Private Eyes in the Sky
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The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and sudden collapse of the government in Kabul have led critics of President Joe Biden to argue that American credibility has been dealt a staggering blow. Allies no longer trust that the United States will keep its commitments, they claim, and adversaries no longer fear the same thing. Writing in the Financial Times, the journalist Gideon Rachman proclaimed, “On Afghanistan, Biden’s credibility is now shot.” Officials who worked for President Donald Trump have piled on as well. His one-time national security adviser H. R. McMaster warned of “severe political consequences, in connection with our credibility with our allies and partners.” Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alleged that “this debacle will certainly harm America’s credibility with its friends and allies.”
These concerns about credibility are overblown. Credibility is whether others think you mean what you say in a given situation. It is context-specific; because circumstances can vary widely, credibility is judged on a case-by-case basis. How a state has behaved in the past is an important component of its credibility, but it is not the only one. The Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will affect these calculations the next time the United States commits to an extraordinarily costly venture in a place not vital to the country’s core security interests, but it is unlikely to sabotage U.S. credibility writ large.
Credibility is different from reputation, however. If credibility is whether others think your deeds will match your words, reputation is what others think of you in the first place. On this count, the consequences of the U.S. withdrawal will likely be considerably greater. The pullout has been messy and chaotic: the Taliban took control of Afghanistan more quickly than the Biden administration had publicly predicted, and members of a regional branch of the Islamic State (or ISIS) launched a deadly bomb attack at the Kabul airport as Afghan and foreign citizens attempted to evacuate the country. Vivid photographs of Afghans clinging to U.S. military aircraft to avoid being left behind have circulated widely in the media. The damage these events and images have inflicted on the United States’ reputation—for competence, for a commitment to human rights, and for playing a leadership role in the international community—is real and likely to persist.
The expert consensus on credibility and reputation has shifted from one era to the next. During and immediately after the Cold War, U.S. officials routinely justified their policies on reputational grounds, from President Harry Truman’s intervention in the Korean War to President Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia to President Bill Clinton’s deployment of troops to Haiti. Many international relations scholars shared the conviction that upholding the United States’ reputation should be a core goal of its foreign policy—the political scientist Thomas Schelling called it “one of the few things worth fighting over.” That idea fell out of fashion around the turn of the millennium. New scholarship found that it was harder to lose reputations for resolve in the eyes of adversaries than was often assumed and that adversaries looked less at past actions and more at the current balance of power and interests when they calculated credibility. The most recent work has adopted a more diverse set of methodologies than these early studies, broadened the range of cases under review, and approached the topic from new angles. The latest evidence, produced by such scholars as Anne Sartori, Keren Yarhi-Milo, Frank Harvey, Mark Crescenzi, and Danielle Lupton, makes a strong case for a return to the Cold War consensus: reputation matters in international politics.
Reputations are, in essence, beliefs—they exist only in the minds of others. The formation and maintenance of reputations therefore has an important psychological component, and the psychological evidence is relatively clear that observers pay attention to past actions when predicting future behavior. Experimental studies I conducted with Jonathan Renshon and Keren Yarhi-Milo on both members of the public and elite decision-makers found that when asked to assess a country’s resolve in a foreign policy crisis, observers consistently focus on behavior in previous disputes, even when presented with countervailing information about capabilities and interests. The question is not simply whether allies and adversaries will doubt U.S. resolve because Washington backed down from a 20-year stabilization effort in Afghanistan. It is whether their existing doubts will grow stronger than they would have had the United States continued fighting. Looked at this way, the evidence suggests that the Biden administration’s decision is not something observers will ignore.
The United States should not expect reputational costs to end with the Biden administration.
A country’s reputation for resolve is a key element of its credibility, but credibility remains highly contextual. So even though the United States’ handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal may influence future assessments of its credibility, the effects will not be uniform across cases. A country’s threats and promises are not all considered equally credible or noncredible simply because they’re made by the same actor; such judgments will always reflect the particulars of each case.
In part, whether the United States bears the reputational costs of the withdrawal in future conflicts will depend on how much the case at hand resembles Afghanistan. As research by scholars including Yuen Foong Khong, Vaughn Shannon, and Michael Dennis has shown, decision-makers understand the world through analogies; the extent to which people consider an example of previous behavior to be predictive varies based on the parallels they draw between past and present circumstances. The next time Washington enters an asymmetric conflict, such as a fight against an insurgent group, it will invoke stronger comparisons with the war in Afghanistan and therefore be burdened by steeper reputational costs than it would in a symmetric conflict with a great-power adversary. Counterinsurgency warfare inherently raises a credible commitment problem—eventually, foreign interveners will pack up and go home, whereas insurgents will keep fighting because they have nowhere else to go—that will be rendered particularly salient by the decision to pull out of Afghanistan. Even if U.S. policymakers tend to forget the lessons learned in previous asymmetric conflicts, foreign allies and adversaries are less likely to.
The United States should not expect reputational costs to end with the Biden administration, either. Typically, reputations do decay over time, even if they do not automatically reset when new leaders come to power. This is one reason why, as the scholars Cathy Xuanxuan Wu, Scott Wolford, and others have shown, new leaders often have strong incentives to build reputations that distinguish them from their predecessors. But the extent of popular support for leaving Afghanistan suggests that the attendant reputational consequences will not diminish so easily. The American public had soured on the intervention long ago, and it has little patience for nation-building operations more generally. Biden gave his constituents the foreign policy decision they asked for and the one Trump had promised before him. Any costs, therefore, may not accrue to just one administration. The withdrawal will likely influence assessments not just of the current administration’s reputation but also of the United States’ reputation as a whole, since it is the entire country, rather than one leader, that is seen as giving up on the fight.
The global perception of American resolve is not the only reputational damage the United States may suffer on account of the situation in Afghanistan. The images of the humanitarian tragedy on the ground may have broader deleterious effects on the United States’ reputation for support of democracy, for respect for human rights, for reliability as an ally, and, critically, for competence. Although his public statements have consisted primarily of justifications of the decision to withdraw and finger-pointing at the Afghan government, Biden has left largely unaddressed the questions that scenes of chaos in Kabul raise about his administration’s ability to deliver policy outcomes.
Competence is central to the images decision-makers hold of other states. Biden entered office seeking to restore U.S. leadership by winning back the trust of the international community. Yet as Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development Samantha Power argued in Foreign Affairs in 2020, rebuilding trust requires restoring “the United States’ reputation for competence,” which has been hobbled over the past few years by partisan gridlock and the abysmal response to the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. policymakers have long sought to fund public diplomacy campaigns to boost the country’s reputation in the eyes of foreign publics, highlighting their common values and shared interests with the United States. Today, facing a near-peer competitor armed with an enormous public diplomacy budget of its own has added to the urgency felt in Washington. Ultimately, however, even the most adept messaging may not be able to square the chaotic scenes from the Kabul airport with an image of the United States as a capable global leader in control of its foreign policy agenda.
This does not mean the Biden administration is powerless to mitigate the reputational damage. Leaders may not be able to control their reputations directly, but they can shape them with words and actions. As research by Sarah Maxey, Matthew Levendusky, Michael Horowitz, and others has shown, the justifications a leader offers for a foreign policy decision influence the perceptions of both domestic and foreign audiences. The Biden administration is well aware of this, which is why its public statements have emphasized the consistency in the president’s behavior. Biden followed through on his campaign promise to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and implemented the withdrawal agreement that his predecessor had approved. Even when he served as vice president in the administration of President Barack Obama, Biden was openly skeptical about continuing to sink U.S. resources into the war in Afghanistan. In a way, however, this consistency has worked against Biden: observers learn more from surprising or vivid information than they do from information they expect. His administration’s decision to withdraw did not come as a shock, but the speed of the Afghan government’s collapse did, making the costs to the United States’ reputation for competence all the more damaging.
Biden has left largely unaddressed the questions that scenes of chaos in Kabul raise about his administration’s ability to deliver policy outcomes.
Given the importance of public justifications in sustaining reputations, the Biden administration’s narrow approach to messaging is somewhat puzzling. For a president who has made empathy core to his political identity, Biden’s public comments have been striking for their almost exclusive focus on the implications of the withdrawal for American security interests, sidestepping the humanitarian costs borne by the people of Afghanistan. Although the president’s domestic political calculus may be sound—the American public tends to value the well-being of Americans more than foreign lives—his words imply less interest in cooperative internationalism than he has displayed in the past. The distressing images pouring out of Kabul will only add to the reputational toll on the United States.
There are clear steps that Washington can take to try to alleviate the crisis on the ground, including resolving the bureaucratic challenges plaguing the Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghan nationals who have assisted the United States and increasing the total number of Afghan refugees the United States will accept. Taking such action and acknowledging the humanitarian dimension of the withdrawal in public statements would go a long way toward salvaging the United States’ reputation for competence and for support of human rights.
Like all political debates, the current one over U.S. reputation and credibility in the aftermath of the collapse of the Afghan government is prone to oversimplification on both sides. If the events of the past few weeks had taken place under the Trump administration rather than its successor, many of the voices now rising in condemnation would be offering praise, and vice versa. For the most part, their sweeping claims are not really about the United States’ credibility or reputation. As my own research with Ryan Brutger shows, assessments of reputation costs are prone to psychological biases—people’s own policy preferences color the reputational judgments they make. This dynamic is evident in the current debate, where the participants are largely relitigating the intrinsic merits of the war in Afghanistan itself.
Yet even if the Biden administration’s critics are exaggerating the extent to which American credibility has been destroyed, its supporters are exaggerating the extent to which American reputation is unaffected. It is easier to lose a good reputation than it is to gain one. How grave a blow the past few weeks’ events have dealt the United States will depend, at least in part, on how the Biden administration chooses to respond.