Afghanistan is pretty bad for Biden
Thanks for reading America Explained, a free Substack with Andy Gawthorpe. It would be really helpful if you could forward this email on to anyone who might find it interesting, or share it on social with the button below. If you’re receiving a forwarded version then congratulations, you have a great friend or colleague! Be sure to subscribe below to see more of my content. I don’t spam - I only send posts when something important is happening and there are things you need to know.
What’s been going on in Afghanistan over the last few weeks has been, I think we can all agree, terrible. It’s first and foremost a tragedy for people in Afghanistan who don’t want to live under Taliban rule, and especially for the women and girls whose future has been thrown into doubt. It’s also, in less immediately important ways, bad for the United States as well.
I hesitate to talk about this while so many horrors are still unfolding in Afghanistan, and also because I was totally in favor of ending the war there. But the current state of the Republican Party makes the stakes in American politics very high. The election of Trump or someone worse than him in 2024 is a real possibility, and the right is already laying the groundwork to increase those chances through the way it responds to the debacle in Afghanistan. It’s something that we need to talk about.
But, strangely, while I’ve been plugged into The Discourse over the last few weeks, I haven’t seen much evidence of this happening. What I’ve seen instead is a lot of people who don’t want to stare this fact in the face for various reasons, many of them completely understandable but nevertheless counterproductive. But we really do need to admit that what happened in Afghanistan is really bad for Joe Biden and the Democrats and then talk about how to repair the damage.
I think there are a few reasons why it’s hard for people on the American left to confront the danger that Afghanistan poses to Biden. The first is that most people on the left wanted to end the war for a long time, and they’ve developed a bunker mentality about it.
Being anti-war in America, which has a reliably hawkish media and foreign policy establishment and a culture suffused with hysteria about terrorism, can often be lonely. Biden’s embrace of a rapid withdrawal dovetailed very neatly with a more recent strain of thought on the left which opposes America’s “forever wars” in the Middle East. Like on so many other issues on which Biden has ended up governing far to the left of the previous centrist consensus in the Democratic Party, this looked like a great win. As Andrew Yang has said, “the magic of Joe Biden is that everything he does becomes the new reasonable.” Biden embracing Afghan withdrawal showed how mainstream the position had become. Finally, it was safe to come out of the bunker!
The whiplash generated by what happened next is easy to understand. The Kabul government’s sudden collapse, the chaos in the streets, the suicide bomb, the dead service members - all of this generated intensely negative media coverage. A war that was supposed to be over was suddenly being relitigated in and by a media which too often revealed itself to be hawkish and untrustworthy when it came to this (really, any) war.
Under this kind of intense attack, and with signs that the public was being swayed - only one in four Americans approve of the way Biden handled the withdrawal - it was tempting to get defensive again and start writing headlines like this:
Another related factor is how strongly many people feel about the threat posed by the Republicans right now, and hence about anything which might help them. Today’s GOP really does pose an existential threat to American democracy - something I’ve written about again and again. This creates a huge temptation for denial and obfuscation in response to even genuine debacles by Democrats, because if you give the Republicans an inch, then they’ll drag your democracy down by a mile. One of the problems with having such a radically anti-democratic party is that it raises the stake in any dispute, making rational discussion difficult.
A final argument you’ll hear, and one I have a lot of sympathy with, is that there was no good way to end this war, so it is kind of disingenuous to now turn around and pretend to be surprised by how badly it went. This is basically what Ezra Klein argued in a recent New York Times piece.
But there is a more important flipside to this. The left, along with plenty of academics, have long argued that it’s so hard to wind down the undesirable parts of the War on Terror precisely because doing so entails huge political risks. America’s counter-terrorism apparatus of drones, surveillance and overseas troop deployments is so huge, and its actual impact on terrorism risk so unquantifiable, that no-one can really say which pieces could be safely discarded. That’s why the War on Terror has become a kind of third rail in American politics, in which the default is just to perpetuate it because otherwise the national security bureaucracy, the media, and right-wing politicians will rip into you for making Americans unsafe and you’ll find it hard to prove them wrong.
This is, I think, an important insight. But the observation that paring back the war on terror is hard because it is politically costly is directly at odds with the idea that actually it doesn’t come with any real political risk. A lot of people want us to believe the latter now but actually the former is much more closer to the truth.
I was in favor of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and I desperately don’t want the Republicans to win either the 2022 midterms or the 2024 presidential election because I worry about what they’ll do with that power. That’s why we can’t just stick our heads in the sand and complain about the media when something happens which makes those outcomes more likely.
There are a few arguments which you hear for not being worried about the fallout from Afghanistan harming Joe Biden politically. I think all of them have a bit of merit, and the optimistic case might turn out to be more correct than my pessimistic one. But I also think these arguments have real weaknesses and ignore dangers which are looming down the road.
The first argument you hear can be summed up as “foreign policy doesn’t have any impact on elections”. Here is Stuart Stevens, a Never Trump Republican, making that case and citing the 1984 election as an example:
Now, the 1984 election aside - let’s just say it was not exactly easy to present Walter Mondale as the guy who was going to out-Reagan Reagan on national security - in general it is true that most foreign policy issues do not impact elections. How the Biden administration responds to the ongoing military takeover in Myanmar is not going to be be foremost in people’s mind in the voting booth. But it is just flat wrong to say that foreign policy doesn’t matter in elections at all. In fact, foreign policy can matter in at least two really important ways.
The first is when it becomes about Americans’ personal security. Most Americans don’t care what happens in Myanmar because they don’t think it has any impact on them. But part of living in the era of the War on a Terror is a public primed to see a link between “chaos in the Middle East”, terrorism, and immigration. 9/11 fused those issues together in a way that Republicans work relentlessly to exploit, as they did in the case of Benghazi or the rise of ISIS in the early 2010s. That’s what the whole Bush era was about (albeit with different immigration politics) and was a really important subtext to Trump’s victory in 2016, after which fewer than 50% of voters had faith in him to do the right thing in “foreign policy” but a majority thought he could handle “terrorism”.
What is happening here is that a lot of people are not differentiating sufficiently between “foreign policy” and “terrorism”. Now, let me be clear that I am not arguing that the U.S. should have stayed in Afghanistan because of terrorism risk. But we need to be aware that the disastrous way in which the war has ended - with 14 U.S. service members killed in terrorist attacks - has dramatically increased the salience of the withdrawal in the public’s mind. The GOP will never stop talking about how Biden let American soldiers get killed by terrorists, with the subtext that they can’t protect Americans at home, either. And if there is a significant terrorist attack in America, and especially if it can be linked to Afghanistan, all hell is going to break lose.
This brings me to my second point, which is about narratives. Few singular events, even domestic policy ones, determine the outcome of an election. What determines the outcome of elections is narratives - specifically, the stories that get fixed in voters’ minds about the parties and the candidates. In 2020, Democrats got labelled as police-defunders, which seems to have hurt them with Hispanic voters, even though Trump was the one who advanced budget proposals which would have actually defunded the police. Narratives aren’t fair, but they’re really important.
What is really dangerous for Biden now is that the withdrawal from Afghanistan becomes just one data point in a bigger story. That story might have all sorts of titles, like Biden: Pretty Incompetent or, Biden: Weak In His Dealings with Our Enemies. To repeat, it will probably not be fair. But it could be hugely important.
What can he do?
Narratives usually come about through a combination of two different things. Firstly, you do a bunch of stuff which lends itself to a particular narrative. Secondly, your opponents mercilessly hold those things over you and distort them beyond recognition to turn you into a caricature. The Republicans are already doing the second one. They’re calling for Biden to resign or be impeached and making preparations to hold investigations once they retake the House, giving them the opportunity to talk about Afghanistan every day between now and whenever they next win the presidency.
The important thing for Biden now is that neither he or anyone else in his administration help the Republicans in their efforts, and that the administration find ways to change the narrative. Here are some concrete ideas:
1) Shake up the national security team.
Many different individual problems led to the debacle which just happened in Afghanistan. The problem wasn’t so much any one person as the faulty assumptions and weaknesses of America’s 20-year project in Afghanistan, which left Washington still maddeningly unprepared for the sudden collapse of the regime in Kabul. But one thing you can say about this is that even if this wasn’t exactly the fault of Biden and his top national security team - National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin - then it wasn’t exactly their finest hour either.
There’s a legitimate debate to be had over whether the U.S. should have closed Bagram Air Base, its slowness in processing visa applications for Afghan allies, and the overall high speed of the U.S. departure. My mind is open on all of these things because unless you had a crystal ball and could predict the sudden collapse of the Afghan government, these decisions look perhaps defensible in isolation.
But what does seem to be the case is that the withdrawal proceeded in a way which was not designed to minimize risk and not sufficiently red-teamed, and it probably did so because the president was so stubbornly set on it and no-one around him pushed back. Austin is a former general who is used to following orders. Sullivan, for all his lauded smarts, has never had a job with anything like this level of executive responsibility before. Blinken is more of an enigma to me but it’s clear that the boss hasn’t had his back on refugee-related stuff, which was the area of this that fell under his jurisdiction. Add all of this to a president who is famously stubborn and dead set on getting out of Afghanistan ASAP, and I think you have a pretty good theory for why this process was so flawed.
This process isn’t going to work going forward. I’ll have more to say about this in a later post, but the Biden admin’s foreign policy has actually in general been pretty underwhelming, and a lot of it seems to be running on auto-pilot. It’s okay, though not great, if you want to just not really focus on foreign policy, but in that case you shouldn’t be taking big risks. The admin needs to reorient itself to take foreign policy a bit more seriously, to make sure the president gets plenty of diverse viewpoints and that there are people around him who can push back and make him see the political risks involved. If Sullivan can’t do that, then someone else should be in that job.
2) Make a positive case, not a negative one
A second thing the administration needs to do is make a stronger positive case for its foreign policy. There’s a real need to create some sort of counter-narrative to Biden: Pretty Incompetent or Biden: Weak in His Dealings with Our Enemies. I’m not sure exactly what that should be, but so far they’ve not really tried. The Biden team have experimented with different slogans, like “a foreign policy for the middle class”, but they haven’t really stuck. Refocusing foreign policy around democracy or human rights, another of their early ideas, doesn’t really work so well in practice unless you really mean it, which it turns out they don’t.
Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting that Biden go start a war in order to prove that he’s not weak, a risk that Matthew Yglesias was right to warn against in a recent post. But part of putting more presidential focus and leadership into foreign policy needs to be getting Biden out there with a positive message about what his foreign policy is doing for Americans.
By way of contrast, Trump had a clear message about this - he was the guy who was going to put “America First” by outwitting and bullying all of those devious foreigners who wanted to put one over on Joe Sixpack. I hated that message for all sorts of reasons which I’ll talk about in future posts. But ask yourself, what message does Biden have which is so easily identifiable with him? He had “the competent adults are back in charge”, but that isn’t looking so hot after recent events. So he needs something else.
3) Tackle democracy at home
This one might seem counterintuitive, but I think it’s important. The Biden people have this basic theory about politics which says that the way to win is to focus on delivering people material benefits and they’ll vote for you in sufficient numbers to overcome the huge structural barriers which face the Democrats in American elections. The problem with this theory is that it only works for so long as it works, and if you believe that the Republicans are as much of a threat as I do then it leaves you constantly on the brink of disaster if some unexpected event - say, the fall of Kabul - gives you a huge political knock.
Another problem with this approach is that it’s not very stirring. I hope a massive expansion in the welfare state will lock in voters for the Democrats, but I’m not sure that it will. The GOP is very good at turning patriotism and cultural issues into votes, and Democrats don’t really fight back in the same way.
It has been a source of enormous frustration to many people on the left that the Biden administration hasn’t done more to highlight the existential threat to American democracy posed by the current Republican Party, and to fight back. There’s a limit to what Biden can do with the Senate how it is, but making this much more part of the narrative when the administration opens its metaphorical mouth would help to underline what the stakes are here in a more durable way than focusing on economics and a reputation for competency, both of which can go south quickly. Otherwise, I fear, the administration is going to die a death of a thousand Afghanistan-esque cuts.