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How Many Wars Does Joe Biden Want to Fight?

Joe Biden War
Image: Creative Commons.

President Joe Biden took the U.S. out of Afghanistan, ending the desultory 20-year conflict. Although deadly and costly, it was, by World War II or even Vietnam War standards, a small affair. The Afghan people paid a high price, but foreign deaths have rarely generated much concern among the American people.

In any case, Biden deserves credit for doing what Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump would not, even though they also recognized that the conflict should end. The choice was either leave and accept the loss or stay forever and pretend to win. Even after the Biden administration’s blundering exit the majority of Americans believed that he did the right thing. Leave Afghanistan for the Afghans. At least good Ol’ Uncle Joe did the right thing once on foreign policy.

But it increasingly looks like it might only be once. Indeed, having dumped one small war, the president and his aides appear ready to start three big ones. At once. Is anyone in the administration in charge? Do they know what they are doing?

First is Iran. Negotiations for restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action have foundered and Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, offering barely veiled threats of war if an accord is not reached. Yet it is U.S. behavior which is at fault.

President Donald Trump walked away from the agreement forged by his predecessor and imposed brutal economic sanctions on Iran, intended to wreck its economy and force its surrender. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set forth humiliating terms which no sovereign nation would accept. Then the administration waited. And waited.

Instead of yielding, Tehran launched a multi-faceted resistance campaign which culminated in allied militia attacks on American bases and embassy in Iraq. A chastened Pompeo was forced to admit that the U.S. could not defend its embassy, which he threatened to close. By the end of his administration, Trump was publicly begging the Iranians to negotiate, to no avail. Because of his reckless policy, Tehran was much closer to making a nuclear weapon when he left office.

Instead of taking the first step to restoring an agreement ruptured by its predecessor, the Biden administration attempted to squeeze additional concessions from Iran and refused to offer any assurances for its own compliance. Then, having made agreement impossible, it threatened military action, presumably in league with Israel, whose previous government made little effort to hide its desire to fight Iran to the last American.

Iran is more populous than Iraq, a real country, even civilization. Tehran possesses notable asymmetric military capabilities, many of which it used during the Trump administration. Although Iran would lose any conventional fight, it could wreak havoc across the Middle East. War also would demonstrate that a nuclear capability is absolutely essential for its defense, causing Tehran to dig even deeper underground in preparation for the next round. Such a disaster would be entirely Biden’s fault.

And it would be enough to wreck Biden’s presidency as well as the Middle East. Few Europeans would even pretend to follow U.S. leadership afterward. Worse, champagne corks would go off amid riotous celebration in both the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai, as America’s greatest rivals celebrated an even more catastrophic war and an even more incredible blunder, proof that Washington’s arrogant foreign policy establishment knew nothing, learned nothing, and remembered nothing.

However, the Biden administration did not stop there. Lloyd Austin, whose portfolio as Secretary of Defense is supposed to be focused on America’s “defense,” made the rounds of Europe, where he advocated the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine in NATO. It’s a bad idea that got its initial push under the Bush administration, evidence enough that it should be rejected. Neither country has any relevance to American security. Both have histories of reckless leaders eager to drag America into war. Both are redlines for Russia—imagine Washington’s reaction had the Soviet Union meddled in elections in Mexico and Canada and then invited those governments to join the Warsaw Pact.

Should the worst happen and war break out with Moscow, most of America’s NATO allies would run in the opposite direction, leaving the fight to Washington. It would be no cakewalk: Russia would have more at stake, concentrate a preponderance of forces at the critical point, and deploy nuclear weapons to deter Americans from taking advantage of its full superiority. Imagine if the U.S. found itself at war with Iran and Russia simultaneously—as most of the Europeans mailed in their best wishes.

At least the prospect of Moscow and Washington fighting over Kyiv and/or Tbilisi appears to be mostly theoretical at the moment. Not so the possibility of conflict between China and Taiwan, between whom tensions have been steadily rising.

Most members of the Blob, as the foreign policy establishment is called, believe the U.S. should be ready to go to war with China over the island, which escaped the Chinese Communist Party when Chiang Kai-shek and his defeated Nationalists fled there after their defeat on the mainland. Indeed, U.S. analysts have been debating the idea of dropping Washington’s currently ambiguous stance—refusing to say yes or no—and making a clear commitment. Although the idea of not going to war is almost entirely absent in the capital, most analysts have convinced themselves that talking tough would be enough to scare off the Chinese.

However, Taiwan is the final Chinese territory stolen away during the “Century of Humiliation,” and even younger Chinese back their government’s claim. In such a contest angry nationalism commonly trumps good sense, as in America’s Civil War. Americans who believe Beijing will yield its claim to Taiwan without a fight risk sleepwalking into a major war, as have so many other self-assured fools throughout history.

In any case, the president recently went off-script and declared that America would fight. His aides quickly corrected the record, so to speak, as did President George W. Bush after making a similar promise in 2001. Nevertheless, Beijing has seen more than enough continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations toward China and is likely to assume the worst, irrespective of Washington’s verbal legerdemain. So if the People’s Republic of China decides war is necessary and believes the U.S. will fight, the People’s Liberation Army will act swiftly and brutally, hoping to win before the U.S.—nearly 8000 miles away—can interfere.

War with China would be even worse than with Russia. The PRC would have more at stake in the fight, local superiority, a couple score bases on the mainland roughly 100 miles away, and a victim that so far has shown little inclination to defend itself. In combat the U.S. would have little choice but to strike the mainland, which would trigger escalation, with no obvious endpoint. Indeed, Washington, attempting to fight from half a world away, has done poorly in wargames. It is far easier for Beijing to deter the U.S. than for America to project sufficient power to defeat the PRC. And even a U.S. victory would probably be just the first round, as a nationalistic Chinese public prepared for round two. How much is Taiwan worth to the U.S.?

Worse, imagine if Washington faced simultaneous crises, perhaps with Iran, Russia, and China at once. While most of America’s allies discovered that they were busy, very busy, but nevertheless wished the U.S. well. Indeed, they would make a very strong statement as the bullets and missiles started flying.

President Biden has always seen himself as an internationalist. That doesn’t mean he should start a war, however. Indeed, he is one of the few policymakers who today understands the reality of war. He entered public life about the same time that the Nixon administration was pulling the last U.S. troops out of Vietnam. It has been almost a half century since America fought a conflict with heavy casualties, extended ground combat, heavy air action, and mass protest at home.

However, all could return if the administration managed to stumble into one or more major wars. At least a conflict with Russia or China would make the American people forget Biden’s ragged exit from Afghanistan. However, if he wants to be reelected—and, more important, to be a good president, however long he serves—then he should concentrate on avoiding real war with real opponents, and especially multiple conflicts at once.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

Written By

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Ron Lawrence

    October 26, 2021 at 10:44 pm

    This is an unrealistic assessment. If Taiwan falls it endangers the rest of SE Asia. Would it be better for Tiiwan to fall, keeping us out of a war, or for S. Korea and Japan to go nuclear? As for Iran, why would we let a bunch of crackpots that think a war to bring back the 12th imam would be responsible with a nuclear weapon?!

  2. David Chang

    October 29, 2021 at 8:40 am

    President Trump let people to think about morality of policy.

    Democratic-Republican Party make policy to be atheism.

    God bless America.

  3. Theo Bauman

    November 12, 2021 at 6:24 am

    The World’s most active Meddler and War Monger, the USA just loves War. The more Wars the happier Amerikkka is !!

  4. Bob Zimmerhead

    November 13, 2021 at 10:23 pm

    Yes Theo, Amerikka must be number one, the best. Amerikka melting pot is the world. It is proper and right that Russia and America rule the planet with superior AlGorthyms and Robots to serve us.

  5. Richard Steven Hack

    November 14, 2021 at 7:36 pm

    “War also would demonstrate that a nuclear capability is absolutely essential for its defense…”

    Wrong. Iran has no interest in nuclear weapons. More importantly, many people think that a handful of nuclear weapons is somehow a deterrent to a country with thousands of warheads, and dozens of nuclear missile armed submarines, and scores of nuclear armed aircraft. That’s not how it works – and Iran knows it.

    Nuclear weapons are only useful if 1) you have enough of them – like Russia and China – to be a credible existential threat to your enemies, and 2) you have a delivery system that can deliver them to your enemies. Iran doesn’t qualify on either – not even North Korea with its alleged nuclear arsenal qualifies. And if the US and Israel and NATO are willing to attack Iran when it *doesn’t* have a nuclear weapons program, how likely is it that they will allow Iran to really develop one?

    It’s not going to happen. Also, Iran is not going to “lose the conventional war”. Iran’s infrastructure might be bombed into the Stone Age – the US military is good at that if nothing else – but that’s not the same as “losing”. Iran can only lose if the US and NATO physically invade and occupy the country – and we’ve all seen how that works out in Afghanistan.

    In reality, the US and Israel (and probably NATO) will bomb Iran relentlessly. In return, Iran will bomb the Saudis relentlessly. They have more than enough missiles for that. Meanwhile, Hezbollah will bomb Israel relentlessly (ditto on the missile count), forcing Israelis into bomb shelters 24×7 for at least three months, destroying the Israeli economy. This is why we haven’t had an Iran war yet, even under Trump – Israel can’t afford it and can’t destroy Hezbollah itself without US help.

    In addition, as Doug correctly notes, Iran and its supporters will wreak havoc everywhere else. The US and EU economies will evaporate as oil shipments (possibly including from Russia who will not like the Iran war) likewise evaporate. The US Navy will absolutely not be able to keep the Persian Gulf open, despite any claims to the contrary.

    I think the US will go to war with Iran, at least if Israel has anything to say about it. But first Israel has to get the US to help it deal with Hezbollah – which is why all the trouble in Lebanon is happening. Who do you think blew up the port?

    The only reason we won’t have a war with Iran is because a war with China over Taiwan or a war with Russia over Ukraine starts first. In both cases, Pentagon war games show the US losing unless it escalates to nuclear war – in which case we all lose.

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