AMAC Exclusive By: Daniel Roman
Joe Biden’s profoundly un-reassuring press conference yesterday, in the wake of a horrific terrorist attack that killed 13 servicemembers in Afghanistan, was a case study in failed presidential leadership. It embodied everything that is wrong with Biden’s approach to this botched Afghanistan withdrawal, and made excruciatingly clear why we are witnessing this catastrophe. To put it simply, Joe Biden has no idea how to wield presidential power.
Presidential leadership is a matter not just of action but of inspiration. A president has enormous power, but like the United States military itself, the power to act anywhere does not imply the ability to act everywhere. For this reason, the effectiveness of American power depends heavily on the deterrence provided by uncertainty. Knowing it could be used keeps adversaries abroad on their toes, and forces them to calculate their actions. The most successful presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan—have been men of action, but just as importantly they have been masters of the bluff. Of being able to threaten action to get their way. Thomas Jefferson was able to get Louisiana from Napoleon not by fighting him, but by providing the impression that he would if necessary. Ronald Reagan’s policy toward the Soviet Union involved the most sustained Soviet-American cooperation in history, but it was enabled by a willingness to suggest in public that the alternative was the most extreme confrontation.
Donald Trump understood this aspect of statecraft. Joe Biden does not. It is the single greatest difference among many, and it is the one Biden’s defenders miss when they argue that because Donald Trump wished to withdraw from Afghanistan and was willing to negotiate with the Taliban to enable that withdrawal, Biden’s actions today are no different than what Trump’s would have been. To make this argument is to miss entirely the way Trump and other successful commanders-in-chief have always operated.
Donald Trump himself has noted that had he been president, the Taliban would not have dared to behave in the manner they have, dictating deadlines and access rules to US forces in Kabul. The media has predictably attacked him, questioning how his options would have been different. But his “options” are not the point. Neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden had ideal military options in Afghanistan. Yet they wielded those options very differently. Trump left uncertainty in the minds of the Taliban and others as to whether an attack, such as the one that killed 13 US servicemembers this week, would have resulted not just in retaliation, but in a reversal of US disengagement. Maybe, given his “infamous volatility,” such an act might have led Trump to back the Taliban’s domestic opponents with weapons. Whether he would have done so or not, the thought never would have left their minds. And it would have been in their minds when they arranged security and decided how hard they wanted to try and stop ISIS from carrying out attacks against Americans. (Indeed, the situation would almost certainly never have deteriorated to this point in the first place.)
By contrast, as Joe Biden’s remarks and subsequent press conference yesterday made clear once again, he has removed all uncertainty from the minds of the Taliban about the US response to anything which may happen in Afghanistan. Biden has created plenty of uncertainty in the minds of American commanders, America’s allies, and Americans at home about what he may or may not do next, but the Taliban can be fairly certain at this point that nothing will make him reengage with Afghanistan, or meaningfully harm them in any way. Biden might have promised to strike back at “a time and place of our choosing” but as he has made painfully obvious, that time will not be right now, or before August 31st. If there was any doubt as to that, Biden dispelled it by again stressing, as everyone in his administration has, not just that the US was negotiating with the Taliban for security, but that they were relying on the Taliban for security.
This is a key distinction, and not mitigated by Biden’s insistence that he does not trust the Taliban but instead relies upon their sense of self-interest. There is nothing inherently wrong with talking with the Taliban. The last administration did it. Given the disaster which occurred two weeks ago, there was almost certainly no choice but to talk and coordinate with the Taliban on the logistics and security of the evacuation. That could even have been Plan A. But there is a difference between allowing cooperation with the Taliban to be Plan A, and having no Plan B. And there is a difference between having no Plan B, and announcing to the entire world that there is no Plan B. With Donald Trump, his leverage was always having a Plan B—and you could generally be quite sure that his Plan B was worse for you than it was for him.
The problem with purely trusting matters to the Taliban’s self-interest is that their self-interest is to do whatever they can get away with—and in Biden’s case, he has made clear they can get away with almost anything. The reason the Taliban is “cooperating” is that they want America out, and as gratifying as it might be to humiliate the United States further by disrupting the evacuation or inflicting heavy casualties on the 82nd Airborne in Kabul, doing so would undermine their interests. But the reason it would undermine their interests is the assumption that if they went too far – say by attacking the US forces, the US would do something in response. As it becomes clear that the US under Biden will not, in fact, do anything, then the Taliban’s self-interest in helping recedes, making Biden’s plan extremely risky.
We have already seen this dynamic in the debate over extending the withdrawal deadline beyond August 31st. If the Taliban really were willing to assault Hamid Karzai Airport on September 1st if the United States is still there, they would assuredly have done it already. The same risk of retaliation would exist if they assaulted a US military force on September 1st as existed on August 20th. The reason they were able to refuse an extension and threaten an attack is precisely because they knew if they said no to the extension Biden would accept that answer as an excuse to cut short the evacuation. Hence they had no reason to grant the request.
In the last few days, the Taliban have pushed their luck in this respect. They have systematically refused Afghans the right to leave, arguing that Afghanistan needs trained professionals (presumably women) knowing that the US and Europeans would leave on schedule with or without those Afghans and therefore there was no reason to allow them through. They have demanded direct US logistical support, including identification of Afghans who worked with the West as a price of helping remove US citizens, knowing that Biden will say yes.
Biden does not realize that the ISIS attack is very possibly yet another escalation in this pressure campaign. Did the Taliban launch the attack? Biden says no intelligence indicates they did, and I am willing to say they probably did not. But that is a far cry from saying they did everything possible to stop it. The attack disrupted the withdrawal, and it served as a threat of what would happen if the NATO forces were not gone by August 31st. It furthermore left Biden even more dependent on the Taliban. Provided no one could accuse them of direct complicity or negligence, the attack served their self-interest, the self-interest Biden says is their primary motivation, perfectly.
It is probably investing too much in the moment to try to suggest Biden is the worst president in history. James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce managed to inflict vast damage. But he is probably one of the worst deal makers to ever occupy the office. He is being ripped off and out-bargained out of his wallet, shirt and pants by the Taliban in front of a global audience. And his speeches just keep encouraging our enemies.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.
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