Biden alone on Afghanistan? 5 key reasons

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi everybody, Ian Bremmer here opening your week, and of course, yes, we're still talking about Afghanistan. I really wanted to talk about the international angle. It's been so much criticism of the United States from outside the US, including most disturbingly, from core US coalition allies in NATO that had been of course, have been fighting with the Americans on the ground in Afghanistan. Why did we get that wrong?


You've heard from President Biden, his perspective that this was going to be a disaster no matter what, that at any point, if it was a month earlier, a month later, it was still going to be a disaster. So if that's the case, why not coordinate with the allies? How do you get to the point where Armin Laschet, the likely next Chancellor of Germany, and again, this is a country that has been aligned with the US on the ground in Afghanistan, saying that this is the biggest debacle since the founding of NATO. How do you have such extraordinary opposition from the UK parliament? I mean, if it's going to be an ugly baby, as I've heard from Biden advisers, why would you want to raise it by yourself? Why wouldn't you want friends and family, the coalition together with you?

I mean, when I have something at Eurasia Group, even if I know it's a decision we have to take and it's a very difficult decision, then you get buy-in, you don't just drive on all by yourself. You talk through this with your colleagues, and you make sure that everyone's rowing in the same direction. Why didn't we do that? Especially with a president who wants to be seen as a multilateralist, closer to allies, who rejects the America First unilateralism and transactionalism of the Trump administration, an Atlanticist himself with a cabinet that's both experienced and has deep and strong ties across the pond. Some of the strongest of any administration in recent history. I think it's worth asking, it's not because they're stupid and it's not because Joe's demented and too old and can't figure it out. Man, you hear that from the MAGA types, but that's not, that's not a useful response.

If you really want to understand what's going on, I think it's worth breaking down, I do think it seems like they recognize they've made a mistake. Back on Friday, Biden made a point in his speech of saying that he had talked directly with Merkel and Macron and Boris Johnson. He was late, but he said it, and now today, an emergency meeting of the G7. So I do think they are trying to now make this better, do damage control and fix it going forward, but we still need to know why. So I'm trying to break it down and I think there are a bunch of things that are going on here. It's easy for me to say, well, I would have done it better, but I mean, how did this administration not? If I were in their shoes, what challenges would I have faced?

So number one, I do think bad intelligence is a piece of it. I think truly no matter what Biden says, they didn't actually think that the withdrawal from Afghanistan was going to be as problematic as it turned out to be. Some of that, and they're spinning it now, and I think that since they already had made the decision and the people reporting the intelligence knew they had made that decision, they weren't going to be knocked off of it, that there is this intrinsic human desire to align yourself with the decision. So you create more hope and that hope becomes increasingly the analysis that you put forward that well, the Afghan fighting forces will be able to stand up for a longer period of time. Of course, if that had happened, then the fact that the Americans had withdrawn as a unilateral decision would not have been borne as badly by those the Americans are fighting with. So that's number one.

Secondly, centralized decision-making. The Biden inner circle is incredibly loyal. They've worked together for a long time, they're very smart, but they think they're smarter than they are. They actually are, really believe that they need to make the decisions themselves. I see this broadly in terms of not engaging in policy decisions until they're made with the various departments, whether it's State or Treasury or CIA, or the Pentagon, that it's the National Security Council, it's the National Economic Council, and it's the Chief of Staff, and it's very, very tight. I've seen complaints about this from inside the administration. So if they're not talking to the own administration, I mean, if they certainly weren't engaged with the senior generals in the way that, for example, the Trump administration White House, the Obama administration White House were, and that was part of why you got into this negotiation that led to not pulling out, but instead extension of the US presence on the ground. Well, if they're not doing that, not talking to allies is a bit of that, right? So I, I think that some of this is the centralization of the Biden administration policy process compared to other administrations.

A third is domestic politics. We do need to recognize that US domestic politics have become more divisive significantly in the 20 years while we've been fighting in America's longest war in Afghanistan, and the need, the perceived need and the real need of US policy makers to focus more on domestic politics has grown accordingly, to the extent that Biden has a foreign policy doctrine, that doctrine is a foreign policy for the American middle class. Not just make foreign policy comprehensible, it's not just a communications job, but it's actually do things that make the American middle class feel like they support you. That's what the foreign policy should be. It's a very inward-looking foreign policy, it's not talking much about the allies. Leaving Afghanistan was seen to be kind of critical in that regard. So I think that others outside the United States don't necessarily appreciate just how much more inward focused US foreign policy has become, irrespective of whether it is under a Republican or a Democrat. I think that's now a reality that people are increasingly grappling with. Doesn't mean America is no longer a superpower, but it means very clearly the US really doesn't want to be the world's policeman, the US really doesn't want to be the architect of global trade or the promoter of global values. That's a key underpinning of the GZERO world, as I think of it.

Fourth, it's all Trump's fault. A lot of people in the Biden administration saw what they inherited in terms of Afghanistan, the unilateral negotiations between the Trump administration led by secretary of state, then Pompeo, and the Taliban. Remember, the Afghan government wasn't a part of these negotiations. In that regard, it's kind of their Israel-Palestine discussions, right? They came up with an Israel-Palestinian peace plan that the Israelis signed onto. The Palestinians were never a part of the engagement, right? So there was no sense that this was going to work on the ground in Afghanistan. You weren't engaged with both parties together, and the Taliban was stronger. Of course, 5,000 Taliban prisoners were released, and they had taken territory, and the American troops were drawing down, even though the Taliban was not living up to their side of that bargain. That reality, one where Biden basically said, "Look, I mean, these decisions have already been made and they're on Trump, and so we're stuck with that." Now, of course, the allies would say, "Well, we don't need to respond this way to that," but within Biden's own administration, the view that Trump is obviously to blame for everything that's gone on wrong in the recent months on the ground in Afghanistan, I think made for a convenient scapegoat. When the decision to pull the plug was made, that you don't necessarily need to discuss this more broadly, that damage had already been done.

Then finally, and I think this is under-appreciated, is the pandemic. This Biden administration has been in office only as a pandemic presidency. That means they're not meeting in-person, they're largely meeting by Zoom. In many of those zoom meetings when you have more than one person in one of the rooms, say you've got like three people at State and three in the White House, they're wearing masks on the Zoom calls. They're not engaged face to face, they're not really getting to know each other's personal responses to these crises. It's email and virtual. I mean, that's challenging as we all know, in terms of running our organizations just steady state, but suddenly when you have a serious crisis, the idea that you're going to respond as effectively as you normally would, when your people are remote and they're not talking to each other informally, that's a real challenge. I do think that some of the horrible optics of Biden being at Camp David and having these conversations with his other advisers while they were in other places, as opposed to all around one table in the situation room, well, that's the way they've been actually doing the business of the administration for the entirety of the administration so far. It didn't feel abnormal to them, but it looks really abnormal to us. Now it's not the NBA bubble where they're all playing normal games, right?

So I think all of those things are significant reasons why the United States ended up booting this so badly, irrespective of how you think about the execution on the ground, how bad it would have been no matter what they did, in terms of how much time and how long they maintain the troops and whether they left Bagram Airbase when they did, all these things. It is very clear that not engaging with the allies at all until that decision was made, and the US taking it all on themselves, is now playing out quite badly for the Biden Administration. So I think it merited a little bit of a deeper dive.

So that's it for me, I'll talk more broadly about context and how we got here and where we're going from now in the future, but I hope everyone's doing well and I'll talk to you all real soon.

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Germany's historic moment of choice is finally here, and voters will stream to the polls on Sunday for the country's first post-World War II vote without a national leader seeking re-election. They will elect new members of the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament. The leader of the party that wins the most seats will then try to secure a majority of seats by drawing other parties into a governing partnership. He or she will then replace Angela Merkel as Germany's chancellor.

If the latest opinion polls are right, the center-left Social Democrats will finish first. In coming weeks, they look likely to form a (potentially unwieldy) governing coalition with the Green Party and the pro-business Free Democrats, which would be Germany's first-ever governing alliance of more than two parties.

Change?

Though he's a man of the center-left, Olaf Scholz, current finance minister and most likely next chancellor, wouldn't represent a radical break from Merkel. He's among the more fiscally frugal of Germany's Social Democrats, and after decades in German politics, he's an experienced technocrat and a skilled manager of political alliances.

Nor would a change in government radically shift Germany's foreign and trade policies. Its new government, whoever it includes, will keep strong security ties with the United States and NATO and protect opportunities to expand economic relations with China. Germany's dependence on Russian energy will demand a continuation of Merkel's pragmatic approach to Vladimir Putin's government.

Scholz's conviction that a strong and cohesive EU is good for Germany will limit any temptation to get tougher with the governments of Poland and Hungary over their violations of EU rules and principles. And aware that COVID can widen gaps between richer and poorer EU countries, and that anti-EU economic populism remains a potent force in Italy and elsewhere, he's likely to support a generous approach to pandemic recovery in southern Europe.

But climate policy, an area where Merkel concedes she should have done more, will be an important and interesting story to watch. Given its leadership within the EU and its standing as the world's fourth largest economy, the influence of Germany's next government on climate policy will be crucial to global climate strategies. A new German government with Scholz as chancellor will likely push the pace of transition from carbon to renewable energy, at least in part because the Green Party coalition partner will push for this as hard as it can. The Greens must show progress on the climate front to maintain political credibility and popularity. If the Free Democrats are indeed part of the coalition, they'll push hard to limit tax increases to pay for tougher climate action, but they won't blow up the coalition that gives them a seat at Germany's governing table.

Merkel's legacy

Even in a country that values stability and continuity, Angela Merkel's 16-year run is remarkable. More than once she's proved the maxim that it's not the smartest or strongest who survives, but the one most adaptable to change. Merkel is smart and strong, to be sure, but she'll be remembered longest – by both devoted admirers and bitter critics – as the leader who insisted Germany could and should do more to help indebted countries survive Europe's sovereign debt crisis (2010-12) and to manage the surge of migrants that followed unrest in the Middle East (2015-16). Her improvisational talents also led her to change tack on nuclear power (after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan) and on common European debt.

But the main reason Merkel leaves power with an 80 percent approval rating is that, whether she receives more credit than she deserves, she has presided over a period of economic expansion and prosperity in Germany that few other world leaders can match. It's all the more remarkable then that her party looks set to find itself in opposition once a new government is formed. It's Merkel that German voters like, not her political family.

Bottom-line: Whatever he accomplishes as Germany's next chancellor, Olaf Scholz will find Angela Merkel a tough act to follow.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen a lot during her 16 years in power. She's navigated a global economic recession, multiple wars in the Middle East which sparked an EU refugee crisis, and now a once-in-a-generation pandemic. Often the only woman in the room, Merkel has had to learn to tactfully deal with dozens of idiosyncratic world leaders. Many have come and gone since 2005, but Merkel has won elections again and again. We take a look at who she's dealt with from the top five democracies (by economic size) throughout her tenure.

In May 2020, economic historian Adam Tooze told GZERO World he feared 1 in 5 American workers could still be out of job now due to COVID. It didn't happen. Why? Tooze says he failed to anticipate how quickly we'd get highly effective vaccines, and the scale of the economic stimulus the government was willing to put up. During the 2008 financial crisis, he explains, "we were still beginning to flex our muscles with regards to economic policy, and the scale of fiscal and monetary stimulus that we've seen is as unprecedented as the shock of the spring of last year."

Watch Tooze's interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television starting Friday 9/23/21. Check local listings.

Will Evergrande be China's Lehman Bros? Chinese authorities are bracing for the increasingly likely default of Evergrande, the country's most indebted property developer. If Evergrande — a gargantuan corporation with properties in 200 cities across China — stiffs its creditors, that'll send shockwaves throughout the country's financial system, and the wider Chinese economy and society. The possible ripple effects on home buyers and countless companies and individuals that do business with or are owed money by Evergrande have invited comparisons with Lehman Brothers, the US investment bank whose 2008 collapse triggered an American financial crisis that quickly spread to the entire world. Although in principle authoritarian China has ways of containing the fallout, the potential for social unrest is real — and opacity could make it worse. More broadly, the demise of such a big player in the country's once-booming real estate market, which accounts for over 7 percent of GDP, would expose the shaky foundations of China's debt-driven economic growth model, eroding confidence in China both at home and abroad.

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