US Foreign Policy in Disarray: What’s Next?

As featured in Edition 38, available here.


BY JHANVI MEHTA (2nd year - History and PAIS - Leeds, UK)

It is becoming harder to recall when the US actually had foreign policy achievements, as America’s chaotic domestic politics are debilitating its foreign policy. Two decades of war following 9/11 culminated with America handing back Afghanistan to the unchanged fundamentalist force that controlled Afghanistan at the outset of the “War on Terror”, the Taliban. The Iraq War, battled on false pretences, was not only a diversion from Afghanistan, but morphed into an exorbitantly-priced catastrophe. An American-led attempt to prevent genocide in Libya created mayhem. A US-backed campaign to destroy ISIS in Syria witnessed the US ultimately discarding its Kurdish allies. And Trump’s presidential term isolated American allies and extended legitimacy towards autocratic enemies.


Haywire domestic politics are impeding a long-term and clear-cut foreign policy. The US negotiated a deal to suppress Iran’s nuclear program, strode out, and then wanted back in. It joined the Paris Climate Agreement, abandoned it, and re-joined it. Russian election interference took advantage of the US’ internal political rupture and further aggravated it. The withdrawal from Afghanistan wasn’t strategically conducted, but rather based on domestic political factors.


The democracy-endangering cultural and political war ripping through America has cost the nation the capability to wield consistent and credible leadership globally. A bigger question may perhaps be if the crisis in Afghanistan implies the “American century”, a term coined by Henry Luce in 1941, is in its final phase. Is America’s role as the world’s policeman coming to a finish?


The fall of Kabul to the Taliban through military withdrawal is paradoxical to the US’ rationale for intervention in 2001, which claimed moral obligations to liberate Afghan women and democratise the nation, whilst defending against the spread of terrorism by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. It seems the US’ purpose of intervention wasn’t about ending terror, but rather exhibiting power. Expending $2.26 trillion over two decades only to leave an unsecured and unstable nation has yielded a humanitarian humiliation for America’s moral standing.


American withdrawal basically surrendered the country to Taliban rule, leading to Afghanistan’s collapse, and Iraqis dread they could face a similar calamity next. The foundation for any form of nation-building is security; a lack of security allows unpredictability and corruption to flourish. The primary lesson other militant groups are likely to draw from America’s slipshod departure from Afghanistan is this: if America becomes tired of fighting their enemy, they will withdraw and allow its client regime to deteriorate. If Biden ends the US’ combat mission later this year in Iraq, tragic blunders could repeat themselves. America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, was an unwarranted conflict provoked with a purpose to locate apparent WMD and overthrow Saddam Hussein’s political monopoly, all on a falsified “war on terror” pretext to reap Iraq’s oil.


Washington’s assumption that removing Hussein would ensure a continuing political presence in Iraq was false. The US was unable to comprehend the complexity of Iraqi society and failed to plan for post-invasion, giving rise to sectarian clashes between Sunni’s, Kurds, and Shiites and the formation of ISIS after Obama withdrew troops in 2011. It would have been sounder for the US not to intervene to avoid Iraq’s instability and a waste of resources, instead there is continued militarisation of the US to prevent ISIS’ rise. Now, a similar lack of attention towards the US’ significance and influence in Iraq may conclude in Iraq becoming an afterthought for US policymakers, in spite of the consequence of instability in the regional and domestic dynamics of the country. The slightest downgrade in American commitment to Baghdad may drastically alter the equilibrium of power in favour of renegade non-state actors, including ISIS.


Fortunately for Baghdad, the Biden administration isn’t in a hurry to remove the US presence from Iraq, and Iraqi forces are better integrated into their nation’s political and security infrastructure compared to Afghan security forces. The US’ decision to leave Iraq is more likely to be based on the US’ tactical repositioning of foreign policy priorities, as Iraq’s government retains a sturdier shape than the Afghan government. The greatest risk that lies ahead for Iraq is long-term sectarian and regional differences and demands for more power distribution, especially as economic resources are unequally spread across Iraq and geographic and socio-economic disparities will determine the future security landscape.


The ruinous and messy endgame in Afghanistan has resulted in security and humanitarian crises due to policy reversals. The Taliban’s success and US neglect will grievously set back Afghan human rights, allowing terrorism and militancy to thrive. The swift demise of the Afghan government has boosted the possibility of similar power snatches in tenuous Middle Eastern states. For Afghanistan, the lessons of the US taking calculated decisions come too late; it may not be for Iraq.


IMAGE: Unsplash / Yasmine Arfaoui