Washington’s Strategic Overextension

The Biden administration seems determined to pursue highly confrontational policies toward both Moscow and Beijing. The United States, through its leadership of NATO, is pursuing a full-blown proxy war against Russia in Ukraine. Indeed, that initiative appears to be only part of a larger plan to fatally weaken Russia as a major power.

Washington’s confrontation with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is not yet as intense, but a pronounced chill in bilateral relations has become apparent.  Biden has escalated America’s support for Taiwan’s de facto independence, and Washington has taken multiple steps to contain the PRC’s economic and military power in East Asia and globally. The United States has forged closer security ties with AustraliaJapan, South Korea, and the Philippines with a clear motive to contain China and to secure explicit or implicit commitments from those countries to help the United States defend Taiwan.

One might think that those simultaneous confrontations with two major powers would make a full plate for even the most enthusiastic global interventionist.  Basic prudence would then dictate that lesser U.S. goals and commitments around the world would need to be trimmed or even eliminated.  However, there are no indications that the Biden administration is taking any steps in that direction.  Instead, peripheral U.S. security commitments are expanding. That approach is a perfect blueprint for strategic overextension and potentially disastrous results.

Washington has exhibited a two-pronged approach to lesser missions.  In some cases, the strategy amounts to putting existing policies on autopilot, even if they clearly have failed to produce beneficial results.  Washington’s actions toward North Korea and Syria fit that pattern.  The other approach is to greatly increase the level of U.S. military involvement in remote regions involving murky stakes.  U.S. policy in West Africa falls into that category.

The Biden administration’s policy toward North Korea has been sterile from the outset.  Instead of adopting a more creative and attainable policy, the Biden administration clings to an outmoded, unrealistic approach of demanding that Pyongyang abandon its nuclear-weapons program and relinquish the warheads that have been built already.  Presidents since George H.W. Bush have made that demand a centerpiece of U.S. policy on the Peninsula, but it should be clear by now that the goal is a nonstarter.  Yet Biden’s commitment to the futile zombie policy of trying to isolate North Korea until it capitulates to U.S. demands was confirmed when Washington imposed new sanctions on Pyongyang following North Korean missile tests in January 2022.

There is no prospect of reassigning any of the air, naval, and ground forces committed to deterring North Korea unless Washington moves to establish a more normal relationship with Pyongyang.  Dropping the demand for denuclearization, negotiating a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War, establishing formal diplomatic relations with North Korea, and greatly reducing, if not eliminating the vast array of economic sanctions against that country would be necessary.

Washington’s policy toward Syria has been even more unreasonable and aggressive.  Despite repeated demands from the Syrian government that the United States withdraw its troops (which were never invited in the first place), the Biden administration persists in occupying portions of northeastern Syria.  Administration officials insist that a continuing U.S. presence is necessary to prevent a resurgent threat from ISIS, even though that organization’s presence has dwindled markedly.  A more likely explanation is that the area happens to hold most of  Syria’s oil deposits.  U.S. forces remain even though two factions Washington has backed are now waging a vigorous war against each other.   Even reasonably perceptive policymakers would react to such a fiasco by deciding to exit the Syrian quagmire, but the Biden administration shows no indication of doing so.

The burgeoning U.S. involvement in West Africa provides additional confirmation that Washington is expanding rather than contracting, peripheral commitments, despite the growing confrontations toward Russia and China.  The enhanced U.S. profile in Africa definitely includes an expanded military presence.  Officials and members of the foreign policy blob offer a range of explanations for that development.  One is to counter the influence of both Moscow and Beijing.  Another is to confront and weaken radical Islamist elements.  The latter crusade has been going on for more than a decade, but the obsession with undermining the influence of Russia and China is somewhat more recent.

U.S. officials publically minimize the extent of the military presence, but a 2020 investigation by The Intercept uncovered classified documents that should lead to a very different conclusion. “During testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Stephen Townsend, the commander of AFRICOM, echoed a line favored by his predecessors that AFRICOM maintains a ‘light and relatively low-cost footprint’ on the continent. This ‘light’ footprint consists of a constellation of more than two dozen outposts that stretch from one side of Africa to the other. The 2019 planning documents provide locations for 29 bases located in 15 different countries or territories.”

The number of U.S. troops and “private contractors” (i.e., mercenaries) on the continent has grown since then.  A September 2023 report by The Intercept found that there are more than 1,000 U.S. military personnel in Niger alone, along with the largest drone base in that part of the world.  That is a key reason that administration leaders find the recent coup in Niger bringing an anti-Western junta to power so worrisome.

Pursuing simultaneous confrontations with two major powers, one in Europe and one in Asia, is extremely dangerous.  Trying to do so while preserving an array of secondary and peripheral commitments is the essence of folly.  It would be best for Washington to dramatically reduce the U.S. military presence globally, but if the Biden administration won’t take that step, it at least should not exacerbate the country’s current strategic overextension.

Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute.  He also held various senior policy posts during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute.  Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs.  His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).