Editor's Note: Below is a complimentary research note written by National Security analyst LTG Dan Christman. To access our Macro Policy research please email email@example.com.
President Biden has received plaudits from traditional allies for his outreach in the first weeks of his Presidency and for the priority he attaches to alliance relations.
Yet as Biden approaches the 100-day mark, it’s no exaggeration to say that U.S. adversaries sense an opportunistic “Trifecta” to thwart U.S. goals, despite what’s generally been viewed as a promising foreign policy beginning for the 46th President.
The adversarial Trifecta, increasingly apparent in just the last two weeks?
- Russia and China moving well beyond a strategic “Marriage of Convenience.”
- The Afghan Taliban sensing a Two-Decade Goal is now in sight.
- And Iran, reinforced by yet another Israeli attack on its nuclear infrastructure, ensuring that the U.S. remains engaged for the long-term in a region Biden wants to leave; China is appreciative.
First on Russia-China: daily news feeds for nearly a month have focused on Russia’s military build-up in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, with China’s aggressive posturing against Taiwan receiving equal billing.
But the much bigger issue is the growing strategic cooperation between these two U.S. adversaries. As the Council on Foreign Relations’ Elizabeth Economy commented a week ago, this cooperation has moved well beyond a marriage of convenience and strategic alignment to nothing short of “an unholy alliance!” “Putin,” Economy continued, “has cast his lot with Xi Jingping.”
The timing of the Ukraine and Taiwan provocations is hardly coincidental. Fred Kemp, president of the Atlantic Council, last week called these actions the “nightmare scenario” for Biden and concluded that Russian and Chinese coordination “is the most significant and underrecognized test of Biden’s leadership yet; it could be the defining challenge of his presidency.”
Overt military action is still unlikely; but as another observer recently commented, both Putin and Xi exhibit “animal-like behavior” in pouncing on strategic opportunities and perceived weakness. Putin and Xi have just pounced – together.
On Afghanistan, the focus for the last week has been the Biden decision to remove all U.S. troops by September 11th. Thankfully, this was done in close coordination with NATO, a marked departure from Trump’s modus operandi on this issue last year.
But as with the Russia-China alignment, there’s a much bigger issue: with U.S. and NATO troops gone, how do we ensure the U.S. ability to gather intelligence and strike against extremist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS that remain in force in Afghanistan? This is a high-risk decision by the president, evidently stoutly opposed by the Chairman of the JCS and senior regional military commanders.
Amongst their fears is that the U.S. and western allies have been lulled into thinking that extremist groups with global reach like al Qaeda have been marginalized. The reality is that those groups haven’t been, and they continue to train and operate in Afghanistan.
When the Taliban return to power – as they assuredly will, late this year or next – the U.S. will sadly realize that the modest investment we had been making in-country (a force of roughly 2500, out of a total U.S. active and reserve force of over two million) was at least able to keep these threats at bay and maintain a modicum of stability.
Twice in the last thirty years the U.S. has exited completely from uncomfortable struggles in the region, only to be awakened and compelled to return, at a significant cost in lives and treasure: first in the 90’s, when we put Pakistan and Afghanistan in our rear-view mirror following Russia’s Afghan pull-out; and then in 2011, when President Obama removed all U.S. forces from Iraq. Sadly, the Biden announcement on Afghanistan last week virtually guarantees there will be a third awakening, and yet another return.
CSIS’s Anthony Cordesman, a supporter of the Biden decision on Afghanistan, said the “time had come for a strategic mercy killing.” But what Biden announced on April 14th is neither strategic - nor is it merciful - for a country in which we have invested treasure for twenty years and that’s about to return to the 11th Century.
Finally, on Iran, yet another attack by Israel on Iran’s nuclear facility provoked a predictable Tehran response: a decision to enrich uranium to 60%, dangerously close to the weapons-grade 90% needed for a weapon.
The ability of Israel to breach and successfully attack one of Iran’s most closely guarded nuclear facilities (Natanz) continues to amaze; what also amazes is Bibi Netanyahu’s chutzpah, staging the attack on Natanz literally while the U.S. secretary of defense was visiting.
Of course, the media focus was on what this attack means regarding possible negotiating advantages in Vienna as the sides try to reinstate the nuclear deal (JCPOA) from which Trump withdrew in 2018.
But here as well, there is a bigger issue, and it’s not whether Iran and the U.S. return to JCPOA compliance; it’s whether Iran’s determination to keep its nuclear program alive and Israel’s equal determination to undermine it will keep the U.S. decisively committed when we want to focus elsewhere.
The Biden administration has made it clear that the Indo-Pacific region is a clear strategic priority, with China as the overriding emphasis. With Beijing’s mounting provocations throughout the region, it’s the right call.
President Obama had a similar emphasis; but he was never able to operationalize a shift to the Indo-Pacific region because he found it impossible to free key military and intelligence assets from pressing Middle East commitments.
That is precisely the challenge Biden finds himself now facing as the Iran-Israeli dust-up deepens.
China relishes the U.S. keeping carrier battle groups and national intelligence assets focused on the Persian Gulf while their intimidation of Taiwan and neighbors intensifies.
It’s a geostrategic game Beijing has increasingly mastered; deepening ties to Tehran to divert U.S. assets from their backyard is just one more Chinese move on their much bigger strategic game-board.
Bottom Line: this has not been a good two weeks for the president.
The good news is that he has a veteran national security team, steered by level-headed national security advisor Jake Sullivan, to guide him through the adversarial challenges.
Biden was hoping for time to rebuild our economy and restore fractured alliance relationships before he challenged adversaries; but as he’s discovered these last few weeks, our adversaries have a voice, and they also have their own timelines.
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ABOUT LIEUTENANT GENERAL DAN CHRISTMAN
LTG Dan Christman, USA, Ret. serves as Hedgeye Potomac Research’s Senior National Security Analyst, providing deep insight into international affairs and national security. Most recently, Dan provided strategic leadership on international issues affecting the business community for organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce. Dan’s long history of leadership includes his service as a United States Army lieutenant general and former Superintendent of the United States Military Academy. He served in highly visible and strategically important positions and four times was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the nation's highest peacetime service award.
He also served for two years as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during which time he traveled with and advised Secretary of State Warren Christopher. He was centrally involved during this period with negotiations between Israel and Syria as a member of the Secretary's Middle East Peace Team. Further, Christman represented the United States as a member of NATO's Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium.
Graduating first in his class from West Point, Christman also received MPA and MSE degrees in public affairs and civil engineering from Princeton University and graduated with honors from The George Washington University Law School. He is a decorated combat veteran of Southeast Asia, where he commanded a company in the 101st Airborne Division in 1969.