Is US ready to leave Middle East and face China?
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In remarks made on Aug. 31, the day the US completed its abrupt withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden said, “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”
The New York Times, the Financial Times, and other major news outlets read his speech that day as signaling the rise of the “Biden Doctrine.” It’s a doctrine that starts from the idea of minimizing or avoiding global military interventions — including efforts to avoid being drawn into endless conflicts in regions like the Middle East.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan was a dramatic illustration of such a doctrine, completed in late August amid condemnation at home and abroad. At the same time, the doctrine also includes focusing national security on conflicts with such “strategic rivals” as China and Russia, while naming the response to new challenges like climate change as a key national interest.
The core elements of the Biden Doctrine are things that the US had been pushing to achieve for over a decade since the Barack Obama administration.
Obama’s administration pursued a “pivot to Asia” policy, while successor Donald Trump vocally called for the withdrawal of troops from the Middle East under an “America first” stance. Trump was also the one who signed the Doha Agreement with the Taliban that served as a basis for the pullout.
Since the rise of China began gaining momentum in the early 2010s, the US has been working to extricate itself from the Middle East and focus on its battle with Beijing — only now it is packaging that into a “doctrine” bearing a President’s name. The situation the US faces now suggests its task is by no means simple.
To begin with, the terrorist forces targeted in the “war on terror” that precipitated the war in Afghanistan are still going strong.
After completing the Afghan pullout, Biden said he was “not going to extend this forever war.” But according to the New York Times, the US was working at that very moment to expand secret bases deep in the Sahara Desert to track terrorists.
The base is used to launch drones to monitor and attack not only al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) in Libya, but also Islamist militants in Nigeria, Chad and Mali. The newspaper said that the US Africa Command was considering resuming drone strikes against al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-linked militant group in Somalia, and redeploying Special Forces trainers to Somalia.
Brown University’s Costs of War Project counted 85 countries where the US intervened between 2018 and 2020 in connection with terrorist activities.
It was involved in direct and indirect combat in 12 countries, including Iraq, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. In Cameroon, Libya, Niger and Tunisia, it even possesses the legal authority to carry out Special Forces operations.
It is also carrying out air attacks and drone strikes in seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. The US military has conducted anti-terrorism exercises in 41 countries and military, police and border guard training in 80 countries.
Even after the conclusion of the Iraq War in 2008, the US maintains military bases in Qatar, Bahrain, Iraq, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Besides these countries, it stations a combined 60,000–80,000 troops in Jordan, Kuwait and Syria.
Around 200,000 US troops are currently stationed around the world. If you subtract the countries where a traditional large-scale troop presence is stationed — namely Japan, Germany and South Korea — nearly 70 percent of the US military presence stationed overseas is still concentrated in the Middle East.
The US finds itself in a dilemma where it can neither carry on with these kinds of military interventions nor extricate itself from them. Governments in countries where the US has intervened in response to terrorism have become increasingly dependent on it.
Afghanistan offers a perfect illustration of Washington’s dilemma. The ascendancy of IS came after the US reduced its military force to the level of a virtual pullout in order to escape the Iraq War.
The increasing role of military force in US foreign strategies following 9/11 has also hampered it from responding effectively to its rivalry with China.
In 2001, the year of the 9/11 attacks, the US defense budget stood at US$293 billion — more than the combined defense budgets of the countries ranked second to 16th, including China and the nations of Europe.
Today, the US budget has reached US$700 billion, with a requested US$715 billion for 2022. That’s nearly equal to the combined defense budgets of all the world’s remaining countries.
The US$58.5 billion allotted to the State Department, which handles diplomacy, amounts to just 8 percent of the defense budget. Since 9/11, the Pentagon has been expanding its own organizations and roles, and those of the military, to match the growing budget and increasing military interventions. In effect, the Defense Department is in the driver’s seat of US foreign policy.
As can be seen in the “Afghanistan Papers” reported on in the Washington Post, the Pentagon and military were bitterly opposed to withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, even after plunging the US into that quagmire with misleading information about the situation there.
In its response to a rising China, the US has been focusing on a confrontational perspective — specifically one of military confrontation.
Such has been the case with the aggressive approach adopted with the Indo-Pacific strategy since the freedom of navigation (FON) operations launched in the East and South China Seas under the Obama administration. Recently, the US has been developing a military response strategy based on a stronger alliance with Japan for a scenario where China invades Taiwan.
The Afghanistan withdrawal and the Biden Doctrine have been compared to the withdrawal from Vietnam and the Nixon Doctrine of the 1970s. They’re part of a strategy to minimize excessive deployment and interference by the US military and focus on opposing a different primary adversary.
In the case of the Nixon Doctrine, the US found China to be a strategic partner in its efforts to oppose the main adversary at the time, the Soviet Union.
Will the Biden Doctrine allow the US to extricate itself from the Middle East unscathed so that it can put up a fight against China, which has emerged as a formidable rival over the 20 years since 9/11? And will the US be able to find strategic partners to help guide it to victory in its all-or-nothing strategic competition with China?
By Jung E-gil, senior staff writer
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