The Memo: Biden gambles he can plow through Afghan crisis
President Biden made a big bet in his unapologetic speech from the White House on Monday.
“I stand squarely behind my decision” to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan, he said.
Biden’s gamble is that the American people will fundamentally agree with the decision — and that the traumatic images of the last few days will fade from voters’ minds rather than leave a lasting scar on his political reputation.
Biden is hoping that, in the end, voters will shrug their shoulders about the future of a faraway place in which the U.S. military got bogged down for two decades.
He might be right. But it’s far from a sure thing.
A conflict that had until recently faded from the American public consciousness is now dominating everything else on Biden’s political agenda. Cable news is awash in scenes of chaos as desperate Afghans cling to American military planes at Kabul’s airport and the Taliban pose for photos behind the desk of President Ashraf Ghani.
Biden, in his speech, reiterated his basic rationale for leaving. He noted that the United States had “severely degraded” al Qaeda in Afghanistan and that Osama bin Laden had been killed a decade ago.
Where the U.S. had erred, he suggested, was getting involved in nation-building rather than antiterrorist operations.
“There was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” Biden said, though he acknowledged that the collapse of the past few days “did unfold more quickly than we anticipated.”
American public opinion, which had over the years congealed into overwhelming opposition to continued war in Afghanistan, seems to have been shaken up anew.
A Politico-Morning Consult poll released on Monday indicated that 49 percent of registered voters support the withdrawal from Afghanistan, a sharp reduction from the 69 percent who did so in April, when Biden first announced the troop drawdown.
A Trafalgar Group poll showed a huge majority, 69 percent, disapproving of how Biden is handling “military operations in Afghanistan.”
Matt Gorman, a former communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, told this column that events in Kabul “set a broader tone about [Biden’s] leadership — there is inflation, rising gas prices, rising crime, and now this. It speaks to the fact he’s a bystander not a leader. That is something that will resonate.”
But it was the Trump administration, as Biden noted in his speech, that made a deal with the Taliban in early 2020 that pledged a full U.S. pullout by May of this year.
Former President Trump issued the latest in a prolific line of emailed statements within minutes of Biden’s speech ending on Monday.
“It’s not that we left Afghanistan. It’s the grossly incompetent way we left!” the former president insisted.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) struck a more conventional tone in critiquing Biden’s decision.
Biden’s “failure to acknowledge his disastrous withdrawal provides no comfort to Americans or our Afghan partners whose lives hang in the balance,” the 2012 Republican presidential nominee said in a statement. “Contrary to his claims, our choice was not between a hasty and ill-prepared retreat or staying forever.”
The Romney criticism cuts to the core of the political risk for Biden.
It is at least plausible that many Americans who lost faith in the U.S. mission in Afghanistan will nonetheless be appalled at the humiliating fashion in which it has ended — and at the idea that the Afghans who helped U.S. forces are being abandoned to a dismal fate.
Biden, who promised only last month that there would be no “Saigon moment” in Afghanistan, has seen exactly such a moment come to pass.
The episode also raises more basic questions about Biden’s foreign policy judgement.
Long before becoming president, Biden sought to establish himself as an authority on global affairs. He chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during three separate periods.
But he also opposed the first Gulf War, which successfully evicted Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces from Kuwait, only to support giving then-President George W. Bush authorization to wage war on Iraq more than a decade later.
Robert Gates, who served as Defense secretary under Bush and was retained by President Obama, wrote stingingly of Biden in his 2014 memoir.
“He has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” Gates wrote.
But if Biden overestimates his own foreign policy sagacity, his critics on both the left and right underestimate his perceptiveness regarding the public mood.
Right now, the news agenda is all Afghanistan all the time. But it won’t look like that next month, never mind by the end of the year or in November 2022, when Democrats face voters in the first midterm elections of the Biden era.
Meanwhile, the key issues of the domestic agenda — the public health battle against COVID-19, and the economic battle to recover from its effects — will reassert themselves.
“Perception is nearly everything in politics, but I think what the Biden administration is hoping is that perceptions fade,” said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University. “There is so much else the American people have to worry about — climate change, COVID, inflation.”
Lichtman did acknowledge that any future terrorist attack on the U.S. emanating from Afghanistan would be a disaster.
But, drawing a more optimistic historic parallel, he also noted that many of the predictions of doom for Vietnam’s future after the U.S. departed did not pan out.
“There wasn’t a huge bloodbath following the victory for the North. There wasn’t a domino effect of other countries falling to communism. Vietnam has proven to be a very stable partner,” he said.
Toward the end of his speech on Monday, Biden allowed that “the buck stops with me.”
It was an odd moment at the end of an address that had seemed to blame Trump and, to some extent, the Afghan people themselves for the disaster now unfolding.
But it was an acknowledgement, at least, that Biden has made a monumental decision, for good or bad.
His hope is that, in the long run, he will get more credit than blame.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.