Discover more from Hopium Chronicles By Simon Rosenberg
Some thoughts on Afghanistan, and what comes next for President Biden
After Kabul, Joe Biden should return to his agenda: defeating COVID, tackling climate change, making a better economy, reforming…
Given how much legitimacy, support and time to organize President Trump and Mike Pompeo had given to the Taliban, President Biden’s decision to complete the American withdrawal from Afghanistan this year was the right call, and perhaps the only call. There will be time to discuss and dissect the Biden Administration’s clear mistakes in managing the endgame, but now the US must focus its energies getting our allies out safely, resettling tens of thousands of Afghan refugees here in the US, keeping the pressure on the new government to respect human rights particularly for women and girls, and staying vigilant about what could become a more dangerous terrorist threat landscape.
In a lengthy Newsy interview last Friday, I discussed the big Biden strategy behind his decision to leave Afghanistan. The President has repeatedly stated that it is time for the US to turn the page now on our decades of deeply disappointing involvement in the broader Middle East/Afghanistan and create more space and resources to tackle new challenges, among them
defeating COVID here and everywhere
fighting climate change and bringing an end to the era of petro-dictators
fashioning far more cogent strategies to compete against Russia and China
shoring up and modernizing the global liberal order so essential to our economic and geopolitical success
creating some kind of new global cyber regime which better protects our digital world
We have little to show for our investment in the Middle East and Afghanistan over these past 20 years, and all the blood and treasure we’ve spent there year after year has prevented us from developing full blown responses to these other emergent challenges. The President is right to try to refocus our energies, as difficult as that transition might be.
In the coming months the President should work hard to show the American people what a new post-Afghanistan American strategy looks like. Together, we can:
Launch a stepped up global campaign to defeat COVID– the long term damage years of COVID ravaging through countries could have on the modern world imagined and built by America after WWII is immense. Defeating COVID everywhere and beginning the process of building back better throughout the world — including creating a new and far more effective system for countering future pandemics — remains in our mind President Biden’s highest foreign policy priority. It allows us to create an immediate positive contrast to the images coming from Kabul; it helps restore foreign markets for our companies, and prevents further supply chain disruptions plaguing our economy; it can save millions of lives and prevent erosion of civil society in nations across the world that could create new breeding grounds for extremist politics. It allows us here in America to keep our kids in school, stand up our economy again and just get back to the lives we once knew.
Defeating COVID remains job #1, and we need to do everything we can to bring its dark run on this planet to a rapid end, here in the US, and everywhere.
Get Biden’s climate agenda passed, and use that leverage to create far more global momentum behind the fight against our changing climate– The President has teed up a comprehensive strategy for America to do its part in tackling the climate crisis. We need to get it passed as soon as possible. Of the many things in the President’s domestic agenda, the climate package may be the most important, and the one which future generations may most identify with the Biden Presidency. It would be helpful if the President could point to climate legislation he has signed into law — not just working its way through Congress — by the time he speaks to UN General Assembly in late September.
We also need to better articulate how important decarbonization is to another part of Biden’s global strategy — fighting corruption and challenging the growing global momentum for illiberalism. Some of the world’s most destructive and dangerous regimes — Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela — are powered by oil wealth. Weaning the world from oil is not just good for the climate and our economy, it is also vital to ensure that democracies prevail over autocracies in the coming decades.
Filling out the details of the President’s democracy vs.autocracy framework will be even more important after the fall of Kabul, around the world and here at home. As we’ve argued for many months now, “defending democracy” has to be among the President’s highest priorities.
Lead a big conversation about immigration in America, and articulate a clear new post-Trump strategy — the imminent resettling of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees gives the President an opportunity to re-enter the national conversation around immigration in a manner similar to his “hard truths” speech on Afghanistan. We have to get out of our defensive crouch on immigration and the border, and articulate a vision for how we plan to manage our immigration system in ways that are consistent with our values, that meets the needs of our economy and keeps us safe. This is particularly important as due to COVID, climate change and other challenges we could be entering a period of greater migratory flows and pressures.
Our current immigration system is every much as failed an enterprise as our 20 year-long effort in Afghanistan. This is an area ripe for far-sighted, smart Presidential leadership.
Repackage the rest of the his Build Back Better agenda as a way of upping our game against China, Russia and ensuring America wins the future– The investments the President has proposed in infrastructure, health care, education and our people will make America much more capable of competing and winning in an era of rising global competition. His agenda will make us all more prosperous, and give many more Americans a chance to follow their dreams and make better lives for themselves and their families. It is, at its core, about opportunity.
The current way the President’s agenda has been broken up into two packages has made it, for now, a bit challenging to explain and sell to the public. The White House may want to take a step back from the particulars in each package and revive first principles here — all of this is about making America better, more prosperous, stronger, more capable of charting our course in an uncertain world. Rather than big and bold it has to be pragmatic and necessary. These are the things we simply must do if we are to give our people a shot at the American Dream in a time of new challenges and opportunities. It is the work which must get done.
During the course of our selling this part of the President’s ambitious agenda, it would be smart for Democrats to remind voters of how just much better we’ve been at creating jobs, opportunity and prosperity in this new global age than Republicans (details here). Establishing this fundamental contrast needs to be seen as one of the Democrat’s highest messaging and narrative priorities in the coming months.
Take prudent steps to make sure our ambitious programs work as intended — If the rest of the President’s agenda is passed, we will be asking much more of government in the coming years, and we need to make sure it can rise to the challenge. We are already seeing early design and implementation failures rising from the American Rescue Plan. We are likely to see many more from passing bills which are double the size of the ARP. This too is Bidenesque pragmatism. Repeated policy failures could undermine the entire Build Back Better agenda in the coming months, and cripple the Democrats in the coming elections. I offer some ideas on how we can make government rise to the Build Back Better challenge in this recent essay, which leans in part on a new, excellent article by Annie Lowry in the Atlantic about how government inefficiencies are an incredible burden on the poor and working class in America.
We simply have to be clear-eyed here, and realize that spending this much money this quickly on so many different things if not well planned and managed can result in unacceptable failure. Isn’t that the ultimate lesson of our time in Afghanistan? In a post Kabul Presidency making sure stuff is working as intended should be core to the new governing culture Biden is forging.
In sum, the ending of America’s involvement in Afghanistan is opportunity for the President to re-introduce his smart, forward looking agenda to the American people, and create more urgency around its enactment.
This essay has been slightly revised and updated since it was originally published Tuesday, August 17th on the NDN site.