Why Losing a War Won’t Mean Losing an Election for Biden
As Reagan and Clinton found out, Americans simply don’t vote on the basis of foreign policy when there’s not an ongoing war.
While President Biden made a strong defense of his decision to leave Afghanistan and the execution of that withdrawal, declaring that he had brought America’s longest war to an overdue end, Republicans smell blood and some are already calling for his impeachment—a political threat that could quickly become a practical one should the party retake the House next year.
Biden has wanted to pull out of Afghanistan since at least 2009, when he stood alone in opposition to President Obama surging troops into the conflict. But now that 13 Americans service members have died executing his withdrawal and his poll numbers have plummeted, Republicans are suggesting that this is a political hit at home he may not recover from.
But as Presidents Reagan found out in Lebanon and Clinton in Somalia, a devastating military loss doesn’t always amount to a political repudiation. Asked if Reagan would be blamed for the deaths of 220 unarmed Marines killed by a truck bomb in Beirut as they were sleeping, a senior White House aide turned the question around. “Why would he be blamed? He wasn’t driving the truck.” To reporters' surprise, the aide, Ed Meese, readily agreed to put his name behind his remark. And he turned out to be right.
Clinton faced withering criticism as a new president with no foreign policy experience when a humanitarian mission turned deadly as Somali militiamen shot down three U.S. Black Hawk helicopters. A fierce battle ensued lasting through the night that resulted in the deaths of 19 American soldiers. Some of their bodies were dragged through the streets of the capital city, Mogadishu. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin resigned.
“The analogies to Beirut and Mogadishu are the correct ones,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “They were screwups and people died as a result, but the president was able to win reelection because, unless it’s an ongoing war, Americans don’t pay that much attention to foreign policy. Vietnam hurt [President] Johnson because it was ongoing,” and there was a draft.
“Biden has been damaged but it’s not necessarily politically fatal. It’s unlikely this tragedy of 2021 will shape the 2024 election,” Pitney concluded with one caveat: “Everything changes if Afghanistan becomes a base for terrorist attacks against the United States.”
Democrats were on track to lose the House in 2022 because of redistricting before Afghanistan, Pitney said, and the Senate depends on the quality of the candidates the two parties field. Herschel Walker with his personal baggage entering the race in Georgia makes it more likely that Democrat Raphael Warnock can retain his seat.
Pitney was in Washington working on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant for Republicans when Reagan changed the subject just two days after the Beirut bombing by launching a surprise invasion of the tiny Caribbean Island of Grenada where a Marxist-Leninist government had taken power in a coup, and where the lives of American medical school students studying on the island were allegedly being threatened. “There were initial suspicions of what would later be known as ‘wag the dog,’ though the movie didn’t come out until the 1990s,” said Pitney. “The idea it was a diversion was very strong until the students kissed the ground (once back on American soil) and then the critics went quiet.”
After-action reports found the dawn assault didn’t go as smoothly as advertised with 19 American forces killed, including four Seals and eight Rangers. Still, the invasion remained popular with voters. A November 1983 poll showed Reagan’s approval rating higher than any time since September 1981 as Americans “rallied round the flag” to support the president.
Clinton’s experience with Somalia inspired the book, Black Hawk Down, and the 2001 movie of the same name. It was Clinton’s first year as president, and he had inherited a humanitarian mission from his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, who sent U.S. troops into Somalia at the end of his presidency, after he had lost the election to Clinton. It was analogous to the predicament Biden found himself in when faced with a date certain withdrawal agreement negotiated by his predecessor.
The Clinton team had no idea how to end the mission, which was launched to provide food to the starving nation. “Should we just shout ‘ Is anybody still hungry,’” one White House aide said in frustration at the time. Defense Secretary Aspin had turned down a request from General Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for tanks and gunships to aid the peacekeeping mission in Somalia. Aspin admitted he was wrong, given the debacle in Mogadishu, and that forced his resignation.
Michael Ussery was a Reagan political appointee at the State Department when those 220 Marines died in Lebanon. “Back then we were in a cold war and we were in hot wars,” he told The Daily Beast. “The criticism of Reagan on Lebanon was that we were parked out there, very little was being done. But even then, the country felt that our military has been attacked, it’s been hurt, and we understand this is what happens, this is the world we’re in. The difference today, the big elephant in the room, after 20 years of Afghanistan and a decade of Iraq, people are getting very tired of never-ending situations and the failure of our leaders.”
Ussery has a long history of working in Afghanistan, beginning in 1987 when the Soviets were the occupiers and he visited refugee camps across the border in Pakistan. Behind his desk, there’s a picture of himself with the Afghan kids. “Now they’d be about 40 years old, if they survived,” he said, adding that it’s painful to watch things collapse that he helped build and sustain, from an apparel factory that made uniforms for the government to an American University in Kabul whose annual fundraiser attracted the who’s who of Washington and which former First Lady Laura Bush often headlined.
He is no longer a Republican, and after serving as ambassador to Morocco from 1989 to 1992, appointed by Reagan, he weighs the costs of the messy exit from Afghanistan through the lens of its impact on foreign policy, and not domestic politics. Neither Reagan nor Clinton suffered because of their foreign policy failures because it’s not what voters tend to base their votes on. But there are costs, and that bill will come due.
Russia and China must be loving this, Ussery observed, “How do you do something strong and bold in foreign policy matters after this?” We’ll find out soon enough, but for now, after weeks of taking a beating in the media, Biden got the headline he wanted, “Biden Ends America’s Longest War.”