Biden Continues the War on Terror Beyond Afghanistan

The president delivered a good speech yesterday defending his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and end the U.S. war there. Here was the key point:

So we were left with a simple decision: Either follow through on the commitment made by the last administration and leave Afghanistan, or say we weren’t leaving and commit another tens of thousands more troops going back to war.

That was the choice – the real choice – between leaving or escalating.

I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit. 

Biden has come under intense criticism for the last few weeks, and it has been remarkable how he has persisted in following through on his commitment to end the war. He seems convinced that the only practical alternative to full withdrawal was escalation, and I think he was right about that. We know what the reaction in Washington would have been if US forces had come under attack again and if there had been more American casualties. There would be the same atavistic demand for revenge and “action” that drives so much of our foreign policy thinking. The clamor for escalation would have been deafening, and Biden would have found himself boxed in. To Biden’s credit, he didn’t let things get to that point, and he took a chance on doing the right thing for the United States.

The demand for escalation is built in to the war on terror. As Spencer Ackerman explains in Reign of Terror, the security state responds to failure by escalating, and even when the US fighting a losing battle escalation is their answer. Ackerman writes, “The Security State escalated to maintain, a position that kept it from achieving any finality, let alone one that passed for victory” (Ackerman, Reign of Terror: p. 233). What I think has so infuriated the security state and its supporters in think tanks and the media is that Biden was expected to follow the script of escalating to maintain, and instead he chose to break the pattern and got our forces out of harm’s way instead. That is why Biden’s foreign policy is now being absurdly described as “nationalist” and “Trumpian,” and it is why his speech tonight is being misrepresented as a rejection of liberal internationalism. Biden’s speech was in many ways a very conventional liberal internationalist statement.

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.