The Afghan debacle doesn’t create a crisis of belief in American military credibility. Informed global observers don’t doubt our willingness to strike back if attacked. (REUTERS)

The deeper crisis behind the Afghan rout

The good news for the Biden administration is that the latest NBC News poll reports 25% approval of President Biden’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan. Foreign support is even harder to find. North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies are horrified, and Greece completed a border wall to keep out the expected flood of refugees. Arab countries are worried, India and Israel depressed. China and Russia are scornful.

This isn’t a conventional credibility crisis of the kind President Obama faced when he backed down from his Syrian red line. America has demonstrated its commitment to Afghanistan for 20 years and had no treaty obligation to defend the former Afghan government. A competently executed withdrawal could have enhanced American credibility among some Pacific allies, especially if it was accompanied by clear steps to build up U.S. forces in East Asia.

The Afghan debacle doesn’t create a crisis of belief in American military credibility. Informed global observers don’t doubt our willingness to strike back if attacked. The debacle feeds something much more serious and harder to fix: the belief that the U.S. cannot develop—and stick to—policies that work.

Neither allies nor adversaries expected perfection in Afghanistan. Mr. Biden was right to say that the end of a war is inevitably going to involve a certain amount of chaos, and world leaders likely didn’t anticipate a seamless transition. They did, however, expect that after two decades of intimate cooperation with Afghan political and military forces, the U.S. wouldn’t be blindsided by a national collapse. They didn’t think Washington would stumble into a massive and messy evacuation crisis without a shadow of a plan. They didn’t expect the Biden team to have to beg the Taliban to help get Americans out.

It all fuels fears that the U.S. is incapable of persistent, competent policy making in ways that will be hard to reverse. It seems increasingly evident that despite, or perhaps because of, all the credentialed bureaucrats and elaborate planning processes in the Washington policy machine, the U.S. government isn’t good at producing foreign policy. “Dumkirk,” as the New York Post called the withdrawal, follows 20 years of incoherent Afghanistan policy making. Neither the past two decades nor the past two weeks demonstrate American wisdom or the efficacy of the byzantine bureaucratic ballet out of which U.S. policy emerges.

Unless the crisis ends quickly and well, the public backlash is likely to deepen domestic political divides, heighten GOP opposition to the administration, and increase the chances of a Republican Congress. Many foreign observers will believe that the prospects of a Trump return to the White House have significantly increased.

Americans tend to look at foreign policy in partisan terms. Democrats think Republicans are the problem and vice versa. This isn’t how it looks from abroad. To many overseas observers, the 21st century has seen mostly unsuccessful U.S. responses to challenges from China, Russia and Iran even as global issues like climate change, refugee and migrant flows, and the pandemic intensify. From this perspective, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden all seem to have failed; and from the invasion of Iraq to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the story of American foreign policy since 9/11 looks even to friendly eyes like one of continuing and perhaps now accelerating drift and decline.

Historically, those who predict U.S. failure have been repeatedly proved wrong, and the continuing vitality and creativity of American society suggest that this time, too, the pessimists may miss the boat. Nevertheless, the perception that the U.S. is losing its stability at home even as it fails to master events overseas is leading allies and adversaries alike to factor continuing American decline into their decision making.

Stopping the erosion of U.S. credibility in the short term will require the Biden administration doing what it can to clean up its mess. And it’ll take Republicans, especially those with presidential ambitions, to demonstrate a capacity for statesmanship by responding with something beyond schadenfreude. That would do a lot more than snark will to reassure a doubting world about the quality of American leadership. That they must do this without losing the confidence of an angry and alienated political base adds to the difficulty of their task—but does not make it less urgent.

Once the immediate crisis is past, the real work of rethinking U.S. foreign policy can begin. As management guru Stephen Covey put it, “You can’t talk your way out of a problem you behaved yourself into.” To regain lost confidence at home and around the world, America is going to have to raise its foreign policy to a higher level of both coherence and competence.

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text)

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