The Stain Of Afghanistan Will Stick To Biden

By Charles Lipson for RealClearPolitics

President Biden’s supporters are hewing to one message since the disastrous Afghan exit: “Voters won’t remember it.” That analysis—or hope, really—could well be wrong because the evacuation left Biden with so many problems. None are going away soon.

The most consequential is that many independent voters are deciding that Joe Biden is simply incompetent. This “buyer’s remorse” is new, and it’s growing. Although Democratic voters are still backing the president, he is now deeply underwater with independents, both on overall “favorability” and on his handling of several high-profile issues. 

A Quinnipiac Poll, conducted Sept. 10-13, showed only 34% of independents approved his job performance, while 52% disapproved.

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Those negative views will harden unless the White House and its media allies can upend them quickly. To do that, they must turn attention away from the cumulating failures (Afghanistan, illegal immigration, the COVID pandemic, and inflation) and achieve some big legislative wins that help voters in tangible ways.

Biden is counting on two mammoth stimulus bills to accomplish that, but success is far from certain. The larger one might not pass, partly because it will fuel inflation and partly because it requires Democrats to support large tax increases.

Moreover, the projected benefits, if they materialize, won’t happen for a year or two. The costs will come sooner: higher taxes and perhaps higher inflation and economic sluggishness.

The public’s souring impression of Biden has two other legs: the spread of COVID and the surge of migrants on the U.S.-Mexican border. The White House’s pandemic messaging has been confused and contradictory, with Biden himself promising policies he couldn’t deliver and contradicting his own medical experts.

One of his signature campaign themes was that he could handle the pandemic far better than Trump. Voters are not happy with the results. As for illegal immigration, the border crisis is growing markedly worse, and the administration seems to have no effective response. When a Fox News correspondent asked White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki why the administration is mandating vaccinations for workers but not for illegal migrants, all she could say was, “That’s correct.”

That’s not an answer; that’s an admission.

These problems with COVID and immigration come when Biden badly needs victories—or, at the least, plausible explanations for the disastrous U.S. exit from Afghanistan. So far, Biden has provided two main excuses, but he’s been caught out on both of them. One is that it’s all Trump’s fault. The other is that “the military told me to do it.”

He’s certainly right that Trump’s deal with the Taliban was deeply flawed. But there’s no reason to believe Trump would have ordered the last planes to fly out while Americans were still trapped there.

It’s even harder to believe he would have depended on the good graces of the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and al-Qaeda to get them out later, as Biden and the State Department are apparently doing.

RELATED: New Poll: Voters Think America Less United Under Biden

We’ll never know what Trump would have done, but we do know Biden’s alibis aren’t convincing voters. Americans set an implicit time limit for blaming bad outcomes on previous presidents, and Biden’s time has run out. After the first few months of a new presidency, voters think, “We hired you to fix things, not blame your predecessor. It’s your problem now.”

That’s exactly what they think about Afghanistan. Yes, they wanted out, but they think the evacuation was badly botched and that Joe Biden is entirely responsible. They don’t believe he was trapped by Trump’s policies, not after spending his entire early presidency overturning everything else Trump did.

The Quinnipiac Poll shows that most Americans wanted to leave Afghanistan but that almost two-thirds of all respondents disapprove of how the president handled it.

Biden’s second excuse, that he followed the “unanimous” recommendation of his military and national security aides, isn’t holding up, either. Apparently, some advisers recommended he leave around 2,500 servicemen for intelligence, special operations, and air support. Others evidently recommended not abandoning Bagram Air Base, which was a major strategic asset and a secure one.

Still others agreed to leave Bagram only because Biden refused to deploy enough troops to protect both the air base and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The intelligence community has also claimed that they were far more pessimistic about the survival of the Afghan army and government than Biden later claimed.

Will the public ever learn what the military told Biden? Quite possibly. Senate Republicans and a few Democrats will demand answers in upcoming hearings with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley.

They may seek testimony from the leader of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command. They will also want to hear from the spy agencies. While some of their advice is necessarily private, and some is classified, we should learn the gist of the discussions.

Republicans will certainly press the point, and some advisers will leak that they told Biden, “Don’t do this.” They don’t want to be fall guys for politicians.

RELATED: When Asked About U.S. Drone Killing Aid Worker’s Family, Psaki Says Biden ‘Personally’ Has Had Loss

The biggest reason these problems aren’t going away quickly is that some Americans and green-card holders are still trapped in Afghanistan. So are people who worked closely with the U.S. The media is not yet calling them “hostages,” but it’s hard to think of a more fitting term. Locals who helped the Americans are in hiding, fearing they could be beheaded in front of their families.

Women who participated in U.S.-sponsored programs are being forced into burqas and seized as child brides.

The Taliban won’t give up these U.S. citizens, green card holders, and Afghans with Special Immigrant Visas unless they receive big rewards in return. That’s how hostage-taking works. But transferring money and giving diplomatic recognition to a terrorist government won’t go down well with Americans.

They hate rewarding thugs and terrorists, and they are bound to remember why we had to reward them in the first place.

To compound these problems, we now learn the horrific news that a U.S. drone strike killed 10 innocent civilians, seven of them children. Beyond the human tragedy, the errant bombing shows just how limited our intelligence capabilities are without eyes and ears on the ground.

Remember, one of Biden’s justifications for closing all American intelligence facilities in Afghanistan was that we could get all the information we needed with “over the horizon” capabilities. Intelligence officials always disagreed, so Biden must have known his claim was false when he said it.

This missile strike was the first real test, and we know the grim results.

There is always the chance that the public will forget these disasters, as Biden hopes. Voters generally look forward, not backward, and the mainstream media is eager to move on from stories that damage Democrats. The data below shows they are doing just that:

Will the public forget? Not if they conclude that Biden is incompetent, a bottomless pit of bad judgment. Not if Americans are held hostage or Biden has to pay ransom to get them out. Probably not if they see ongoing Taliban atrocities captured on cellphones and smuggled out of the country.

Not unless Biden achieves some major policy victories that help average voters and divert attention from his failures. Definitely not if any new terror attacks hit America and are linked to Afghanistan.

The botched withdrawal is the worst episode of U.S. foreign policy in a generation. Its effects will linger, and voters hold Biden responsible. For the president and his party, the greatest hope has to be that voters have fleeting memories.

Syndicated with permission from RealClearWire.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.


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