The Memo

The Memo: Generals' testimony on Afghanistan hurts Biden's credibility

President Biden is struggling to get his economic agenda through Congress this week, but he faces significant trouble on another front.

The appearances of top military officials before Senate and House panels on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively have put the spotlight back on the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. That is bad news for Biden both in general and in the particulars. 

Afghanistan is one of the issues on which he polls worst, with even many Democratic voters dissatisfied with the bloody pullout from Kabul last month after 20 years of war.

More specifically, testimony from Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other top military leaders has cast doubt on whether Biden was truthful in a high-profile TV appearance.

In that interview, conducted by George Stephanopoulos of ABC News last month, Biden denied that his generals had recommended that he keep a low-level American presence of around 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.

But Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that his "assessment" had been that "we should keep a steady state of 2,500 - and it could bounce up to 3,500" troops in Afghanistan. Milley said he had come to that conclusion toward the end of 2020 and had "remained consistent throughout."

Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of the military's Central Command, acknowledged that he too had recommended maintaining 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.

One Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, expressed deep worry about the possible impact from those statements - and from the Afghanistan issue generally.

"Make no mistake, this will brutally haunt Biden and Democrats all through the midterms and 2024," the strategist said. "It goes to the heart of a growing credibility gap the administration faces with voters that is being fed by needless and careless policy and communication mistakes."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki sought to tamp down the growing uproar, telling reporters at the regular media briefing Tuesday that Biden had been presented with a "range" of different views on whether to keep American troops on the ground and ultimately chose full withdrawal.

But Republicans aren't going to let go of the issue that easily.

"I don't think anyone can trust anything this president says about Afghanistan," Rep. Mike Rogers (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said on Wednesday.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) described the Tuesday hearing as "a disaster for the White House, because it's increasingly clear that President Biden just ignored warnings." 

Sasse, speaking on Fox News Radio's "Brian Kilmeade Show" Wednesday, added: "I think what happened is you saw the generals directly contradict President Biden's statements."

Some independent experts agree that the generals' testimony was damaging for Biden.

Tobe Berkovitz, a professor emeritus at Boston University who specializes in political communications, noted that Milley in particular had credibility across the board. 

Milley's actions in the final days of the Trump administration won approval from many liberals after they were revealed in a new book, "Peril," by The Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.

There, Milley was portrayed as trying to calm tensions with China and ensuring that then-President Trump would not launch rash military actions in the dying days of his tenure.

In Milley, "you have a very credible person to Biden's base saying, 'That's not how I recollect it.' It's exceedingly damaging," Berkovitz said.

The testimony - which also included Milley branding the withdrawal "a logistical success but a strategic failure" - comes amid a tough time for Biden. 

His approval ratings have eroded from the highs of his early months in power. He has faced a succession of challenges, from a resurgence of COVID-19 to a short-lived but serious crisis when thousands of Haitian migrants massed under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas.

As of Wednesday evening, the fate of Biden's economic agenda hung in the balance, Intense talks were underway aimed at keeping progressive and centrist Democrats on board with an effort to pass both a $1 trillion infrastructure deal and a much larger social spending plan.

That means that Biden has little leeway to suffer new damage on Afghanistan.

But Republicans say he will not escape that fate - especially in light of the generals' testimony.

"The one thing he has always had is personal favorability. People like Joe Biden personally," admitted Matt Gorman, a GOP strategist and former communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "But there are things, like lying, that undermine those traits. And that is a serious problem for him."

Biden aides and supporters insist that the public is in step with his overall policy of Afghanistan withdrawal. And they also believe his first term will be judged primarily on how he meets domestic challenges.

Be that as it may, the generals' testimony inflicted a fresh political cut he could have done without.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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