Afghanistan withdrawal: Trump fumbles, Biden scores

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump
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Getting out of Afghanistan was one of President Biden’s big applause lines. Declaring the mission done and rejecting “nation-building,” Biden directly committed to do something Trump announced but could not pull off. 

Biden’s foreign policy looks markedly similar to Trump’s. Confrontation with China (replacing Obama appeasement), unabashed economic nationalism and no change (yet) in policy on Cuba or Iran. The only alteration has been nicer words for traditional allies.

In short, the Biden foreign policy is Trump foreign policy with a smiley face.

And that strategy is working. Biden is doing what all smart politicians do — steal your opponents’ best ideas and make them your own. Of course, he could not have done so if Trump had ended the war. Unfortunately for Republicans, Trump’s crippling Attention-Deficit-Disorder and the serial incompetence of both him and his team let a huge opportunity slip away — and now Biden will reap the rewards.

When Trump attacked interventionist policy in the Middle East, it shocked polite society — and the Republican security establishment. Having a muscular foreign policy and willingness to use force has become GOP orthodoxy.

Trump (or rather Steve Bannon) recognized some important truths. First, Americans care far more about domestic issues over foreign policy. Only a perceived existential threat elevates foreign policy. Second, Americans no longer perceived a threat in Afghanistan, but they do see money spent, soldiers shipped out and sometimes returning in coffins.

Trump had four years to get out and failed.

Trump has already tried to rain on Biden’s parade by claiming he would have extricated American forces four months earlier than the Biden target date. Trump just can’t help himself — but his ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ routine is just pathetic and won’t get any traction beyond his most fervent followers.

Trump’s fumble on Afghanistan says more than any grifty super-pac or salacious book about his weaknesses as president — weaknesses that cost him re-election. When times are good, life is easy. You can be a maniac on Twitter and indulge your grievances. But when faced with real challenges, you cannot be chauffeur of the clown car.

Trump failed in the clutch and that wrecked his re-election.

There is no doubt that a significant portion of the Washington establishment is so committed to the now-Pyrrhic Afghanistan operation that it still opposes withdrawal. But a president can overcome such opposition if he wants to. He just has to have a plan and keep at it.

Not only that, there was great opportunity to gain with the public. A series of public hearings and a public relations offensive could have easily dispatched any opposition to withdrawal. All Trump and his allies would have had to do was pose the questions, 1) What does victory look like? And 2) When will we achieve it? Not a single defense expert, intelligence expert or rabid neocon could answer either of those questions satisfactorily.

Putting the advocates for an unending war on the spot should be enough to wreck the case for continued intervention. If not, there is plenty of opportunity to introduce embarrassing facts that would destroy the interventionists’ position. From testimony of veterans who witnessed non-stop futility to posing the question as to what the over $2.2 trillion in expenses has achieved. That’s less that Biden’s massive infrastructure wish list.

Clearly there was plenty of room for Trump to build an unassailable case for withdrawal, take a swipe at the policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama and give himself a much-needed boost in the polls.

But Trump blew it, and now Biden will get the win.

The most recent polling has Americans favoring withdrawal by a 73 percent to 27 percent margin. Majorities in all demographic groups, and among Democrats, independents and Republicans favor getting out. There is hardly an issue in American politics that enjoys such widespread support.

Polling has been clear for the last few years that getting out of Afghanistan would be a political winner. A 2020 Koch Institute-sponsored poll conducted by YouGov showed 76 percent of respondents “strongly” or “somewhat” supporting withdrawal from Afghanistan. One might claim that support for withdrawal reflects a lack of knowledge of the situation, but a 2018 YouGov poll showed a majority of the public in favor of withdrawal and even higher percentages of U.S. Armed Forces veterans supporting withdrawal.

The Brookings Institution attempted to put a brave face on public support, claiming in a headline (disingenuously) that “Americans are not unanimously war weary on Afghanistan.” Yet, both polls it cited showed pluralities in favor of withdrawal. If Brookings is waiting for 100 percent agreement before recommending policy change in America, they should probably just close up shop.

The Biden plan is not perfect. Announcing a specific date for withdrawal makes American forces a tempting target for its enemies as they may assume they can act with impunity given Biden’s commitment. The selection of Sept. 11 is a cheap political stunt that should have been shot down early in the planning.

But all in all, Biden is going to benefit from his decision. Trump can rage all he wants, once again Biden has taken advantage of Trump’s blundering and is reaping the reward.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.

Tags Afghanistan Afghanistan withdrawal American politics Barack Obama Donald Trump Forever wars Joe Biden opinion polling Presidency of Joe Biden Public opinion Steve Bannon us troop withdrawal War in Afghanistan

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