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2021 brought security headaches — and worse may yet come in 2022

In addition to affording no respite from COVID-19 and its variants, 2021 will not go down as a good year for the Biden administration’s national security policy. Most notable, of course, was the U.S. military’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan. Though U.S. troops were able to rescue more than 130,000 people in a relatively short period, the image of Afghans hanging onto the wing of C-130 aircraft conjured up memories of another massive American failure after years of war: the heliborne evacuation of personnel from the rooftop of the American embassy in Saigon in 1975. 

Even worse, our Afghanistan departure took place without serious consultation with America’s allies, leaving friends and foes alike to wonder if the inward-looking posture for which Barack Obama — and even more so, Donald Trump — advocated has become a permanent feature of Washington policy.

The departure from Kabul was only the most visible example of Washington’s difficulties in maintaining the leadership of the Free World that Joe Biden promised during his successful campaign for the presidency and his early days in the White House. After his national security adviser and secretary of State talked tough to their Chinese counterparts during their March meeting in Alaska, Biden and his team stood by as Beijing increased its crackdown on both the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the citizens of Hong Kong. Biden’s team also was unable to dissuade China from ramping up its frequent incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. 

China, likewise, displayed far less interest in a new climate agreement that the Biden administration identified as a major priority of its national security policy. Chinese President Xi Jinping did not bother to attend the COP-26 summit in Glasgow. The climate summit represented one of the few overseas venues that President Biden visited in his first year in office; Biden has yet to visit any Asian country. Nor has his administration acted to reinsert itself into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the mammoth trade deal that Trump rashly abandoned. Even the much ballyhooed AUKUS agreement — which promised nuclear-powered submarines for Australia and joint British, American and Australian cooperation in all aspects of high-technology — resulted in angering France. The deal involved the cancellation of Paris’s sale of $66 billion worth of modified Barracuda diesel subs.

The Biden administration did move quickly to heal the rift with France, but that was far from the biggest headache that Washington faced — and continues to face — in Europe. 

After backing away from pressuring Germany to not go ahead with completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, Biden found himself faced with a major Russian buildup near the Ukraine border. With some 75,000 troops already deployed near Ukraine, and tens of thousands more that might be added to that force, the buildup may still result in Russia’s invasion of that bitterly divided country. In the meantime, Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed to the United States and NATO new agreements that essentially would freeze both from conducting military operations in the former Soviet bloc — and could well result in the collapse of the alliance.

Yet neither China’s nor Putin’s aggressiveness may be the worst that the Biden administration had to confront in 2021. Eager to revive the Iran nuclear deal that Trump also negated, the Biden team had to reckon with the reality that Iran’s newly elected president, Ebrahim Raisi, a man whom Washington had sanctioned two years earlier, seemed in no hurry to reach any agreement. In the meantime, Tehran continued to enrich uranium that, if it proceeded apace, would enable it to field several nuclear weapons in a matter of weeks.

The likelihood that Raisi would ever agree to a deal was always in doubt. Raisi hopes to succeed Ali Khamenei as Iran’s Supreme Leader, and he would have little to gain and much to lose from making such a deal. If an agreement were reached, there would be far more joy in Washington and Europe than in Tehran. Raisi’s rivals for the supreme leadership likely would point to the deal as a reason for derailing his hopes to succeed Khamenei, which far outweigh any desire he might have to reach an accommodation with the West.

In anticipation that there will be no Iran agreement, Israel has begun to train for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and has privately ramped up its efforts to have America join it, should it undertake such an operation. At a minimum, Jerusalem would hope for both materiel support — perhaps in the form of tankers, if they are not already sold to Israel — as well as political support in the United Nations. 

In either case, the Biden team will find itself dragged into a conflict that Washington has sought to forestall for at least a decade. And if that proves to be the case, 2022 may become even more of a national security headache for Washington than 2021 has been. 

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Antony Blinken Barack Obama Biden foreign policy China Donald Trump Iran Israel Joe Biden National security NATO Russia Vladimir Putin

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File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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In this photo released by the Governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhayev telegram channel, a rescuer gestures as he helps people during an evacuation after storm and flooding in Sevastopol, Crimea, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. A storm in the Black Sea took down power grids and left almost half a million people without power after it flooded roads, ripped up trees and damaged buildings in Crimea, Russian state news agency Tass said. (Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev's telegram channel via AP)
In this photo released by the Governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhayev telegram channel, a rescuer gestures as he helps people during an evacuation after storm and flooding in Sevastopol, Crimea, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. A storm in the Black Sea took down power grids and left almost half a million people without power after it flooded roads, ripped up trees and damaged buildings in Crimea, Russian state news agency Tass said. (Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev's telegram channel via AP)

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