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National leaders, whether in democratic or authoritarian systems, often share a human trait: All tend to avoid admitting and taking personal responsibility for their mistakes. Not many emperors will admit the naked error of their policies. But, for all their other differences in value systems and methods of governance, democratic leaders similarly demur on accepting well-deserved blame for costly errors.
President Biden recently issued a report on his administration’s abandonment of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the most credibility-damaging U.S. foreign policy debacle in decades. Granted, Trump’s Doha Agreement with the Taliban was illusory at best, but Biden ‘s implementation made a bad situation far worse than it needed to be.
The report itself compounded that disgraceful performance with a demonstration of moral cowardice, contending that the precipitous withdrawal scenario had been predetermined by Trump’s agreement with the Taliban a year earlier. This, from a president who had no difficulty reversing or walking away from multiple executive actions of his predecessor — just as Trump had done with Obama-era policies.
The rationale offered by the report falls of its own weight. It complained that “The departing Trump administration had left the Biden administration with a date for withdrawal, but no plan for executing it.” Yet it acknowledges that, despite the known existence of the Trump-Taliban agreement since February of 2020, Biden had not made a “final decision to leave Afghanistan” until months after he took office. So, the decision was still Biden’s.
The administration stated it did not seek changes to the agreement because of concern that attacks on the 2,500-man contingent of remaining U.S. forces would resume. There had been no U.S. deaths in Afghanistan for a full year; the risks were minimal compared to the costs to U.S. and Afghan interests of the hasty withdrawal.
Moreover, the Biden administration had ample opportunity and legal justification to withdraw from the agreement or insist on modifications. The Taliban began violating it within weeks, after agreeing to “start intra-Afghan negotiations” on March 10, 2020, to prepare for “the formation of the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government as determined by the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations.”
Instead, the Taliban continued to intensify its attacks on Afghan forces and Afghan civilians. It also failed to meet its counterterrorism commitments by maintaining close links with al Qaeda. While both Trump and Biden had promised to end America’s “forever wars,” all the tactical decisions on the preparation, logistics and sequencing of the U.S. withdrawal, including the timing of the transfer of the critical Bagram air base to the Afghan military, were made by the Biden administration.
As insulting as Biden’s excuses for his catastrophic actions, they pale in comparison to Xi Jinping’s preemptive rationale for his long-planned invasion of Taiwan. Where Biden says, “my predecessor made me do it,” Xi now asserts, “my people are making me do it.”
This, after a decade of announcing his aggressive intentions so the destruction of Taiwan’s democracy is not put off “from one generation to another.” Xi has made clear that “reunification” with Taiwan (which the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled) is not only necessary for China’s “rejuvenation” and national sovereignty, but also to counter the “containment, encirclement, and suppression” strategy of the United States.
He has drummed that message into the Chinese population for the decade he has been in power, so to now claim that he is only responding to the wishes of the people is more than ironic. He is in danger of disowning the monster he helped create.
In fact, there is no evidence that broad public opinion in China (to the extent it can be measured) is interested in taking Taiwan, let alone by force — and certainly not if it means war with the United States. Washington must dispense with its misguided policy of strategic ambiguity and make clear that it will defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression.
It is true that Xi and China’s Communist leaders fear the Chinese people on the question of Taiwan, but for quite the opposite reason. Taiwan is an alluring model of what China itself could be under a democratic system of government: strong, prosperous, happy and free.
All-powerful though he is, Xi may have a tougher time moderating his rhetoric on Taiwan than he did in abruptly switching from an all-encompassing COVID lockdown to throwing the doors open and lifting all restrictions. Xi’s aggressive posture is far from being unique to him as a Chinese ruler; the CCP’s claim on Taiwan goes back to Mao and China’s civil war.
For Xi to soften, he would have to moderate one of the basic tenets of the Communist Party’s program. But America and the West can help Xi see the wisdom of greater moderation by helping the Chinese people see the light: that the only military threat to China comes from the reaction of the U.S. and its many Asian and European allies to Chinese Communist aggression, just as Vladimir Putin awakened the world to his own expansionist ambitions.
It will be far safer for the world if the U.S.-China confrontation were waged as information warfare rather than the kinetic kind, especially when the West has the most powerful weapon of all: the truth.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA
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