2021 was remotely comparable to our commitment 20 or even 10 years ago.”
Nor was Tony Blair the only British Prime Minister upset at the United States decisions and actions leading up to and throughout the crisis. In fact, the current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, couldn’t even get in touch with President Biden for 36 hours while the crisis in Afghanistan itself was unfolding. Three days after Kabul fell to the Taliban, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan stunningly declared that Biden “has not yet spoken with any other world leaders.” Prime Minister Johhnson had placed a call to Biden the day before, a call that was not returned until several hours after Mr. Sullivan’s admission.
This failure at basic communication with our allies has plagued the entire withdrawal process. According to The Times of London, “Senior [British] military commanders have also not been party to key discussions between the US and the Taliban, so were left in the dark about when they could be forced to pull out.” Jon Sopel, writing for the BBC, believes the entire episode reveals that our long-cherished special relationship with the UK is “not so special.” “America acted unilaterally over Afghanistan – actually maybe that should be Joe Biden acted unilaterally. The administration was not much interested in what the UK thought. Mr Biden, from what I have been told, was not much interested in the red flags being raised by his intel community and military top brass, or by the warnings delivered from London. He wanted out. The warnings of HM Government – and my understanding is they were made strenuously – fell on deaf, indifferent ears in Washington.”
Nor is England the only country upset with our decision, planning, and evacuation process. French Parliamentarian Nathalie Loiseau said, “ We lived a little bit the great illusion. We thought America was back, while in fact, America withdraws.” French President Emmanuel Macron personally berated Biden on a phone call between the two leaders. He described the need to make good on our promises and evacuate our Afghani allies as a “moral responsibility.” “We cannot abandon them,” he said, underlying “the absolute need to ensure rapid and concrete coordination among allies on the ground to continue the evacuations.” This portion of the call was inexplicably removed from the White House read out, as the Administration sought to hide the frustration of our closest allies. In an interesting sign of things to come, the French, the Germans, and the British are taking the lead in attempting to set up “safe zones” in Kabul to continue evacuations after the US departure. “There are some discussions to see how flights could be re-established,” President Macron said in a TV interview. “What we have proposed, and what we plan to bring to the UN Security Council along with Britain and Germany is a solution that we have used before in other operations, which would involve creating a zone allowing people to arrive at that airport.”
No one really knows where the relationships go from here, long-term allies like the United States and the European Union have their ups and downs, but clearly significant damage has been done, both to the relationships directly and US prestige in the world. Incredibly, it’s the Biden Administration that’s promising retribution, claiming President Biden himself has a “long memory” and bears “grudges.” According to The Telegraph, a US official informed them, “The Brits have their view. But they should be careful. What’s been said is offensive and he will remember it. He actually has a long memory. It’s always been his way that if somebody says something really bad to him, or about him, he doesn’t speak to them again. He does bear grudges. Boris Johnson should know that.”
In an irony to end all ironies, President Biden’s own justification for leaving Afghanistan could well have been cribbed from Trump’s America First approach to foreign policy. The President hasn’t even bothered to spin it as anything except the coldest of political calculations. His address to the country on August 16 didn’t even mention the sacrifices of our allies in Europe or their opinion on the matter. Instead, he asked, “How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghans — Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not? How many more lives — American lives — is it worth? How many endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery?” To ensure there was no mistaking his meaning, he said clearly, “staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States.” “I cannot and I will not ask our troops to fight on endlessly in another — in another country’s civil war, taking casualties, suffering life-shattering injuries, leaving families broken by grief and loss. This is not in our national security interest.”
You may well agree with that, and to a large extent I actually do, but it’s straight up America First and could well have been spoken by President Trump himself. Our allies in Afghanistan and elsewhere be damned, we’re pulling out and don’t really care what happens because it’s not in our national interest. This from a man who said, “I know the past few years have strained and tested the transatlantic relationship. The United States is determined to reengage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trusted leadership.” Yet, he has done absolutely none of the above, indeed has single handedly set back our position for years if not decades. America is not back; we’re on our back foot and in danger of falling down.
Of course, the cynical among us were well aware the whole thing was a charade from the beginning. An even cursory look at Biden’s almost half century record of foreign policy missteps should’ve been more than enough to convince the most cockeyed optimist that sunny skies ahead were highly unlikely. They could have just listened to President Obama’s former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, who said, “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” In other words, as President Obama himself said, “Don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to f##k things up.”