If there is one trait that Joe Biden has that seems to separate him from most other folks in Washington, it is his ability to tune out the chattering class. Perhaps it’s because he’s heard it all in 50 years in Washington. Perhaps it’s because he has seen what has happened to other presidents who focus on polls or Twitter and not on doing their jobs.
We saw it during his campaign, when smart-assed pundits (including me) said this is not the time for a guy like Biden whose ideas about reaching out across the aisle are from another era. He ignored us. He was himself. And he won.
Then we saw it when he insisted on an almost impossibly big American Rescue Plan that the GOP adamantly opposed. He passed that with only Democratic votes and when his opponents said this was his repudiation of bipartisanship, he pointed to the polls that revealed his plan had won resounding bipartisan support from coast to coast. And again when he not only fashioned a major new infrastructure initiative and got it passed by the Senate with real Republican support. The “smart money” said none of that was possible in a polarized, hyper-partisan Washington. But Biden tuned them out, and made it happen—just as he has done with COVID, and revitalizing the economy.
And now he is doing it in Afghanistan. Groupthink among the foreign policy know-it-alls in both parties was that it was easier to kick the can down the road than to face the ugly truth that Afghanistan had become Mission Impossible and would ultimately end badly. Let the next guy clean up our mess. What’s a few thousand troops and a few billion dollars if it will cover our asses for another few years?
For over a decade, Biden stood up to the bubbleheads and the groupthink of the military and political leaders arrayed in tight formation to protect their reputational flanks and spoke the lonely truth about how it was time to leave. He kept his word upon taking office. As commander in chief, he was apprised of the risks. He talked to the corrupt and incompetent leadership of the Afghan government. He understood the strength of the Taliban. He knew it might turn ugly, and he nonetheless proceeded because, longstanding D.C. views aside, it was time. As he said in his Monday address, he could put no more Americans at risk fighting the civil war of another country.
When the Taliban take-over was swifter than his top aides had expected, he stayed the course, keeping his eye firmly on long-term U.S. national interests. When the Monday morning quarterbacks started appearing on national television second-guessing him, he tuned them out. He knew these know-it-alls were often the same people who had advocated failed policies in past administrations, the same ones who were actually responsible for the situation on the ground in Afghanistan now.
Instead of playing politics, Biden stuck to his guns. And as he has done in the past, he and his administration are now doing precisely what they should be doing. They’re not playing damage control. They are getting on with the business of governing, of executing foreign policy in the real world where the situation on the ground can be fluid, intelligence can be wrong and allies can be unreliable.
Those who heard Biden’s speech on Monday began to hear the outlines of what he believes America must do next in Afghanistan. He is not focusing on yesterday’s headlines or even on tomorrow’s. He is focusing on getting done what must be done.
As he noted, the first order of business is getting American citizens out of Afghanistan. By late Tuesday, 4,000 U.S. troops were to be on the ground with another 2,000 arriving shortly. The U.S. has taken over air traffic control at the airport. It has safely shut down its embassy and moved its diplomatic post to the airport, as have our coalition allies. Getting those affiliated with allied embassies and militaries and NGOs out is another priority that Biden cited. New programs are being created to get Afghans who supported the coalition visas to the US or safe harbor in countries worldwide.
One U.S. commander called the task of managing the evacuation “herculean.” As Biden noted, it could not have happened earlier because the Afghan government resisted it, fearing the signal it would send. But, that is old news. Biden and his team have set as a priority getting as many Afghans to safety internationally as is humanly possible. This is a task of weeks. So far, the Taliban is allowing it to happen peacefully. There must be a major international diplomatic focus on ensuring they maintain that position.
As Biden also noted, a key near-term goal is ensuring that the new government, the Taliban, understands that should their country ever again harbor terrorists we will draw upon the full array of our resources (Biden cited our growing over-the-horizon capability to strike hard from far away) to crush those violent extremists and their protectors. Biden is not so foolish as some predecessors as to draw “red lines.” But he has also begun to underscore that the reason we came to Afghanistan in the first place—to defeat terrorists who attacked America—remains something we would do again.
He also indicated that we will remain focused on protecting human rights in Afghanistan, especially those of women and girls. Just as we do not actively intervene militarily elsewhere on most such issues, we must find other ways to apply pressure on the government in Kabul.
Biden and his team must recognize that our leverage over the new government will be limited. We can work with the international community to employ carrots and sticks in the form of aid and sanctions to help shape their view. But as Biden indicated yesterday, he knows that China, Russia, and Pakistan will have the most leverage with the new government.
The centerpiece of managing future issues with Afghanistan must be working with these governments to advance our shared interests in the country’s stability. China fears Islamic extremists as do we. So does Russia. We must recognize they will be the interlocutors with the most clout and we must send a message to them that if they enable bad actions on the part of the Taliban, we will hold them accountable.
Beyond these priorities regarding Afghanistan, Biden and his team should follow through with the core foreign policy message associated with finally ending this misbegotten war after two decades: The US has other priorities. To the extent advancing those other priorities makes the region safer, great. Re-entering the nuclear deal with Iran would certainly help that and provide a much needed regional win for the administration. Helping to fight the global spread of COVID will help. Combatting climate change will help. And, as noted earlier, shifting our focus to more important relationships, especially that with the world’s emerging superpower, China, will not only advance our broader geopolitical agenda, but will be key to keeping the lid on localized challenges like the one we have been dealing with for so long in NATO.
Reviewing the Afghanistan experience with NATO, in its first major out-of-theater undertaking, must also be a priority as Biden keeps to his commitment to strengthen that alliance. (Strengthening other alliances like the Asia-focused Quad will also help as it gives us a security mechanism that extends to the border of Pakistan.)
Reviewing the Afghanistan experience internally and, as will undoubtedly be the case, with Congress is also critical and Biden and his team should embrace it. As in the wake of Vietnam, the military has some real introspection to do to understand its failures of judgment, tactics and strategy in this, our longest war. Intelligence failures and foreign policy errors also must be examined. We can’t spend a disproportionate amount of time looking in the rearview mirror but the echoes of Vietnam many see in Afghanistan suggest we must not undervalue the lessons of the past either.
Hyperventilating former officials eager to deflect attention from their own past failures may make for exciting television, but it’s not only insufferable—and let’s acknowledge it is extraordinarily, immensely, nerve end-frayingly insufferable—it is also a distraction from the real work that must be done in Afghanistan now and worldwide in the weeks and months to come. Fortunately, experience tells us that, unlike his predecessor, this president is not spending his days glued to the boob tube. He knows what he and his team need to be fully focused on doing and he is making sure it gets done.