Biden takes the buck

What the president got wrong and right

Evacuation at Kabul airport. Reuters/BBC

The news from Afghanistan is purely dreadful, for all the reasons you already know. There is no comfort, no silver lining that I can see. Biden botched the execution of his first big foreign policy test. Much more should have been done to get Americans out, to get Afghans who wanted out, out, and to stop the Taliban getting their hands on American hardware. Perhaps, as Biden claims, chaos was inevitable. But I don’t think an American president who creates disruption and distress among so many innocents - even if it is unavoidable - should ever throw up his hands and say well, stuff happens.

It’s clear that the Americans and British simply weren’t prepared for what did happen. I don’t mean ministers on holiday, I mean that senior military and civilian officials did not even foresee what took place as a possible scenario. That oversight is the final tragic manifestation of what plagued the effort all along: poor on-the-ground intelligence, or maybe good intelligence that doesn’t filter up; either way, the people at the top of the hierarchy seem to have been consistently misinformed or deluded about what was actually happening on the front line.

On the wider strategic question, however, I think Biden is right, and there are elements of how he’s gone about this that I admire. He has been very clear all along about why he’s doing this. This interview clip from July 8 is good on Biden’s thinking on the withdrawal, and on the purpose of US military interventions in other countries. He argues that America must be realistic about what it can achieve in other countries, that it can’t be the world’s moral policeman and use its military to advance the rights of the oppressed. Whether you agree with him or not, his argument is coherent and consistent with what he said during the campaign.

It’s also made in a way that is easy for people to understand. Communication is important in a democracy. This line from Biden’s statement on Monday makes his case in a nutshell: “How many more generations of American daughters and sons would you have me to send to fight when the Afghans would not?” Biden doesn’t advance elaborately hedged technocratic rationales, as Obama might have done, or spout deranged bullshit like his predecessor. He makes his case plainly and bluntly - which doesn’t mean he hasn’t thought about it deeply.

After all, he has been making this case since at least 2009. As VP in Obama’s White House he opposed sending more troops into Afghanistan, and argued for a minimal counter-terrorism force. In the end Obama, persuaded by the Pentagon, decided to send in 30,000 more troops, which he said would begin to withdraw after eighteen months. Why would you send more troops in and declare you intended to leave? The worst of both worlds; all the Taliban had to do was wait the Americans out.

Any fool could see it didn’t make sense. In fact you had to be either very highly educated or institutionally blinkered not to see that. Yet Biden lost that argument to the Pentagon, and to Obama’s super-smart advisers, for whom he developed a degree of contempt. (The fact that Biden does not come from the ranks of the hyper-educated - he is the first non-Ivy League president since Reagan - is always worth bearing in mind).

Under Obama, the US continued to invest huge resources in failure while being less than honest with itself and with the public about the progress it was making. The whole effort was based on illusion, misinformation, and self-deceit. Things did not improve under Trump, who then made a deal with the Taliban in the last months of his administration which presented Biden with a very time-limited choice. Either send in more troops, again, to fight a Taliban which had been growing ever stronger - or get out.

That was the choice he faced, and anyone who thinks he made the wrong decision should at least say what he ought to have done, in some detail. Handwaving statements about getting everyone around a table won’t cut it. There was no ‘status quo’ decision available and there were costs in both directions. (In Thomas Sowell’s eternal words, “There are no solutions. Only trade-offs.”) The Pentagon argued, as it usually does, to extend the engagement. The Pentagon usually wins these arguments. Even presidents, backed by the American people, find it very hard to stand up to the the country’s military establishment. Biden did what Obama did not in 2009 and Lyndon Johnson did not in 1965. He pushed back. He exerted his prerogative. He accepted that the buck stops with him, and not some future president.

I don’t like the way that Biden’s rhetoric can slide into Afghan-blaming. 50,000 Afghan security forces have died since 2014, and very few if any Americans. Afghanistan has been screwed around with by the great powers for over a hundred years. But we have to acknowledge the fact that the Afghan military plainly did not want to fight the Taliban, even with US backing (that doesn’t imply cowardice, it just implies the balance of incentives made it irrational to do so). Relatedly, and more fundamentally, we should acknowledge that the Afghan government and its institutions never did establish popular legitimacy, despite, or because of, twenty years of American support.

The nation was never built. That is why the collapse happened so quickly and without a shot being fired. In a grim way, the unexpected, chaos-inducing speed of the transition only vindicates Biden’s decision.

(The idea, by the way, that this decision means China will now see America as weak, or that Taiwan or Ukraine will think they cannot count on American intervention, seems wildly implausible. Why would these countries update on this information? They have witnessed American trying and failing to contain the Taliban for two decades and noted how unpopular war has become among American voters. Much of the criticism of Biden stems from entirely justified but displaced anger about historic failures.)

Last weekend was the moment that neoconservatism finally died. When we mourn what America’s withdrawal means for women’s rights in Afghanistan, we are mourning the death of a foreign policy philosophy which overlapped with left-liberalism and indeed was rooted in Marxism. People like Rumsfeld’s deputy Paul Wolfowitz, so influential on Bush, were idealists. They were genuine about extending human rights via military intervention. They explicitly rejected “realism”, a foreign policy based only on national interest.

The neocons formed an alliance with pure security hawks like Cheney and Rumsfeld to expand the war in Afghanistan and topple Saddam. In the UK, the Labour government, after the success of interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone - which saved many lives - was also animated by this idea of a confluence of moral and security objectives. I was attracted by it too, and to an extent I still am, but the truth is, to put it mildly, that we are short on case studies of success. Neoconservatism, like Marxism, sounds good in theory but in practice has been largely disastrous.

I often think about this tweet from the psychologist Diana Fleischman:

On Twitter, I asked what we mean by ‘bullet’, in this sense (here’s the interesting discussion that resulted). I think Alex Massie put it well: the bullet is “the bit that you'd rather not acknowledge because doing so complicates the matter and makes you feel bad or at least conflicted.” Here’s an example of someone very much not biting a bullet:


When an interviewer asked Biden whether he bears any responsibility for Afghan women losing their rights, he simply said no. It’s hard for us to accept that answer. It sounds brutal, and maybe it is. But he is at least being honest.

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MORE ON AFGHANISTAN

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    WHAT I’M READING
    Say Nothing by the New Yorker journalist Patrick Radden Keefe. A history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland told through the story of Jean McConville, ‘disappeared’ by the IRA in 1972. Superb storytelling and scene-setting with sharply drawn characters on all sides, including a nuanced portrait of Gerry Adams: guileful, formidable, chilling. Recommended, as both a gripping read and a good primer/refresher on the Troubles if, like me, you could do with one.

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    How to buy CONFLICTED - links to your favourite booksellers (UK and US).