Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

After the Debacle: Six Concrete Steps to Restore U.S. Credibility

Each has bipartisan support and could be taken in short order.

By , a former U.S. national security advisor, and , a former U.S. director of national intelligence.
Taiwanese soldiers use U.S.-made weapons.
Taiwanese soldiers use mobile launchers from U.S.-made anti-tank missiles during a military drill held in Taiwan on April 18, 2012. Mandy Cheng/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

The indelible images from Kabul this week have done serious damage to U.S. credibility abroad. The Chinese Communist Party media mouthpiece, the Global Times, has already used the chaos in Afghanistan to warn Taiwan that the United States cannot be counted on to come to its aid when China eventually attacks the island.

There will be ample time to assess how things went so wrong so quickly for the Biden administration in this still-unfolding crisis. We fully support our diplomats and troops as they execute their mission to evacuate U.S. citizens, allied diplomats, and the United States’ Afghan friends over the coming days and weeks.

Rather than get drawn into a political blame game over the harrowing scenes the world is watching on TV, we believe it is far more important for the United States to immediately take steps to shore up its alliances and diplomatic standing, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. Fortunately, there are efforts that can be undertaken without delay to reassert U.S. leadership.

The indelible images from Kabul this week have done serious damage to U.S. credibility abroad. The Chinese Communist Party media mouthpiece, the Global Times, has already used the chaos in Afghanistan to warn Taiwan that the United States cannot be counted on to come to its aid when China eventually attacks the island.

There will be ample time to assess how things went so wrong so quickly for the Biden administration in this still-unfolding crisis. We fully support our diplomats and troops as they execute their mission to evacuate U.S. citizens, allied diplomats, and the United States’ Afghan friends over the coming days and weeks.

Rather than get drawn into a political blame game over the harrowing scenes the world is watching on TV, we believe it is far more important for the United States to immediately take steps to shore up its alliances and diplomatic standing, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. Fortunately, there are efforts that can be undertaken without delay to reassert U.S. leadership.

First, the United States’ democratic friends in Taiwan have hundreds of millions of dollars in military equipment on order. These sales were paid for in cash and are not part of an aid program. The administration should work with U.S. defense contractors and look at U.S. Defense Department stockpiles to expedite that equipment’s delivery. Taiwan faces an existential threat from China, which wants to extinguish democracy on the island—just like it recently did in Hong Kong. Getting Taiwan its arms quickly would be an important sign of solidarity with a loyal friend and give the Taiwanese advanced platforms to deter a Chinese amphibious assault.

Second, one of the key rationales for ending combat operations in Afghanistan was to focus on great-power competition in the Indo-Pacific. To show the United States means what it says, some significant portion of the troops that had been in Afghanistan should actually be redeployed to the Pacific. Stationing additional troops, even on a rotational basis, at Robertson Barracks in Australia, on Guam, in Hawaii, or in Alaska would demonstrate Washington meant what it said about pivoting to the Pacific.

These steps would send a quiet but unmistakable message to Washington’s friends and adversaries in the Indo-Pacific region that the United States remains a faithful partner.

Third, negotiations to renew the compacts of free association with Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia have been dragging on for years. The biggest hang-up is the U.S. Postal Service wants more money to deliver mail to these island nations. Let’s get the post office paid and renew the compacts today. These islands are close U.S. friends and require assistance. The compacts give the U.S. military unfettered access to a vast swath of the Pacific.

Fourth, the United States does not maintain embassies in the Pacific island nations of Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Instead, diplomacy is conducted from the U.S. Embassy in Suva, Fiji, hundreds of miles away. Each of these small nations has historical ties and affinities with the United States. Although Washington is not present in these geopolitically important islands, Beijing is. For a minimal cost, the United States should post a handful of diplomats, including a Navy or Coast Guard attaché, on each island to promote U.S. interests. As these diplomatic posts take root, deepening relationships will present new opportunities for intelligence collection on adversary activity in these nations. These potential new intelligence streams will bolster insight into the region and augment the strong existing partnerships with the island states themselves, the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partners, and other U.S. allies.

Fifth, the United States recently conducted a survey of the old naval base at Pago Pago in American Samoa to determine the feasibility of permanently stationing a Coast Guard cutter on the island. This U.S. territory in the Pacific has no military presence, and its waters—as well as those of neighboring countries—have been ravaged by illegal, unreported, and unregulated Chinese fishing. A permanent Coast Guard presence on this U.S. territory would bolster the safety and security of fellow Americans. Supporting law enforcement in the neighboring independent countries of Tonga and Samoa through Coast Guard ship rider agreements would show real U.S. commitment in the region.

Sixth, Antarctica brackets the Indo-Pacific. China has been steadily expanding its presence and activities in the region, often in a manner inconsistent with its international treaty obligations. Each year, the United States’ only heavy icebreaker travels thousands of nautical miles from its home port in Seattle to McMurdo Station in Antarctica to lead Operation Deep Freeze, which involves breaking miles of ice up to 21 feet thick. Forward-basing the polar star in Sydney or Hobart, Australia, would dramatically decrease the time it takes the ice breaker to get to Antarctica and would further bind U.S. and Australian Antarctica efforts. Australia would likely share the cost of home-porting the polar star in the Southern Hemisphere.

Each of these steps could be taken in very short order. They would involve redirecting relatively small sums within the Defense Department, Department of Homeland Security, and State Department’s budgets. They would enjoy broad bipartisan support. And they would send a quiet but unmistakable message to Washington’s friends and adversaries in the Indo-Pacific region that the United States remains a faithful partner, notwithstanding the unfortunate circumstances of the U.S. departure from Afghanistan. To be clear, much more than the recommendations outlined here will be required in the coming years to deter the United States’ emboldened foes. But the time to start with small but meaningful steps is today. Rejecting such solutions, all of which have bipartisan support, would put the United States at risk of an even greater catastrophe down the road than the one the world is watching now.

Robert C. O’Brien is a former U.S. national security advisor during the Trump administration. Twitter: @robertcobrien

John Ratcliffe is a former U.S. director of national intelligence during the Trump administration. Twitter: @JohnRatcliffe

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