Foreign Debacles and the Biden War Philosophy
Air Date: February 14, 2022
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome today’s guest, a former retired Colonel U.S Army, Robert Cassidy. He is the Anderson Fellow in Defense and Foreign Affairs at Wesleyan University. Colonel Cassidy, thank you so much for your time today.
CASSIDY: Hi, Alexander. Thank you for having me on your show.
HEFFNER: Let me ask you just to begin with, to give an assessment of foreign policy, looking at the first year of the Biden administration. You know, I know that you have studied global conflict and in particular U.S. involvement in foreign relations and our various entanglements and conflicts in which we’ve been immersed in the last half century. What’s your sense of the first year of the Biden presidency?
CASSIDY: My sense of the first year of the Biden presidency in terms of foreign and security policy is, I’m not, I’m not that, that keen on what they’ve done so far. But know this: I’m very glad that this administration is in the White House vis a vis the previous one. But I think that, well the one thing they did early on was to recognize the genocide in Armenia. I thought that was a positive thing. They spent some intellectual, some political capital on that, but then, I think between April and August, the decisions that the senior administration national security practitioners made were not thought through. I think they could have thought through how they were going to collapse out of Afghanistan. You know, hindsight is 2020, but even as the thing was unfolding as they came in, I was, I was, I felt that the President had already decided that he was done with the war in Afghanistan back when he was a senator and became Vice President in 2009. So I am a veteran of the U.S. Army, so these comments are my own. They’re not associated with the army or the U.S. government. I am glad that the Biden presidency is in, but I think that their National Security team is not strong enough. I think they need to be more analytical, more deliberate and more strategically oriented, a longer view to what this country should and can do.
HEFFNER: You reference Afghanistan and the decision basically that President Biden was going to ultimately deliver on a withdrawal one way or another. What was primarily criticized was the absent-mindedness of it, or at least the idea that we did not anticipate that the civilian government would break down. But is it that clear to you or, or is it rather the case that President Biden and his administration just didn’t want to tell the American public that of course the Taliban was going to retain power and revive its, you know, government?
CASSIDY: To be honest, it was not crystal clear to me when the Biden administration decided that it was going to follow through on the commitment to withdraw that the previous administration had made. But it was clear to me that the peace agreement that Zalmay Khalizad and his assistants from the previous administration, that the agreement they penned was utterly incongruous. It was not enforceable. It was not favorable to our side. It was not going to support an independent Afghanistan under the previous administration. I think it was disingenuous on that administration to sign that agreement. And I think it was immature of the subsequent administration to go with the agreement as is because there was no way we could enforce what we needed to have in Afghanistan for it to remain stable. And the people in Afghanistan they’ve been at war for over 40 years, if you want to include the Soviet-Afghan war, they’ve been under pressure daily from combatants on all sides. And they’re rational actors. And so they’re not cowards. They just decided as they saw the writing on the wall, and that agreement was penned. They said, we’re going to go through with it. They probably waited to see what the new administration was going to do, but then they, they acted on their intuition, which was, do they want to live, or they want to die? And the same time, the last time the Taliban came through from ‘94 to ‘96 to take over almost all of Afghanistan, it was a similar transaction where they would, do you want to fight or do you want to die? Because do you want to fight to come in or we’ll come in peacefully and we’ll give you some… we’re not going to arrest and kill everybody. And so the, I think the Afghans that served with and the Afghans that were just living through the war had to make some decisions on life and death, and they went with let’s stop the war and face the consequences. We didn’t put the diligence into what the implications of withdrawing in total would be.
HEFFNER: And just from your sense, do you think that those years were in vain, or do you think that in actuality, the Taliban of ‘22 governing Afghanistan is more mature in some ways, or perhaps more open or receptive to, not Western values, but maybe some criteria for Liberty and freedom than the Taliban of 2001, pre or post 9/11? But do you sense that that there’s, that there’s any distinction from this, this Taliban from the earlier iteration of the Taliban?
CASSIDY: I’m not sanguine that there is a marked difference in the proclivities in this Taliban versus the Taliban that we ejected in the fall and spring of 2001 and 2002. As an example, this has caused me great vexation. The current minister of the interior in Afghanistan is Sirajuddin Haqqani. Sirajuddin Haqqani is the head of the Haqqani family, the Haqqani clan, the Haqqani network, which is a subset of the Taliban. The Haqqani was the most lethal, grizzly, effective, and regenerative terrorist organization operating against our armed forces and Afghan forces for the whole war. I mean, pick a grizzly spectacle: a bombing of a hospital, an attack on a school, bombing of a bank in Nangarhar. This was most likely attributed to the Haqqani network before 2015, when the Islamic state Khorason, the franchise in Afghanistan, came to the fore. They were trying to beat the Haqqanis for how, how horrid and egregious their atrocities would be. But this, the fact that this guy is the Minister of the Interior, in charge of all interior security and given the blood on the Haqqani network’s hands, I find that to be unfathomable. Although here it is.
HEFFNER: In 2022.
HEFFNER: That’s emphatic and, and a clear answer. And I’m glad that you can share that with the public because perhaps there remains a little bit of hopefulness that there was some change in sort of a modus operandi, but it seems unlikely from what you’re saying.
CASSIDY: I would add one thing, I would say generally speaking I don’t think the Taliban leadership that was benefiting from sanctuary in Pakistan for the duration of the war, and the Taliban generally, I don’t think they changed their approach to the world, their approach to Sharia in Afghanistan. I do think it’s possible that because we spent 20 years paying, fighting, dying, bleeding in Afghanistan, that the Taliban leadership have a more realistic perspective on what the U.S. might do if another 9/11-like attack emanates from Afghanistan.
HEFFNER: Right, so maybe their appreciation of those boundaries does exist, whereas it did not pre-9/11 or in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Now there is some clarity of, and therefore maybe because of awareness of those boundaries, there is a different sense of aspiration; what they are seeking to achieve with this current Taliban state. But I hear you, no difference in likely the violent proclivities or anti-human right, anti-human rights manifestations. Now we’re in a period of this Biden administration where the public did not, you know, approve of its conduct in Afghanistan. That really was a significant event in collapsing or deteriorating some popularity that the president had at least in terms of, at that point in his presidency, recovery from the pandemic. And of course we’re in this newest day of COVID with omicron, now. And we’re also at this juncture where there is a lot of reporting about Russia’s particular aggression around Ukraine and the prospect of an invasion of Ukraine. And we’re recording this now in mid, late January. We don’t know what’s going to happen by the time this airs, but it does seem like a rather fluid situation. And there does seem to be a march to war in the media narrative around this. What is your sense of the accuracy of that march to war and whether Putin in fact might invade Ukraine and if that were to arise, what do you think, you know, knowing that the President had a year of foreign policy flaps to kind of develop a different reputation around the world in the way that he handles this Russia, Ukraine escalation?
CASSIDY: Certainly the debacle, the retreat, the abandonment in Afghanistan, and what that entailed for the credibility of the U.S. as a country and its leadership and its commitments, is not something that was going to make our adversaries think we were tough, think we were someone to contend with. So I think certainly in Mr. Putin’s eyes, whatever estimation he had of Biden from before when Biden was Vice President, his estimation is probably lowered. Probably some of that knowledge is a factor in his calculus into what he is doing right now. I do want to back up just a minute though. I don’t, I would have to say for the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the polls in the U.S. indicated that a lot of Americans really wanted us to be out of Afghanistan. So that that’s something that’s true, …
HEFFNER: Yeah, ironic as that is because President Biden was carrying out the will of the American people. And in fact, that began his slide in unpopularity and, and maybe it’s unrelated and just a coincidence. But it was like you said, a debacle or the appearance of incompetence. And then the further incompetence of the unmasking guidance earlier in the spring, which led to new spikes in cases and a feeling that America was just never going to beat COVID. And we have to, to live with it, live with hospital shortages and a high infection rate and a life expectancy that has declined, not just over the course of the Trump administration, but now the Biden administration. But this is a real predicament for Biden, with respect to Ukraine because Ukraine had represented, I wouldn’t say quite something like Hong Kong or Taiwan in terms of you know, sort of hands-off and we’re going to, we’re going to become involved in that arena if for example, China were to intervene in even more aggressive way in theoretically independent states in the Southeast. But, in a sense, Ukraine has represented that line in the sand. And so what do you do now if you are President Biden? I suppose the question is what do you do in this negotiation? But let’s assume that Putin actually seeks to overthrow the independent prime minister there and really take over the country. If you’re becoming aware of that movement on the ground and Russian troops are being deployed and there is the prospect of real military theater, you know, what do you do if you’re President Biden?
CASSIDY: It is quite a predicament. It’s a conundrum because it goes back to the, what we talked about, the will of the American public wanted us to be out of Afghanistan. But acting in foreign security policy, bringing a country to the brink of war, that is related to will and will derives from the value of what you’re trying to do. So what, what does Putin want vis a vis Ukraine, and what does the U.S. want vis a vis Ukraine. What do our European allies and NATO want visa vis Ukraine. I’m not going to a resurrect Munich analogy. I don’t think strategy by nostalgia or analogy is a way to go. But remember that phrase that was common in the interwar period, qui “mourir pour Dantzig,” the Polish corridor and it was not defendable geographically. It was beyond the reach of the British and the French, and it was untenable. And so I’m not going to be an apologist for Mr. Putin, but if you look at the map and you explore the history of Russia, invaded massively twice in two centuries, Napoleon in the 19th century, the Germans in the 20th century. Ukraine’s 1200 miles of border historically is part of the Russian space. So I would say that whatever Mr. Putin’s thinking, and nobody can really pin him down. They’re not sure if he’s if he’s machinating to achieve some concessions from Biden or whether really wants to go. All the Russian scholars and experts that have been writing on foreign affairs and are on TV, no one’s really committing to what Mr. Putin wants, but I can tell you this, Mr. Putin in Russia, the polity of that population probably ascribes more will to what they’re going to do in Eastern Ukraine than the United States does.
So it’s not an existential problem for us that the Russians and see it as existential or the way that Putin is framing it and propagating it makes it appear to be existential. But yet we still can’t do nothing. And so Mr. Biden, the president, people seem to think he looks weak because of the pull-out in Afghanistan and some other things. So he can’t look weak, but that doesn’t mean I want the U.S. to go to war over Eastern Ukraine. So I think the Ukrainians should have a high value on protecting their sovereign integrity. So I think an indirect approach, what they’re trying to do is to arm, equip, and help the Ukrainians, if the Russians come in, to make it costly. I don’t think putting three U.S. divisions in Eastern Ukraine is the solution. But, you know, raising the cost for Mr. Putin to make them get closer to the value of what he’s trying to do in Eastern Ukraine might give him pause to recalibrate his calculus. But there has to be some deterrent and it has to be credible. And I don’t know if the deterrent right now is credible enough, although there are some Ukrainians who would fight to the death to defend their land against a Russian invasion.
HEFFNER: I mean, from, from the non-military perspective, in terms of Ukraine as an American interest, I mean, I think we all have to be honest about the fact that if, you know, we are as battered as we are on the home front now with COVID and we are fatigued, the American voter or the American citizen, the American civilian is probably, you know, honest about the fact that this is not in the national interest. I mean, this is, the security of Ukraine is not in the national interest in an immediate sense, in a longer-term sense, yes. But I just wonder how you assess the fact that the American nation is so fatigued right now. The individual American is fatigued. And it’s almost a, a little bit this same dynamic in Russia. I mean, we know that the quality in life Russia has not really gotten better under Putin. The, the interest in Ukraine is a matter of you know, nationalism, pride, ego, the restoration of the Soviet Union. If you look at it from the American perspective, what are the motivating factors that ought to lead us to intervene if there are any good ones you know, more specifically besides just the idea that we need to deter or contain Russian aggression?
CASSIDY: Well, there are factors, but they are not existential or even grave for of the political and territorial integrity of the United States. But there, you know, the kind of international system we like to see continue is based on the rule of law. It’s based on some enforcement of the clauses in the United Nations charter. I mean, we are a key founder of the United Nations. The United Nations has gotten a lot of … been beaten by pundits and scholars and whomever over the last several years, but still has the clause, that you know, aggression against another state is proscribed. So are we going to do anything? I think that we, the other challenge with this country is what, what we said is the country’s in disarray. There’s disunity. So if you’re going to fight a war, you have to know what kind of war you’re going to fight. You have to know how much you’re going to pay for it, and you have to mobilize your population to go after it. But if you have a war that has a high value political object like World War II, it’s easier to mobilize. And there’s another, and what I teach at Wesleyan, Clausewitz, Mao Zedong. The key thing about Clausewitz is that, you know, capacity and will can bring about victory or defeat. So you have to hit the capacity and the will and sometimes you hit both. But if you are, if you are being for a very limited political object, based on Alliance integrity, and a world you’d like to see versus an existential threat, which Putin would see NATO going, the Ukraine abutting Russia’s border. That would be perceived as existential problem. So how do you keep the people, the government and the armed forces mobilized to fight a fight that have limited value? You can’t take a lot of losses. And since World War II, the U.S. has not undertaken wars for limited political objects with enough analysis, enough strategic wisdom, and enough will to persist and be successful. We’ve done very poorly since World War II in all the wars we’ve fought where the value of what we’re trying to do was very limited vis a vis the value of what our enemies were trying to do, for example the Vietnam war.
HEFFNER: And, and in that sense, our recent forays into military conflict with the exception of the attack on Al-Qaeda and the ongoing pursuit of domestic and international terrorists, it’s not really motivated by an existential threat. It’s motivated more by, at least in the context of what we’re discussing now, Ukraine and a spiritual side, I mean, as sort of an idea that we can, from the perspective of people, perhaps in the military, who would recommend action to President Biden or military leaders who would be in favor of this, it would be kind of to change the subject, the old “Wag the Dog.” I mean, in truth the kind of, it is not that there is a specific goal as much as what would motivate our intervention is more of a kind of intervening for, I don’t want to say the sake of intervening, but intervening to feel better about ourselves, for a kind of spiritual or morale improvement. And I’m just wondering how much, how persuasive are those people going to be, who are really, whether they’re being direct about it or not, that that’s what they’re arguing for. They’re arguing for action to, you know, to improve the spiritual or moral confidence of this country.
CASSIDY: Hope is not a method. So we, we don’t go to, we don’t want to go to war on aspiration. So, the thing is, if he acts too much, he’s going to get pilloried by certain segments of our population. If he does not enough, then other segments of the population will pillory the President because he’s a, you know, he’s an easy target.
HEFFNER: But I mean, if we’re talking about the Joint Chiefs, if we’re talking about the military leaders who would be executing the strategy to support Europe or NATO, or, you know, a U.S. operation to protect Ukraine, basically to save Ukraine, do you think the people who are advocating that, if that is being advocated by anyone, are people primarily seeing this not through the kind of tactical lens, but who are seeing it through the spiritual lens? I mean, who are, who are seeing it through more of an emotive kind of, we need to do this you know, the, the, the cold war, wasn’t really won, even though we thought we won the cold war and, you know, it doesn’t matter what the tactical or existential questions are. This will make us feel better. And we have this military to use for this purpose. Why, you know, I’m wondering if, if that?
CASSIDY: I would hope that none of the service chiefs are advocating that. I know some of them, I know you know, the Chairman. I served with him before and he’s a smart guy. He’s a capable guy. I’m pretty confident that he’s not going to recommend deploying U.S. forces to Eastern Ukraine to prevent some sort of Russian incursion. But they’re probably recommending a series of coercive, and non-coercive measures short of war that might be brought into play that would maybe think, cause Mr. Putin to revisit his rationality. So right now he’s more wily and guileful than anybody we have doing national security, including the POTUS, the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor, maybe all the service chiefs, because, you know, he doesn’t have a lot of backlash in the press, because he controls the press. He doesn’t have any political opponents because he puts them in jail. So he is a unitary actor, but he has to act in a way that’s going to continue to make the Russian people think that he’s the autocrat they want.
HEFFNER: Right. And, and I didn’t mean to suggest that that our chairman or that the leading military chieftains would operate from that perspective. But I do think that there, there is increasingly the possibility of sort of emotional pretext rather than an evidence-based pretext… Colonel Cassidy. Thank you so much for your time today, Sir.
CASSIDY: Thank you, Alexander. Appreciate it.
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