“In the United States, the Iraq syndrome and that of Afghanistan have not dissipated”

Chronic. America’s “distant wars”, those that marked the beginning of the century, weigh on Joe Biden’s policy in Ukraine. The situations are not comparable but, across the Atlantic, the Iraq syndrome and that of Afghanistan have not dissipated. These bad memories of semi-defeats, the American president has them in mind when he discusses with his European allies – this week, at NATO in Brussels – the war in Ukraine.

Even before the start of the Russian aggression, Joe Biden said that no American soldier would fight for kyiv. The “leader” of NATO had “telephoned” his position in advance to his Russian counterpart: no direct participation in the fight of the Ukrainians. When it came time to engage his troops, Vladimir Putin knew. This did not prevent him from denouncing the natural warmongering of NATO to justify the attack carried out against a country which in no way threatened Russia. The man from the Kremlin is waging a “war of choice”, not of necessity.

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The American president has very good reasons to assert his position. He could, however, have chosen to remain vague or ambiguous – as he does regarding Taiwan, the autonomous island that China wants to take control of. Ukraine is not a member of the Atlantic Alliance and does not benefit from automatic protection. A direct confrontation between the United States and Russia can turn the Russian-Ukrainian war into a much larger conflict. It can test everyone’s practice of deterrence theory, which holds that nuclear weapons in their possession should never be used.

“For the middle class”

Unlike Donald Trump, his predecessor, Biden situated his foreign policy in a particular environment: the rivalry between democracies and autocracies. However, the Ukraine, in the process of democratization, is attacked, as gratuitously as it is unfairly, by an increasingly dictatorial Russian regime. It is linked to the European Union by a partnership agreement. Moscow’s main grievance: Ukraine is becoming derussified and westernized. Ambition displayed by Putin: bring this country back under Russian tutelage.

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But Biden also announced that he would pursue a foreign policy “for the middle class”. To an American public suffering from “strategic fatigue”, he promised to pursue the United States’ disengagement from the “Greater Middle East” and draw a line under the series of “distant wars” – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya – conducted since 2001. Hence his inglorious exit from Afghanistan in August 2022, allowing the Taliban to return to Kabul… and Vladimir Putin to imagine that the Americans are no longer in the mood to play everywhere the “gendarmes of the world”. The need to parametrize his foreign policy between these two poles – the defense of democracy, the morale of his voters – explains, in part, the profile of Biden’s response to Putin’s war.

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