Barely six months after the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden now confronts three crises—in Ukraine, Taiwan, and Iran—that could easily erupt into US military action abroad. Biden would no doubt prefer to avoid such an outcome, but he is under enormous pressure from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress to demonstrate “resolve” in these disputes, thereby overcoming the catastrophic loss of “credibility” supposedly suffered by Washington as a result of the “debacle” in Afghanistan. How successful Biden will prove in resisting this pressure will largely determine whether this country will avoid being dragged into another military quagmire—and one that could prove far more deadly than the one in Afghanistan.
“Credibility,” of course, has long been viewed by policy-makers as a pivotal factor in American military strategy. Given the multiplicity of foreign threats to US dominance around the world, the thinking goes, Washington must respond forcibly to any brazen assault on America’s overseas interests, however minor, lest our adversaries perceive a lack of resolve on our part and so choose to attack more critical interests, requiring a much larger and costlier US defense effort. This outlook is thought to have played an especially significant role in sustaining the American intervention in Vietnam, as senior policy-makers were convinced that a precipitous US withdrawal would undermine American credibility and inspire additional revolts elsewhere.
One might think that this notion had long ago been discredited, but recent statements by pundits and policy-makers demonstrate that it is alive and well. “This debacle will certainly harm America’s credibility with its friends and allies,” said former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, speaking of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. “It looks like we’re back to…American weakness, and our adversaries not fearing us.” Fearful of being branded in this fashion, the White House is desperately attempting to project an aura of strength and resolve as it faces three critical challenges around the world. The danger with this, as history has repeatedly demonstrated, is that efforts to demonstrate resolve in such situations can easily lead to the precipitous use of force and unintended military escalation.
The Three Crises at a Glance
Each of the three crises confronting Biden has unique roots and dangers. All of them, however, possess certain common characteristics, and all pose a similar quandary for Biden regarding the use of military force.
The crisis over Ukraine stems from the US/NATO drive to expand eastward into the space of the former Soviet Union combined with Moscow’s increasingly vocal and forceful resistance to that effort. When the USSR began disintegrating in 1990 and Soviet troops withdrew from what was then East Germany, senior US officials reportedly promised Russian leaders that NATO would not expand into the territory of the former USSR; those American officials now deny ever having made such a pledge, and in the 30 years since, NATO has indeed expanded eastward and granted membership to several former Soviet republics, including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In 2008, moreover, NATO offered the prospect of membership to Georgia and Ukraine, two more former republics of the USSR. Initially, Moscow was too weak to contest these moves, though it viewed them as a significant threat to Russian national security; more recently, however, Russian leaders, led by President Vladimir Putin, appear to believe the time has come to reverse these Western advances. “What the U.S. is doing in Ukraine is at our doorstep…. And they should understand that we have nowhere further to retreat to,” Putin told Russian officers in December. “Do they think we’ll just watch idly?”
For Moscow, the principal battlefield in this existential struggle to cover its western approaches is Ukraine. Not only is Ukraine considered by many Russians to be an integral part of its national territory, but is also viewed as an essential barrier to invasion from the west. “Russians and Ukrainians were one people,” Putin is wont to say. Although Ukraine is not yet a member of NATO, it is receiving military aid from the United States and other NATO members and still aspires to join the organization. For Putin, this trajectory has become intolerable, and he has deployed an estimated 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders with the apparent intent of invading that country—unless, he says, the US and NATO agree to permanently foreswear Ukrainian membership in NATO and promise not to station troops or weapons there. Negotiations are now under way to seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis, but no clear solution appears in sight.
The Taiwan crisis is also enmeshed in Cold War history. After the 1949 defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party by the Communists in China, Chiang and a million or so of his followers fled to the island of Taiwan—long viewed as a province of China—and established the Republic of China (ROC) there. For the ensuing 30 years, the United States recognized the ROC as the official government of China and armed its military. However, in a ploy to further encircle the USSR, the US recognized the People’s Republic as China’s legitimate government in December 1978 and broke off official relations with the ROC. Angry at the move, Chiang’s supporters in Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, obliging the US to continue selling weapons to the ROC and to be prepared, if necessary, to resist any forceful attempt to alter the island’s status. Although the TRA does not decree automatic US intervention in such a case, it does allow for such action if deemed necessary to safeguard American security—a stance known in Washington as “strategic ambiguity.”
From 1979 until relatively recently, the United States has consistently sought to prevent Taiwan from becoming a flashpoint in US-China relations—selling the Taiwanese increasingly sophisticated weapons for their self-defense, but discouraging them from taking any steps that might provoke a Chinese attack and thereby provoke a US military response. Washington’s stance has shifted, however, as the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party has gained greater support in Taiwan—its leader, Tsai Ing-wen, is now the president—and officials on the mainland have become increasingly vehement in warning of military action should Taiwan actually declare independence. In response to increased Chinese military activity in the sea and the airspace surrounding Taiwan, the US has stepped up its arms deliveries to the island and conducted elaborate military maneuvers in the vicinity. Some in Congress are also calling for the repudiation of “strategic ambiguity” and its replacement with a firm commitment to aid Taiwan if attacked by China.
The crisis over Iran derives from that country’s decades-long drive to acquire the wherewithal to manufacture nuclear weapons, and the equally determined efforts of the US and Israel to prevent that from happening. While Iranian leaders have consistently denied seeking a nuclear bomb, they have long pursued the technology to increase their supplies of highly enriched, fissionable uranium. To accomplish this, the Iranians mastered the technology of uranium enrichment using gas centrifuges, and installed hundreds of these at various installations. Prior to President Barack Obama, air and missile attacks on these facilities were a constant theme in US and Israeli military discourse, but Obama and his team, along with diplomats from Britain, France, China, and Russia, succeeded in negotiating an agreement with the Iranians—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—that resulted in the suspension of most centrifuge operations in return for the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran.
During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump decried the JCPOA as a “horrible deal,” and, as president, he withdrew from the agreement. Concurrently, he ordered a campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran consisting of harsh economic sanctions, insisting these would force Tehran to come back to the negotiating table and accept a deal more to his liking. Instead, the Iranians sought to force Trump back into the JCPOA through diplomatic outreach to other signers of the pact, and when that failed, began reconstituting its enrichment program. President Biden, in turn, has pledged to rejoin the JPCOA, and his top diplomats have met with their Iranian counterparts in Vienna. But the Iranians, having watched the United States break its promises under the Trump administration, are leery of returning to JCPOA compliance without a prior lifting of sanctions, and so the negotiations have proved arduous. Efforts are now under way in Vienna to resolve these differences, and there are some recent indications of progress there; should these talks fail, however, Biden will face enormous pressure from Israeli leaders and members of both parties in Congress to halt Iran’s enrichment program through military action.
Biden at the Crossroads
It is possible to discern common elements in these three crisis situations. In each case, the Biden administration is being tested by foreign leaders who believe their countries have long been bullied by the West—and by the US in particular—and now feel sufficiently powerful (whether correctly so or not) to resist Washington assertively. It is important to note, moreover, that they adopted this more assertive stance long before the recent events in Afghanistan: Putin has been building his case for action on Ukraine for several years already; President Xi Jinping of China has delivered many speeches warning of military action should Taiwan declare independence; and the Iranian leadership has accelerated its enrichment program despite crushing US sanctions.
Nevertheless, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has altered the calculus among America’s foreign policy establishment regarding Washington’s response to the three crises: Having abandoned Kabul to the Taliban, the argument goes, the US must now restore its tattered credibility by demonstrating toughness in each of these crisis situations—a stance that could easily result in precipitous military action.
In the case of Ukraine, Biden has already promised to provide government forces there with increased military assistance and has vowed to impose additional, punishing economic penalties on Russia should it undertake an invasion. In fact, US intelligence suggests that Putin has not yet made a decision to invade, and he is surely aware that such a move could result in significant Russian casualties and so provoke resentment at home—a risk he may not be prepared to take. Nevertheless, should such a dreadful event occur, Biden should do everything possible to halt the fighting at the earliest possible moment and minimize civilian casualties.
It is likely, however, that Biden will be compelled under these circumstances to respond with dramatic moves of a more aggressive and punitive nature—moves that might intensify the fighting in Ukraine and increase the risk of US involvement in a great-power conflict. Many on Capitol Hill are calling for a permanent US/NATO military presence in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (the Western allies now deploy forces in those countries on a rotational basis, but do not station any there permanently), a step move that would further amplify the threat to Russia’s security and so increase the risk of further clashes in Europe. Other policy-makers have proposed equipping Ukrainian forces with the wherewithal to conduct an extended guerrilla war against invading Russian armies and to keep them resupplied as necessary—action that would surely be perceived by Moscow as an act of war, and so justify retaliation against US forces and installations. Where this would lead is anyone’s guess, but both sides assume that any major clash in Europe could lead to the early use of nuclear weapons.
The Taiwan situation presents similar dangers. Following in Trump’s footsteps, Biden has increased US military support for the island and offered strong expressions of support, saying America’s commitment to the island’s defense is “rock solid.” Biden has also sought to calm tensions with China, saying in a telephone conversation with Xi on November 16 that the two sides “need for common-sense guardrails to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict.”
But despite his attempts to defuse the situation, Biden is under immense pressure from both within and outside his administration to adopt a harder line on Taiwan, pledging to take military action in the event of any Chinese move against the island. Top administration officials have told Congress that Washington views Taiwan as an essential link in its chain of alliances surrounding China, and thus deserving of unwavering US support. But some lawmakers say such assurances are insufficient, and that Biden should be bound by law—Senator Rick Scott (R.-Fla.), for example, has introduced the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act (S. 332), authorizing the president to take military action against China without further consulting Congress. For China, all this represents an intolerable infringement on its national sovereignty, so it is bound to make tensions worse—ensuring that any incident in the region involving US and Chinese ships and planes, however minor, could quickly spiral up to full-scale conflict with a significant risk of nuclear escalation.
And then there is Iran. As noted, talks are now under way in Vienna to resolve the dispute over the country’s uranium enrichment program peacefully. Should these talks fail, however, Biden will come under immense pressure from forces both within the US and in Israel to halt Iran’s uranium enrichment program by military means. Israeli and American analysts often speak of a “surgical strike” to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, but any such action is likely to require multiple air and missile attacks to overcome Iranian air defenses and destroy all suspect facilities (some located underground), possibly leading to massive civilian casualties. The Iranians are also likely to engage in a wide variety of retaliatory moves, possibly sparking a region-wide conflagration.
On all three fronts, therefore, President Biden faces grave risks of the US being drawn into a major conflict—even a nuclear conflagration—should he respond to overseas provocations with the precipitous use of military force. These situations require extraordinary diplomatic effort to defuse and resolve. But in overseeing the US response to these crises, Biden must exercise extreme caution and not be swayed by a presumed need to restore American “credibility”—for that surely is the path to miscalculation, escalation, and disaster.