“October 15, 2022,” Letters from an American, Prof. Heather Cox Richardson. (substack.com)
At Thursday’s meeting of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, as Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) showed that former president Trump both recognized that he had lost the election and intended to leave the White House, he noted that on November 11, just four days after Democrat Joe Biden had been declared the winner of the 2020 election, Trump had abruptly ordered U.S. troops to leave Somalia and Afghanistan by January 15.
Indeed, according to an Axios investigation by Jonathan Swan and Zachary Basu last May, two days before that order, on November 9, 2020, John McEntee, Trump’s hand-picked director of the Presidential Personnel Office, told retired Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor that Trump wanted him to “Get us out of Afghanistan. Get us out of Iraq and Syria. Complete the withdrawal from Germany. Get us out of Africa.” When Macgregor, who was brought on to the administration on November 11, said he didn’t think that was possible, McEntee told him to “do as much as you can.”
Kinzinger’s point was that Trump clearly knew he was leaving office because he was deliberately trying to create chaos for his successor. When he abruptly pulled the U.S. out of northern Syria in October 2019, he abandoned our Kurdish allies, forcing more than 160,000 Syrians from their homes and making them victims of extraordinary violence. The Pentagon considered Trump’s November 11 instructions “a rogue order,” since they had not gone through any of the appropriate channels, and disregarded them.
The release of the Biden administration’s annual National Security Strategy (NSS) on Wednesday, October 12, 2022, highlights just how big a catastrophe we dodged.
Just as Trump’s abrupt withdrawal from Syria left a vacuum for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian president Vladimir Putin, and as Trump’s planned but not executed withdrawal of troops from Germany would have hamstrung the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) so it could not have countered Putin’s Russia, so would the abrupt disengagement of the U.S. around the world have created a giant vacuum for authoritarian countries to fill.
Biden’s National Security Strategy reiterates his belief that we are in a global struggle between democracy and rising autocracy and that the world is at an inflection point that will determine “the security and prosperity of the American people for generations to come.”
The document makes a strong call for American leadership to defend democracy and to reinforce the rules-based international system on which the world has depended since World War II. This system is now under attack as Russia has claimed the right to invade a neighboring country and redraw its boundaries by force, and as authoritarian governments seek to control global trade and power by withholding key resources—like energy—from other nations.
The NSS promises that the U.S. will work to strengthen democracy around the world “because democratic governance consistently outperforms authoritarianism in protecting human dignity, leads to more prosperous and resilient societies, creates stronger and more reliable economic and security partners for the United States, and encourages a peaceful world order.” It also calls for the domestic development of key resources, especially energy, to reduce the ability of other nations to pressure us.
Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have made rebuilding NATO, reinforcing our traditional partnerships like those with the “Quad”—which, in addition to the U.S., includes Australia, Japan, and India—and advancing our alliances in the Indo-Pacific a top priority. On Thursday, Biden said his staff had calculated that he had spent about 220 hours talking directly with the heads of state at NATO and the European Union, “just holding it together” after Putin counted on NATO splitting up. Biden and Blinken have emphasized security, trade, and technology to knit the world together.
The NSS notes that “we are creating a latticework of strong, resilient, and mutually reinforcing relationships that prove democracies can deliver for their people and the world.” Unified international support for Ukraine illustrates just how successful they have been. The NSS also emphasizes the importance of working with countries in Latin America to improve conditions in the western hemisphere in general and to weaken corruption, improve security, and strengthen democracy there. It calls for closer relations with African nations and African regional institutions, and it calls for a peaceful Arctic.
The NSS notes that Iran interferes in the internal affairs of its neighbors and is advancing a nuclear program and that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) is also expanding its illicit nuclear weapons. But above all, the NSS calls out Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as key destabilizers of the international order. It notes they are increasingly aligning with each other but present very different challenges to the U.S.
China is the only power able to reshape the international order, the NSS states, and is using technology to gain sway over international institutions to advance its authoritarian model, which in the past has provided a rising standard of living in exchange for a loss of freedom. The PRC has been able to use that economic power to pressure other countries to become dependent on it.
The NSS calls for strengthening the U.S. at home to compete with the PRC, working with allies and partners, and competing with the PRC in the Indo-Pacific region to strengthen the autonomy of countries there. (The recent U.S. demonstration of support for Taiwan was part of this demonstration, and it had the effect of prompting the PRC to overreact, demonstrating an instability that weakened ties to regional neighbors.)
And yet the NSS emphasizes that while the U.S. has “profound differences” with the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Government, those differences are not “between our people.” “Ties of family and friendship continue to connect the American and the Chinese people. We deeply respect their achievements, their history, and their culture. Racism and hate have no place in a nation built by generations of immigrants to fulfill the promise of opportunity for all. And we intend to work together to solve issues that matter most to the people of both countries.”
Turning to Russia, the NSS condemns “its longstanding efforts to destabilize its neighbors using intelligence and cyber capabilities, and its blatant attempts to undermine internal democratic processes in countries across Europe, Central Asia, and around the world,” and notes that “Russia has also interfered brazenly in U.S. politics and worked to sow divisions among the American people.” The U.S. will continue to lead “a united, principled, and resolute response to Russia’s invasion” of Ukraine.
But the last several months have indicated that autocracies have their own problems. The PRC has doubled down on a zero-Covid policy that has hurt its economy and sparked internal protest. Tomorrow, the Communist Party will begin its 20th National Congress (congresses are held every five years). It is expected that President Xi Jinping will win a third term to consolidate his grip on power just as the U.S has unveiled strict controls on selling semiconductors and chip-making equipment to China, restrictions that appear to be an attempt to kneecap Chinese advances in artificial intelligence and military capabilities.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has proved disastrous for Putin. As supplies and soldiers have drained into Ukraine, Russia’s control of the lands around it has faltered, while his recent mobilization of the Russian population to fight in Ukraine has created extraordinary unrest at home. Putin is pressing Belarus’s president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, to join the war, but Lukashenko appears hesitant, likely suspecting that joining the disastrous war will mean his own political end.
For its part, Iran is facing internal protests sparked by the murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, known to her family by her Kurdish name Zhina, in the custody of “morality police” for violating the country’s dress code. Saudi Arabia is not necessarily as strong as it has appeared lately, either. When its leaders recently sided with Russia by pushing OPEC+ to cut oil production and thus support gas prices, other OPEC+ countries told the U.S. that the Saudis had pressured them to do so. Saudi Arabia has suddenly offered Ukraine $400 million in humanitarian aid, evidently trying to regain the goodwill of Europe and the U.S., since it imports almost all of its weapons from that bloc.
“The post-Cold War era is definitively over and a competition is underway between the major powers to shape what comes next,” the NSS says.
“No nation is better positioned to succeed in this competition than the United States, as long as we work in common cause with those who share our vision of a world that is free, open, secure, and prosperous. This means that the foundational principles of self-determination, territorial integrity, and political independence must be respected, international institutions must be strengthened, countries must be free to determine their own foreign policy choices, information must be allowed to flow freely, universal human rights must be upheld, and the global economy must operate on a level playing field and provide opportunity for all.”