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A Biden Doctrine Starts to Take Shape

Biden says he wants to prevent military conflicts rather than starting them. He should repudiate the failed approaches of his predecessors.
Joe Biden

In President Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress, military issues figured as an afterthought. Yet implicit in his presentation was a potential shift in basic U.S. policy from activism to restraint. The central purpose of American military power, he announced, is “not to start a conflict, but to prevent one”—and not, by extension, to embroil the United States in wars that never seem to end. Here was an inkling of modified strategic priorities.

Biden’s recent announcement that the U.S. war in Afghanistan will definitively end by September 11, 2021 had also hinted at ringing down the curtain on the forever wars. An era defined by open-ended global conflict is ending, Biden suggested. A new era has begun. By extension, he declared it time “for American troops to come home,” a statement offered without caveat or qualification.

What role should the troops play going forward? Implicit in Biden’s Afghanistan announcement and in his presentation to Congress is the suggestion that the U.S. penchant for military action during recent decades requires revision. On that score, Biden should articulate a new doctrine on the use of force.

Present-day U.S. practice combines elements of a disastrous Bush Doctrine and a deeply flawed Obama Doctrine. The former, conceived in the wake of 9/11, asserts a prerogative of waging preventive war to overthrow regimes that the United States deems intolerable. The latter finds expression in a campaign of assassinations planned, authorized, and executed in secret.

The Bush Doctrine yielded a legacy of protracted, exhausting, and very costly armed conflicts. The Obama Doctrine yielded a low-level war of attrition, employing airstrikes and small contingents of special operations forces. Both had presidents exercising broad extra-constitutional powers, with minimal accountability.

The resulting era of forever wars reached an apotheosis of sorts in January 2020. Disregarding the advice of senior U.S. military officers, President Donald Trump (who professed to loathe war) ordered the execution of an Iranian general upon his arrival in Iraq, a nation that is ostensibly a U.S. ally. The Bush Doctrine intersected with the Obama Doctrine to produce an act of strategic madness.

Trump’s critics frequently charge him with abandoning norms. Yet in matters relating to the use of force, it was Bush and Obama who cast aside well-established norms. Biden’s task is to reconstitute them.

Devising a sensible doctrine for the use of force should begin with a realistic appreciation of what force can and cannot do. Here the American preference for the language of liberation poses a problem. Only rarely does liberation provide a legitimate rationale for war. In practice, liberation entails nation-building, not only ousting objectionable regimes, but installing something better in their place.

The chastening experience of the past 20 years suggests that the United States possesses only a limited capacity for nation-building, especially when U.S. forces operate in culturally unfamiliar terrain.

A Biden Doctrine should recognize the folly (and illegality) of preventive war. It should also abrogate illusions about engineering fundamental change in faraway places, acknowledging that the military instrument possesses limited utility. Military power should be husbanded, used to preserve what we value most, rather than to remake nations in our own image.

A Biden Doctrine should also curtail the authority of the commander-in-chief to decide when the use force is necessary and appropriate. As specified in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, that authority belongs to the Congress, which should reassert it.

In that regard, Biden might consider reconstituting elements of the Weinberger Doctrine devised in the wake of Vietnam to enshrine lessons learned from that failed conflict. Chief among its provisions were the following: commit U.S. forces only when vital U.S. interests are at stake, and even then only as a last resort; specify realistic political and military objectives; ensure that “the size and composition of the forces committed” suffice to accomplish the mission.

After the Cold War, the Weinberger Doctrine’s restrictive terms fell from favor. In an era of presumed American global primacy, they seemed too timid. After 9/11, they disappeared altogether as a succession of administrations violated the doctrine’s terms in every detail. Today, however, the spirit informing Weinberger’s principles deserves fresh consideration.

A Biden Doctrine should begin with this understanding: the primary purpose of the U.S. military is not to police the globe, but to safeguard the security and wellbeing of the American people where they live. Contain, deter, and defend: these should define the core missions of America’s armed forces.

This mission set narrows the remit that the Pentagon has customarily exercised in recent decades. By extension, this narrower remit carries with it opportunities to economize, with budget, force structure, basing, and acquisition programs all getting a fresh look.

A Biden Doctrine incorporating elements of restraint will not be without risk. But restraint does not signify passivity. Effective statecraft need not entail perpetrating acts of violence. There are other ways to wield influence, not least of all by serving as an exemplar.

In announcing the coming U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden emphasized the imperative of positioning the United States to face “adversaries and competitors” of “the next 20 years, not the last 20.” A prudent, judicious, and realistic Biden Doctrine offers a way to do just that.

America can’t afford any more forever wars.

Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed, is due out in June.