Biden’s Big Plans for America Just Blew Up in Afghanistan
With the slimmest of congressional majorities, the commander in chief’s agenda may not survive this self-inflicted foreign-policy disaster.
The chaotic scenes from Afghanistan have shattered President Biden’s carefully constructed image of a leader in charge and experienced in foreign affairs. Presidencies often get derailed by events not of their making, but Biden owns his willful refusal to heed warnings from the CIA and Joint Chiefs on what would happen with a precipitous withdrawal.
This generation’s “best and brightest” predicted it would take one to three months before Kabul would fall. It happened in six days and potentially threw a wrench into Biden’s vision of becoming a truly transformational president with legislative accomplishments to rival those of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which could have been much greater if not for that Democrat’s stewardship of a war he’d inherited. While LBJ’s accomplishments on civil rights and voting rights are often invoked today, he left office after just one full term as a president universally scorned, his agenda unfinished and pushed to the background by hundreds of thousands of anti-war protesters furious about the troops and the money he’d poured into an unwinnable conflict in Vietnam.
Now, Biden will be remembered as the president so determined to withdraw from Afghanistan that he was willing to return the country to a pariah state that could serve as a terrorist haven. While the domestic political impact remains to be seen, as most Americans were ready to bring our longest war to a close, there’s no way to paper over the images of desperate people clinging to the wings of the last departing jets and the American flag lowered at the embassy in Kabul.
It’s a disaster for the Afghan people, an embarrassment for the U.S. military, and a potentially crippling setback for Biden’s ambitious domestic agenda that depends on razor-thin Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate.
In his closing words to the nation on Monday, Biden invoked the ghost of Vietnam. He vowed that he would not repeat that history—even as images from Kabul invoked the fall of Saigon—and continue to risk lives in a “military action that should’ve ended long ago. Our leaders did that in Vietnam when I got here as a young man. I will not do it in Afghanistan.”
Even before the cable news channels live-broadcast the fall of Kabul and the return of the Taliban, Biden’s approval rating had dropped 5 points since late May. He can’t afford to go much lower, says William Galston, a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution: “Another 5-point hit would do a lot of damage to his ability to control the Democratic coalition in the exquisite balancing act that he faces.”
It seems crass to immediately switch to politics in the face of the human tragedy we see unfolding in Afghanistan. Still, it’s fair to ask whether this sorry end to 20 years of war might be viewed differently outside of the Beltway and green rooms. War can’t be waged without the backing of public opinion, and support for staying in Afghanistan in recent years has cratered among Democrats and Republicans, with 60 to 70 percent of Americans saying that it’s time to withdraw—though that number will surely decline after the disastrous withdrawal we’ve just witnessed. Donald Trump almost from day one of his 2016 campaign pounded away at endless wars, making a potential withdrawal popular among many Republicans even as he failed to deliver on that promise during his one term in office.
“We’re about to find out if people across party lines meant what they said and won’t make the president who acted on their sentiments a scapegoat,” said Galston. Already, three Senate committees, all run by Democrats, have said that they will investigate what went wrong, with Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez on Tuesday saying he’ll “seek a full accounting” of the “flawed execution of the U.S. withdrawal.”
Despite the Saigon scenario we see on our television screens, Afghanistan is no Vietnam. Biden pulled the plug on an unwinnable war and one that, without a draft, was hardly at the forefront of Americans’ attention before this week. If Biden explains himself and is honest with the American people, Afghanistan should not consume his presidency the way Vietnam destroyed LBJ. Johnson was elected in a landslide in 1964 and eighteen months later, in 1966, because of the Vietnam War, his approval was down to 41 percent. So many protesters showed up to chant “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” that he limited his speeches to military bases.
Galston, who spent two years in the Marine Corps in the late 1960s, recalls how the country was consumed with the war and protests over it that often turned violent. At the height of the war in Vietnam, there were 569,000 Americans on the ground there, compared to the 100,000 in Afghanistan at the height of Obama’s surge into what he called “the good war,” as opposed to the bad one in Iraq, where ISIS would quickly move into the vacuum the U.S. left behind, and 10,000 remaining by the time his term ended.
Both Trump and Biden knew coming in that America never had a way to win in Afghanistan. “It was about not losing,” said Galston. “And the price of not losing is an open-ended presence in Afghanistan,” a price that he and many analysts believe was worth paying, while others, notably Biden, disagreed with going back to when he opposed Obama’s 2009 surge.
Now Senate Democrats, led by Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, will investigate whether it was an intelligence failure or a policy failure that led to the disastrous exit and put the lives of so many Afghans in danger.
Biden has been consistent. He has never wavered, and now he’s got to count on the American people to take his word that he’s done the right thing, in spite of the horrific images on their screens.
“My own view is that he’s been prepared for a long time to take his lumps on this,” said Galston. “But he didn’t expect the lumps to be this lumpy.”