American domestic politics have been so preoccupying that it’s a long time since I’ve written anything much about foreign policy. The Biden administration’s most pressing challenges are at home, with COVID relief in the forefront, but issues of foreign policy ineluctably loom as well. The biggest foreign policy conundrum for Biden will be how to deal with China. That will be the subject of a future post. Right now, here are some quick thoughts on two more immediate issues, plus some observations on another issue everyone seems to have forgotten about.
The Biden administration seems to be wobbling, but I hope it makes good on its predecessor’s commitment to withdraw by May 1. This is not an easy proposition. Those of us who advocate withdrawal should be frank in acknowledging that an American departure may well leave Afghanistan worse off. But after nearly 20 years of American intervention, there really is no good answer to the question—if we don’t leave now, then when? There is no reason to believe that another year, or two years, or ten years of American involvement will enable the emergence of a competent and reasonably corruption-free Afghan state. If we stay, more American soldiers will die, and Joe Biden will have to justify those deaths to an American electorate that responded favorably to Donald Trump’s pledge to put an end to endless wars.
We need, finally, to get out.
The Biden administration has apparently settled on a Goldilocks solution for how to handle the homicidal Saudi crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS): not too nice, but not too rough. So, the US will sanction the men who killed Jamal Khashoggi, the US resident and Saudi dissident, but will do nothing to the man who we say gave them the order to kill. This anomalous decision presumably reflects the conviction that (a) MBS will be the ruler of Saudi Arabia for a long time to come no matter what we do, and (b) the US needs to maintain a close and amicable working relationship with the Saudi regime, as distasteful as it may be. Nicholas Kristof’s wishful thinking notwithstanding, the first of these propositions is probably correct. But is it really that important for the US to maintain cordial relations with Saudi Arabia?
We don’t need Saudi oil any more, so what does the US get out of being pals with MBS? The usual answer is that Saudi Arabia is a critically important regional power; if the US wants to play a leadership role in the Middle East, it perforce must work closely with the Saudis. It is a dogmatic tenet of the US foreign policy establishment that American leadership is indispensable practically everywhere on the planet. But do we really need/want to play a leadership role in the Middle East? This is a highly turbulent, conflict-ridden part of the world, and American efforts to shape it to our liking have not been very successful, to put it mildly. A reduced American involvement there wouldn’t seriously damage genuine American interests. The Saudis, it is said, are helpful in sharing counter-terrorism intelligence, but a large part of our problem with jihadi terrorism comes from our very obtrusive presence in places we are not very popular. So, I think we can afford a serious chill in our relationship with MBS—it would be the right thing to do, with relatively low cost.
When was the last you heard anything about the North Korean threat? On his way out, Obama warned Trump that North Korea would be his most urgent foreign policy headache. We all read about how North Korea was barely minutes away from a capability of nuking Hawaii, with San Francisco not far behind. Trump dealt with the crisis first by exchanging adolescent insults and threats with Kim Jon Un, then by embracing him in a bromance that exceeded even the euphoria Trump emitted when meeting with Putin. None of it worked. The Korean communists continued to expand their nuclear arsenal and delivery capability.
Whatever threat North Korea posed four years ago, it has grown far, far greater today. How come we’re not all panicking? Part of the answer is that the North Korean threat was much over-hyped in the first place, as I suggested back when. Yes, the regime is scary-weird, but Kim is not suicidal, and he has no reason to bomb Hawaii. Another part of the answer is that, for all the tough talk on the American side, there really was no way for us to prevent Kim from getting nukes. North Korea is not an existential crisis; it’s just another problem we have to deal with, and another example (cf. Iraq, Syria, etc.) of the limits of American power.