The Memo: Democrats vent frustration with Biden on Afghanistan
President Biden is in the middle of his first unanticipated crisis, and even many members of his own party are appalled.
The chaotic scenes in Afghanistan have transformed a popular decision by Biden — ending the 20-year war — into a debacle.
Democrats are asking the same question as everyone else: How did this happen?
“I am bewildered and frustrated and, privately talking to a lot of House Democrats, they feel the same thing,” said one Democratic member of Congress who asked for anonymity to speak candidly.
The House member expressed support for Biden’s underlying decision to withdraw but fumed: “The scenes are just brutal and there is no excuse for just how badly State or the Defense Department or both completely bungled the evacuations and getting folks out. Someone was really asleep at the switch.”
Those kinds of views are spreading, along with an urgent desire to see people within the administration held accountable.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) announced Tuesday that his panel would hold hearings into the situation in Afghanistan. Meeks wants Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to testify.
“It is imperative that the administration provide the American people and Congress transparency about its Afghanistan strategy,” Meeks said in a statement.
Other Democratic voices have been more strident.
Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) has described the situation as a “disaster” that was “avoidable.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said he was “disappointed that the Biden administration clearly did not accurately assess the implications of a rapid U.S. withdrawal.”
Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) called what was happening a “catastrophe.” Writing in Foreign Policy, Langevin, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, complained that “this negligence was par for the course for the last administration. I am disappointed to see it now.”
It would have been unthinkable just a week ago for a Democratic congressman to accuse the Biden White House of Trump-like levels of incompetence. But the fiasco around the U.S. withdrawal has knocked the administration badly off-balance and, for the moment at least, churned up the political landscape.
Biden entered the White House as a Democratic hero simply for ousting former President Trump. He won early praise for the effective rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations, held the diverse wings of his own party in relative unity and surprised many Democrats with the scale of his legislative ambitions.
But for now, that has all been supplanted by Afghanistan. And that’s very bad news.
Biden’s main effort to get on top of the crisis came in a defiant speech from the East Room of the White House on Monday. The address received mixed reviews, including from some usually supportive quarters.
David Axelrod, who served as a key aide to former President Obama, said afterward on CNN that Biden “needed to take responsibility” for the degree to which events in Afghanistan had flown off-kilter.
“I think he would have served himself well if he had just embraced it,” Axelrod said.
The mess in Kabul has also led to a spate of stories on administration infighting in Washington.
A CNN report Tuesday outlined finger-pointing between the State Department and the Pentagon. A Politico report the previous evening asserted that some blame was being laid at the foot of the White House National Security Council for “not taking more control of the interagency process” around the American withdrawal.
Biden won election over Trump in part because he promised a return to a more sober brand of governance. In Biden’s early months in office, he made competence a watchword. Now, that strength is suddenly imperiled.
Republicans believe this will redound to the GOP’s advantage.
“This has been so badly handled that there are probably a decent number of swing voters who say, ‘Look, I’m not thrilled with how things were going in Afghanistan, but this isn’t how you wrap it up, by giving the country back to the Taliban,’” Republican pollster Glen Bolger said.
Bolger added that Biden “said the grown-ups are back in charge. Well, so far the grown-ups don’t seem very competent.”
The administration has pushed back on some of the most vigorous criticism that has come its way.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan appeared in the White House briefing room Tuesday, when he told reporters that the end of any civil war involves “scenes of chaos” and people attempting to flee the country.
“That is not something that can be fundamentally avoided,” he said.
Sullivan also asserted that both Biden himself and national security personnel were taking responsibility for what had occurred.
“We as a national security team collectively take responsibility for every decision, good decision, every decision that doesn’t produce perfect outcomes,” Sullivan said — before going on to note that “other parties” also bear their share of blame.
The tendency to take responsibility at one moment and blame others the next was also seen in Biden’s Monday speech. It drew a lot of criticism.
“In his speech to the nation, Biden said the buck stops here. But then he spread bucks out to pretty much everyone else but himself,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor emeritus at Boston University who specializes in political communications.
It is, of course, very plausible that Afghanistan will slip from the headlines relatively quickly. The American people have plenty more pressing issues on the home front. Even amid the current chaos, there is no groundswell of popular opinion for the U.S. military to go back into Afghanistan over the long haul.
The Democratic House member who spoke to this column professed very high confidence that, come next year’s midterm elections, “99.99 percent of voters will be voting on something other than Afghanistan.”
But that belief did not quell the lawmaker’s anger about what had taken place.
“I do want to know who was responsible. Where was the ball dropped? Because that person needs to be held accountable. At least one person, or a group of people, screwed up so bad that it’s fireable.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.