The Memo: Defensive Biden tries to put Afghanistan behind him
A defensive President Biden sought to move on from the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan on Tuesday with a White House speech marking the end of the 20-year war.
Biden insisted that the evacuation operation had been a “success” and pushed back hard against critics who have argued for an ongoing but modest American military presence.
The president also sought to reframe the underlying argument. He asserted that the U.S. had no “vital interest” in Afghanistan that had been left unaccomplished given that Osama bin Laden had been killed in neighboring Pakistan a decade ago and al Qaeda had long ago been weakened.
Still, some of Biden’s claims strained credulity, especially his implication that the U.S. withdrawal had gone broadly to plan.
Biden had previously promised that there would be no “Saigon moment” in Kabul. There was.
He said in a recent interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News that he was committed to getting every American out who wanted to leave. He has not done so.
His administration had promised that the U.S. would maintain diplomatic engagement with Afghanistan even after troops pulled out. But the U.S. Embassy has been closed. The acting ambassador, Ross Wilson, was on the last plane out.
It’s impossible to reconcile those facts with the positive picture Biden sought to paint — even if the total number of people evacuated from Afghanistan, at around 120,000, is unarguably impressive.
Biden’s speech, from the ornate State Dining Room, was by turns aggressive and somber. At times, his hands chopped the air in front of him for emphasis. He took no questions from four long rows of journalists seated to his left.
Biden paid tribute to the 13 members of the American military who were killed in the recent suicide bombing outside Kabul’s airport and to the other U.S. troops — more than 2,400 of them — who lost their lives during the course of the war.
But he acknowledged that there was a relatively small number of Americans who wanted to leave the country and could not do so. Biden claimed that “there is no deadline” for getting those people out and that his administration remains “committed” to doing so — but what that looks like in practice is anyone’s guess.
There are also a huge number of Afghans who assisted the U.S. occupation in some fashion who were left behind. Some groups have estimated that number to be as high as 60,000.
They now face an ominous fate as the Taliban tighten their grip on power and the gaze of the Western world in all likelihood begins to shift elsewhere. It would be vastly out of character for the Taliban to show mercy to those whom they deem collaborators.
Refugees who have successfully reached the United States seem to face better odds — though they will have to endure nativist sentiments being ginned up by demagogic figures in conservative media in their new homeland.
Politically, Biden has clearly paid a price for the ignominy of the American withdrawal, which has been replete with searing images of desperate Afghans clinging to a U.S. military plane and the carnage inflicted by the Kabul airport bombing.
An ABC News-Ipsos poll released in recent days found just 38 percent of Americans approved of how Biden had handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan, while 59 percent disapproved. As The Wall Street Journal noted Tuesday, an equivalent survey from July had found 55 percent approving of Biden’s approach.
Biden is betting that the American people’s horror at the scenes of the past few weeks will fade — particularly given that they appear to agree with him on the more fundamental question of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
Polls have shown pluralities of the American public against the war in Afghanistan for years. Former President Trump also opposed the war — and made the deal with the Taliban for a full American withdrawal in February 2020. A recent Associated Press-NORC poll found that 62 percent of Americans believed that the war had not been worth fighting.
Biden’s speech on Tuesday will get refracted through the partisan prism, as everything does these days. A spokesman for the Republican National Committee (RNC) blasted it as “shameful” in an email to reporters shortly after it ended. Calls for Biden’s resignation or impeachment are growing louder from the GOP — including, on Tuesday, from RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.
There is no chance of resignation and, for now, none of impeachment either. The latter option may become more plausible if Republicans deprive Democrats of their slim House majority in next year’s midterm elections.
The later, more effective segments of Biden’s speech made the case that the U.S. must face a new set of challenges. The threats, he suggested, are more likely to come in nebulous form from an economic rival such as China than in the shape of murderous plots hatched in Tora Bora.
It was time, he argued, to “turn the page” on a foreign policy worldview that was formed in the traumatic crucible of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A new approach could not involve getting “bogged down for another decade” in Afghanistan, he said.
That argument may well prove broadly popular. But it will not necessarily erase the dismay many Americans have felt watching the events of the past few weeks.
At the White House on Tuesday, Biden told a room quiet but for the clicking of cameras that there was a “new world” the United States must embrace.
The horrors of the old world are still fresh in many Americans’ minds.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.