Biden Anecdotes from Khalilzad

The memoir of Zalmay Khalilzad is a great read for anyone looking for answers about Afghanistan. By answers, I mean details, not the broad brush strokes one gets from cable news. If you want details, there is no substitute for reading books like this.

The Envoy offers a lot of anecdotes about the United States occupation of Afghanistan and American foreign policy in general that only a career like that of Ambassador Khalilzad can offer. Published in 2016, this book was written before Khalilzad could have known Joe Biden would run for president again and thus offers two candid contrasting observations of the senator from Delaware.

The first dates back to 1991 when Khalilzad was a low-level staffer in the administration of George HW Bush. An important decision point emerged at the end of the Cold War. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, and his Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz, oversaw the drafting of a new defense strategy. Khalilzad helped compose it.

Among the strategists who were thinking about the U.S. role in the world going forward, there was little consensus. “We need another X,” the editor of Foreign Affairs remarked, referencing George Kennan’s anonymously authored article from 1947. Written without attribution because Kennan was still at the State Department, the X article had analyzed the “sources of Soviet conduct” and prescribed in broad brushstrokes the containment strategy that guided U.S. foreign policy for the next four and a half decades.

I believed that the United States should exercise leadership and expand the liberal international order that the United States and its allies had built after World War II. The twentieth century had shown that the global security environment could change dramatically—with little warning.

The “new world order,” as the president called it, presented a particular challenge for the Department of Defense. President Bush was committed to preserving a “base force” after the Cold War of no fewer than 1.6 million troops. But it was less clear what he believed the central goals of U.S. national security policy should be and why he wanted a force of that size. In the absence of a compelling strategy, there was no logical baseline to determine the appropriate level of defense capabilities and spending.

Doves, including many of the Democrats who controlled Congress, wanted to collect a bigger “peace dividend” and spend it on domestic priorities. Their opponents in Congress wanted to protect the defense budget but were struggling to do so in the absence of a clear rationale from the Bush administration. The toughest challenge was to break out of “threat-based thinking” and pursue opportunities to shape the world.

I was pleased that my office was assigned the task of developing a new defense strategy. For policy planners, periods of big change often provide the best opportunity to contribute.

Within the Pentagon, the traditional vehicle for providing strategic planning advice was the so-called Defense Policy Guidance (DPG). The 1992 DPG would inform choices for the 1994–1999 planning cycle. Given the epochal moment we were facing, I saw the DPG as an opportunity to outline a grand strategy for the post–Cold War world that would guide our force structure well beyond 1999.

The policy planning shop can only be effective if the secretary is receptive to new ideas and approaches. Luckily, Cheney was serious about developing a new strategy. He was drawn to conceptual thinking and blocked out time in his schedule to engage in long, substantive policy discussions.

In his reading of history, the United States had a record of demobilizing precipitously. After World War I, this enabled Germany and Japan to emerge as major threats. After World War II, Moscow took half of Europe, and Mao won power in China. In a speech on the fiftieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Cheney said, “The good news is that it’s a safer world and we can probably . . . reduce the size of the force. The bad news is it’s never been done successfully before. . . .”

I knew that large bureaucracies seldom produce sharp strategic insight. So I worked with a small team. At the same time, I wanted to cast the net wide for ideas and involve key officials so that they, too, would have a sense of ownership of the final product.

Throughout the winter of 1991 into early 1992, I convened discussions with a number of experts from both inside and outside the building. Our team developed a set of future contingencies that would be used to test the capabilities of proposed force structures.

The scenarios did not amount to predictions about the future, nor were they exhaustive of the possibilities. Rather, they were illustrative and, we thought, plausible. Some were based on recent or current threats, such as a conflict on the Korean peninsula or a reprise of Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait. Others focused on an intervention in Panama or the Philippines to counter a coup attempt. One scenario raised the possibility of simultaneous wars against Iraq and North Korea. One contingency focused on a future, adversarial Russia seeking to reclaim territory in the former Soviet Union, which was viewed as unlikely in the near term but possible in the medium and long term. It involved crises in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and the Baltic region.

The most foundational scenario involved the rise of a hostile global competitor. We feared that “a single nation or a coalition of nations” would coalesce behind “an adversarial security strategy” and develop “a military capability to threaten U.S. interests.”

We were not arguing that the United States should necessarily get involved in these scenarios if they materialized. Instead, our job was to identify the kinds of forces and capabilities that would be relevant should the president decide to deal with such scenarios.

By January 1992, I had a clear sense of the strategy I wanted the DPG to advance. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States could not be a global hegemon. Instead, I concluded that we needed a strategy of American leadership designed to preserve peace among the major world powers and galvanize collective action among allies as challenges arose.

I thought it was critical to expand what we called the democratic “zone of peace,” which provided the basis for an open international system. This meant that we could not allow a hostile power to take control over key regions. These goals, I assumed, required the United States to preserve its military preeminence and forward presence as well as its economic strength.

While we believed that there had to be a floor beneath which defense spending could not fall, we understood how important it was to maintain the health of the economy at home. I did not see defense spending as a threat to the economy, but too large a budget would drag down economic growth. And even with a large military, I thought we had to be judicious in the use of force. Alliances were critical to share the burden of global leadership. Otherwise, public support in the United States would not permit American presidents to carry out this strategy.

The DPG went through multiple drafts and revisions. It was reviewed extensively within the Pentagon bureaucracy, particularly by the Joint Staff, which reported to Powell. The military services viewed all of these activities as a high-stakes game. For the most part, they were willing to concede the strategy development process to the civilians, but they were intensely interested in any decisions on force structure and resources that would affect their individual services. In the end, the civilian policy team produced the first strategy that guided America’s post–Cold War policy, which fit well with the advice on forces and resources that Powell and his team were offering.

Though the draft DPG remains classified, important parts of the document have been published in the press and released by the Pentagon. The strategy reiterated U.S. intentions to uphold our alliances and multilateral collective security institutions. However, it also contained new, far-reaching strategic ideas.

Most importantly, the document argued that the United States must prevent the rise of a peer competitor. It stated, “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union.” The DPG wanted to preclude the emergence of bipolarity, another global rivalry like the Cold War, or multipolarity, a world of many great powers, as existed before the two world wars. To do so, the key was to prevent a hostile power from dominating a “critical region,” defined as having the resources, industrial capabilities, and population that, if controlled by a hostile power, would pose a global challenge.

Values were an important part of the strategy. The DPG saw “increasing respect for international law” and “the spread of democratic forms of government” as critical factors in “deterring conflicts or threats in regions of security important to the United States.”

Among the more challenging issues was how to establish criteria for sizing military forces. Some thought that sizing forces for one large contingency—a second Gulf War, for example—would be enough. But we argued that this was insufficient. What if a crisis were to erupt elsewhere or an adversary tried to take advantage of our preoccupation in one region? To be a credible global partner, I thought U.S. forces needed to be prepared for aggression in more than one region.

The military was ultimately directed to maintain sufficient forces for two major regional contingencies—or 2MRCs. This still represented a major peace dividend, but did not amount to the even larger downsizing that many were advocating.

Initial reviews of the DPG inside the Pentagon were positive, so I was unprepared for the controversy that would soon erupt.

I was in Germany for a NATO security conference in early March 1992. My colleague, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy (ISP) Hadley, approached me with a worried look. The French were wondering why the Pentagon was developing a strategy to “keep Europe down.”

Later in the day, I learned that the source of the French outrage was an article on the front page of the New York Times: “U.S. Strategy Plan Calls for Insuring No Rivals Develop: A One-Superpower World.” The Times reported that the Pentagon had a secret strategy document that advanced the “concept of benevolent domination by one power.” It was the draft DPG.

When I returned home, I was surprised to see that the leak had generated an outcry in the United States as well. In fact, it had become an issue in the presidential campaign. Governor Bill Clinton’s spokesman George Stephanopoulos—a former student of mine at Columbia—attacked the paper as “one more attempt” by the Defense Department “to find an excuse for big budgets instead of downsizing.”

The leaked scenarios drew particular ire on Capitol Hill. Senator Joe Biden dismissed the strategy as “literally a Pax Americana.” While he conceded that “American hegemony would be nice,” he asserted with characteristic confidence, “It won’t work.”

Biden got that right. This was an important decision point in American history. We could have saved a lot of money had we disarmed as much as the Russians did. We would also likely have fewer enemies, including not becoming a target of Al Qaeda a decade later. Instead, the United States chose the path of primacy.

Contrast then Khalilzad’s observation of Biden the dove with Biden about a decade later, Biden the hawk.

On one of my earliest visits to Afghanistan, a delegation of U.S. senators came to Kabul on a quick fact-finding tour. Senator Biden ended up extending his visit to spend more time getting to know the new Afghan leadership. Late one evening, Biden called my office and said that he needed to see me right away. He arrived with a sheepish look and confessed that things had gotten out of hand during his meeting with Qanooni. As their argument escalated, Biden confessed with considerable remorse that he had threatened to drop bombs from B-52s on Qanooni.

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or worry.

“Well, Senator,” I told him, “I guess you’ll have to fix this.” Reaching for the phone, I dialed Qanooni’s home number.

Qanooni’s wife answered and said that her husband had already gone to bed. I assured her it was important and asked her to put him on the line.

“I heard you had an argument with someone from the U.S. . . .” I began.

“Oh!” Qanooni snapped. “Don’t even mention that man to me!”

“Can you make some tea?” I said. “We’re coming over.”

When we got there, Biden apologized for the dispute and for losing his temper. Soon the two men were exchanging war stories like old friends. “Well,” I finally said, excusing myself, “you seem to be getting along . . .” I learned later that they went on chatting for several hours into the night.

While subtlety was not Biden’s diplomatic strongpoint, I give him credit for never expecting special treatment. He slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of the conference room, along with everyone on his staff, and shared our limited facilities without complaint. He stood in line every morning dressed only in a towel waiting for his turn to take a shower. One morning a young Marine, in line behind him, took his picture. When Biden heard the click of the camera, he turned and saw the Marine, who explained with some chagrin that he was taking the photo for his mom. Smiling, Biden pointed out that she would hardly recognize whose photo it was just from the back, and delighted the young man by posing from the front.

These two anecdotes capture the incoherence of American foreign policy since that first Post Cold War defense strategy was envisioned. A politician that opposed hegemonic American military power could not help himself in reveling in it, threatening an Afghan politician with a bombing run and playing GI Joe with marines. It is funny to make this contrast with our current president, but the contradiction is not limited to him.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.