From the moment he was nominated until the last few weeks, the media carried a lot of water for Joe Biden. In spite of his apparent lack of energy or brains, we were regaled with tales of his experience, good judgment, and, above all, his empathy.
America was back. The adults were now in charge. No more “mean tweets.” Biden’s presidency would be a time of competence and compassion.
Reality Has a Vote
When Biden blew past the May 1 deadline to withdraw from Afghanistan, there was little national discussion. When signs of an imminent Taliban victory appeared by mid-summer, he assured the country the withdrawal would go smoothly and scoffed at the idea we might see “the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country.”
At that time, there was minor grumbling about the decision to withdraw, but there was not a big media push to oppose it. Perhaps, the future Raytheon executives (i.e., the generals) assumed Afghanistan would go like Syria and Iraq, a withdrawal-in-name-only, with a paramilitarized embassy and an army of contractors left behind to continue the war effort.
Then it all went to hell.
Biden’s recent claim that the Afghan evacuation was all a well-planned effort or a victory for humanitarianism appeared, at best, to be a post hoc rationalization. There was no way to reconcile the swift collapse of the Afghan government and the hordes of refugees crowding the Kabul airport with his optimistic speech made only six weeks ago. His simultaneous blame of Trump for the withdrawal deal and praise of himself for how well it was conducted did not make a lot of sense.
Now, almost all of Biden’s sources of support have turned on him. The press has been the most aggressive, finally noticing his incorrect prognostications, apparent dementia, as well as his tendency towards snapping and prickliness.
A Struggle Within the Ruling Class
Under ordinary circumstances, renewed scrutiny from the press might signal a return to normal accountability. But we should not be deceived; this is not the start of a new era. Rather, this signals a temporary, internal dispute among factions of the ruling class.
On one side is the Obama cohort, from whom Biden obtains most of his support. Obama was something of a realist and preferred (at least in his first term) to reduce foreign policy commitments. He famously withdrew our forces from Iraq. This only changed in his second term, when he was persuaded to pursue campaigns in Syria and Libya. This faction still supports Biden.
On the other side of the ruling class are the humanitarian interventionists. For them, war is best when it serves no national interest, showcasing our purity. This group is made up of the Clinton gang mostly, along with neoconservatives and uniformed military allies of convenience. It also includes the “duty to protect” crowd, which made up a large part of the State Department during Hillary Clinton’s watch.
They engineered the Libya and Syria debacles and have never seen a war from which they would like to withdraw. Many fellow travelers are found among the media, and they may not let up when this blows over.
There is a way forward for them. While witless and unpopular, Kamala Harris is decidedly in the Clinton camp and has done her best to avoid being associated with the small and large embarrassments of the Afghanistan withdrawal and evacuation.
Finally, there are the Republican establishment types. Junior partners in the ruling class at best, some superficially endorsed an America First policy during the Trump years, but many more were critical of Trump’s efforts to reduce our military presence in the Middle East and elsewhere. Republicans are now pouncing on Biden mostly for partisan reasons, often contradicting their earlier support for the planned withdrawal from the never-ending Afghanistan war.
Republican criticisms have an incoherent, saccharine quality. While all are taking pot shots at the rushed withdrawal and the bad optics of the Taliban victory, Representative Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) and others are stressing the fate of the translators and the Afghans in general, echoing the Bush-era rhetoric of liberation and open borders. Even Trump himself has gotten in on the act and sounds like a born-again neoconservative.
Perhaps this grandstanding is meant merely to diminish Biden—pure partisan spite. But the maudlin talk about the poor Afghans suggests that Republicans do not have a vocabulary with which to think about foreign policy, even though Trump showed the way in 2016 with his America First rhetoric.
Republicans have gone back to “fight them over there, so we don’t have to fight them over here.” They are insufficiently attentive to the fact that we just brought over 100,000 unvetted Afghans into our homeland after fighting them over there.
Failure, the Orphan
The endless dissection of the withdrawal distracts from the bigger scandal of the Afghanistan campaign. This war itself was a bipartisan failure. The problems did not begin in 2021. The chaos of the last few weeks simply manifested the types of problems that always plagued the campaign: flawed strategy, excessive reliance on unreliable proxies, unpopular promotion of western political and social attitudes, and massive amounts of waste, fraud, and abuse.
The reliance problem first showed itself in the failure to capture Bin Laden at Tora Bora. Twenty years later, the ease of the Taliban takeover revealed our total confusion about the human terrain in Afghanistan, including the unpopularity of the programs we were promoting and the rulers we supported. Finally, the swift collapse of the Afghan security forces was a testament to how trillions of dollars can be spent to accomplish nothing, while making contractors (and select locals) filthy rich.
While there was some candor behind closed doors, the deep state and the national security “blob” continued along the same path for two decades and spent a lot of its energy concealing the real state of affairs from the American people. No one is being held accountable for this stunning waste of money, lives, and time, other than one brave lieutenant colonel who spoke out about the hypocrisy. Similar wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria all had the same flaws, and all of them ended in smaller-scale failures and excuse-making.
In addition to the infighting among elected officials, different parts of the managerial class are pointing their fingers at one another, with the state department, the military, and the intelligence community all deflecting blame. This blame-shifting obscures the fact that there is one American state. Each of these groups are simply departments within it. Back when it could have done some good, none of the departments was sounding the alarm on the failures of the others. Rather, each supported, lied, and covered up the problems in Afghanistan for two decades.
By focusing too much on Biden and his bad decisions during the withdrawal, the politicians, generals, and experts responsible for these preliminary failures are let off the hook. It is an alibi and a distraction, which does not point the way forward.
The deep state is the problem. The Republicans and the Democrats are the problem. As Trump recognized in 2016, the problem is the swamp.
In the Soviet Union, the double catastrophes of Chernobyl and its ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan had much to do with the ultimate collapse of the regime. The two events in rapid succession called into question the Communist elite’s claims of competence, which was the foundation of their legitimacy.
In the emerging national states of the dissolving Soviet Union, Afghanistan veterans loomed large. They were men with the right combination of military experience and alienation from the ruling class. They formed the cadres around which citizens organized and resisted the central government.
Approximately 800,000 Americans served in Afghanistan. Another 2 million or so served in Iraq. While these wars were not victories, they did serve to train and anneal these men. These experiences also served to disillusion them from the myth of governmental competence and good will. It would be hard for any honest person to participate in either campaign and think we have a good government run by wise people concerned about the future of our country.
With the ruling class and the various arms of the government engaged in recriminations and stricken by temporary disunity, such men would be a useful foundation for a genuine movement to bring down our own corrupt, incompetent, and venal ruling class. The veterans of the “forever wars” have the knowledge and the skills and the anger.
Hard times call for hard men.