The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden is rejecting nation-building. But not our right to use force anywhere.

President Biden delivers remarks regarding the end of the war in Afghanistan, at the White House on Aug. 31. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

If a president has an easily understood foreign policy “doctrine,” it often means he oversimplifies the world and makes decisions based on sweeping ideas that seldom apply in complicated situations.

So what’s President Biden’s foreign policy doctrine? Over the years, some have tried to pin it down, and it contains disparate elements, such as the great stock he places in his personal relationships with foreign leaders and a focus on competition with China.

But with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden is making a public case for something he has believed for some time: The long-standing American belief that we can remake other nations in our image, which has gotten us into so much trouble, has to go.

He’s right about that, and we can hope he convinces as many people as possible. But don’t think he’s going to enact some kind of revolution in our foreign policy.

The problem with nation-building was a major emphasis of the speech Biden gave Tuesday after the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan concluded, a speech that at times sounded as if it was meant to mark a defining transition in American foreign policy. “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan,” he said. “It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”

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That sentiment — that invading other countries and then trying to remake them in our image is a fool’s errand — is hardly new. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both agreed with it. But neither could quite extricate himself from George W. Bush’s wars, and neither challenged the presumption that America’s military power should constantly be thrust outward.

Biden may have managed the former, but he is definitely not going to change the latter. His doctrine rejects nation-building, but it doesn’t reject the fundamental posture that America reserves the right to use its military anywhere and everywhere it pleases.

The problem with the kind of nation-building we’ve tried to accomplish over the years, it’s sometimes said, is that while our military is exceptionally good at killing people and blowing things up, it’s not so good at creating functional governments with popular legitimacy. And Biden wants to make sure, lest anyone call him weak, that the blowing things up and killing people will continue, even in Afghanistan itself. Here’s something else he said in his speech:

And for anyone who gets the wrong idea, let me say it clearly. To those who wish America harm, to those that engage in terrorism against us and our allies, know this: The United States will never rest. We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down to the ends of the Earth, and we will — you will pay the ultimate price.

If even wishing America harm is enough to get you on the business end of a drone strike, we’re going to have an awful lot of targets. But it might be better to think of that as just tough talk.

Driven by both maturing technology and his distaste for the kind of ambitious nation-building that characterized the Bush Doctrine, Obama dramatically escalated the use of drone strikes, though it didn’t often make the front pages. Then Trump — despite all his rhetoric about how foreign adventurism was stupid and he would focus on America — escalated it even further.

And while the Biden administration is conducting a review of the United States’ ongoing drone war, in which we use our technology to target people we consider threats in countries around the world, that’s about how we use it and where the lines of authority over the strikes are drawn, not over whether we should be doing it at all.

There is no contradiction between the regular use of that particular kind of force and Biden’s attempt to reorient what Americans ought to expect from our military. After all, he isn’t questioning whether it is or should be America’s right to impose our will on others; in his conception, trying to “remake other countries” is bad because it sucks us into quagmires where our interests aren’t really at stake. Here’s another excerpt of his speech:

To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan, I ask: What is the vital national interest? In my view, we only have one: to make sure Afghanistan can never be used again to launch an attack on our homeland.

That we can do so from “over the horizon,” a phrase now being repeated often, in no way challenges the idea that we have every right to use force wherever and whenever we choose.

You can argue that even if doing so kills civilians — which it will — the destruction will be far less than it would be if we were waging ground wars. That’s one powerful argument in favor of Biden’s withdrawal: Staying longer might or might not have resulted in more U.S. casualties (which had dramatically dwindled in recent years), but it would have prolonged a conflict in which Afghan civilians were dying by the thousands every year.

But let’s be honest: We only get concerned about foreigners dying from time to time, and for short periods.

We like to think that our military is a force for good, protecting the weak, righting wrongs and delivering freedom wherever it goes. But the truth is that what our military is for is projecting American power outward. Biden might not take us to more doomed nation-building projects, but that’s something he isn’t going to change.